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February 2013

CMP Series: An Invitation to Engage

By Barbara Palmer, Senior Editor
If a hotel or conference center works best for your event, look for ones that have great outdoor and interstitial spaces — especially gardens — and use them. Nature stimulates creativity, so make it a feature of your program.

Help Them Find Each Other

KA I believe one of the most important reasons to have a meeting is for people to be together in meaningful ways. But as you walk down the hall [at a conference], sometimes you are with people, but more often than not, you're not walking with anybody or you're walking with a person you already know. So it's actually more like you're alone together. The more ways a meeting is designed so I find relevant people who are going to be helpful to me in my work, who I enjoy, [the better].

Court Diversity

GF One of our beliefs very early on was that we weren't going to accomplish a whole lot [at The Vine] if what we had was a room full of real-estate developers talking to themselves. This needed to be a discussion about community in the sense of physical community, which is what they build, but also the social community, which is kind of the human fabric underneath it.

So we went out and we had to actively recruit people to come in and participate who were teachers, artists, activists, anthropologists, and scientists. We really went out of our way to recruit the first blend of people there in the room. A lot of that was through the speakers that we brought in, but we also had to go out and, through our own connections and network of speakers that we were working with, reach out to a lot of these people and to come up with their [comped] registration in the interest of having them there. So there was this social element of, you're going to walk into a room and be surrounded by a very different cast of characters than you're used to.

Let Them ‘Drive the Bus’

DS Part of driving social media is a lot about driving the bus. Our attendees get there and they want to be part of the event and they want to drive the bus as much as ride on it. So part of driving the bus for attendees is doing live tweeting, blogging, and doing posts on Facebook. They are sharing information with people who are not at the event through Instagram or other applications.

Through a hashtag at the event in El Paso, we had 702 photos tagged on Instagram. The coolest thing about that was there were a lot of photos of things that were happening at the event, but there were also photos that were taken throughout the entire city. The great benefit for El Paso was they had an incredible photo library to draw from, but it also gave them, the city, a perspective of what the attendees do when they are not in the meeting room. Where are the restaurants they go to? What they eat. What they are drinking. Cowboy boots were a big deal. I think there were more than 30 people who bought a pair of cowboy boots while they were there.

Surprise Them

GF Going to TED for the first time in 2005 was like the road-to-Damascus experience for me, in terms of totally altering how I think about my own work and how I think about the potential of what a conference could be. One of the things that they did that I absolutely loved was, as we were leaving the auditorium, they had us group up with six people who were immediately around us. And instead of herding us into a ballroom for lunch at a round table, they gave us picnic baskets. Every picnic basket had enough food for six people. They gave us an assortment of drinks and they gave us blankets. They had us go out into a grassy area and flop down your blanket to have a picnic lunch with these people. The thing that immediately struck me about this experience was it was so much easier to fall into this fun, natural conversation with people I didn't know while we were sitting on a blanket sharing a picnic together than if we had been in a banquet hall at a round table.

And that's where the thing about the challenge of engagement is — that it can never be formulated. You can't just pick up what works somewhere else and say, “Do this here.” What if your event is very formal and the dress code is business suits? It would completely backfire to give people blankets, picnic baskets, and for women trying to sit there in their skirts. You have to apply it in ways that work for your audience and for your situation.

Give the People What They Like

DS We always try to invite the top three speakers based on the attendee evaluations back the following year. We like to do that because we feel that if [the speakers] hit it, we pretty much let the people decide — two years in a row and then we kind of rotate them out.

Don't Trap Them

GF When you're going to have interaction for the sake of interaction, you're forcing it and doing it in a way that makes people feel a little bit trapped. Interaction can be a really good thing, and it should be a part of the meeting. It's a part of what makes a conference engaging and a part of what makes people feel [they've] bought into it when they have that opportunity. The problem is when we try to make people do it on our terms instead of their terms.

You might have a phenomenal lineup of speakers that I really want to learn from. And more than anything, all I want to do is to sit down and listen to them, to learn from them. In the midst of all of that, you start to plug in these interactive exercises that are not smoothly handled. They are not done in a way that makes it feel natural.

My pet peeve of the conference industry is this prescribed approach where interaction amounts to putting you at a table of people, and then asking them to go around and give introductions to see what your favorite brand of cereal is. That's not interactive. That's weird. The problem is that there's no opt-in for something like that, and there's no opt-out. All I can do is to sit at the table and have this weird conversation with people. When what I would really like to be doing is learning from those amazing speakers that you have.

So don't automatically go to interaction and say, “This is going to happen, because we're not going to have speakers who just stand up and lecture at you the whole time.” That's fine, but what if I would have gotten so much more out of the speakers, and I got absolutely nothing out of sitting at a table telling people my favorite cereal?

Respect Their Sense of Time

DS We are seeing a trend towards shorter sessions. You know, in the old days it was an hour and a half, and if you could not carry an hour and a half with a group you were not considered a good presenter or a good speaker. Now, we have kept some of our sessions to about an hour or less. We also, [last] year, did 20-minute sessions. Those were very popular.

I think it is just part of our culture and society now as we are all becoming ADD-ish, if you will. And I think that the 20-minute, the 30-minute presentation is going to be the presentation that is really the future. As a presenter myself — I have presented at more than 100 different conferences over the years — I see the timeline changing. I still feel to set up a really good presentation and to carry people through on communicating a good, solid message you need an hour sometimes — to take them through some trends, some case studies, make a few friends, and tell a few stories.

Our goal is, once you attend our event, if you do not have a pile of notes that you can go back home with and start implementing immediately, we did not do our job.

Tell Stories — but Make Them Work

KA There are the speakers who think they know how to speak on the stage, and are often good, right? The goal would be for conference managers to tell them, “We want your tips to be actionable. You can storytell, but they have to relate to actionable tips.” That's my perception of the future of meetings, no matter what topic you're on.

Be Truly Social

DS We always believe in throwing good parties on both nights [of the

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