I spent 10 years working for an online university that put on monthly academic conferences for doctoral students. Because these conferences are required as part of students’ degree programs, it’s essential that there’s consistency in programming and experience, regardless of where in the country or world the conference takes place. A robust planning system involving templates with details for hotel specifications, audio-visual orders, speaker preparation materials and other documents promises success month after month. Just as McDonald’s promises the same hamburger in Minnesota and Massachusetts, businesses everywhere know the customers and stakeholders benefit from dependability. At the same time, all organizations need to continually find ways to cater and enhance the on-site experience in order to achieve goals of attendee/customer engagement and retention.
The challenge, then, is to remain adaptive and responsive to individuals, cultures and experiences while maintaining a general sense of repeatability. Even McDonald’s responds to customer preference: Hawaiian locations serve regional favorites such as saimin (a noodle soup) and taro pie, while Maine locations serve the McLobster. An organization must be open and receptive to honest feedback from all stakeholders.
This can be achieved by conducting postmortems with all involved parties (including travel agents, housing bureaus, DMC partners, transportation agents, hotel convention service managers, external and internal speakers, A/V providers and, of course, attendees). This feedback should be collected both quantitatively and qualitatively and in various formats, depending on the relationship. For services rendered, a two-way open dialogue is beneficial; for attendees, anonymous feedback is often most helpful as it is most truthful. This can be solicited through complimentary online survey tools (e.g. SurveyMonkey.com) and should ask about a host of topics from preevent communication to presentation content to hotel satisfaction.
The next step is figuring out how to use this feedback. My recommendation is that any organization drop user feedback into three buckets: green, yellow and red (for example). Green means that this is feedback that requires swift review and action, often before the next program happens, and is often related to personnel or content. The yellow bucket is feedback that is important to be addressed as promptly as possible, but will likely take a bit more time for research and implementation. And red means that the feedback is useful, but does not necessarily need to be addressed immediately.
In addition to modifying programs based on stakeholder feedback and evaluation, adaptation based on interactivity can happen while an event is in progress. Emerging technologies help make such adaptation and attendee interaction possible. With the number of mobile devices the average person (for instance, a conference attendee) uses on daily basis swelling to 4.3 by 2020, it is imperative that event professionals find new and innovative ways to communicate and engage with their attendees. No longer is a stationary lecture with a corresponding slide deck enough to hold attendees’ attention. Attendees want to do more than simply attend an event; they want to be active participants in their learning. This is accomplished in so many ways, including realtime status updates via attendees’ own mobile devices through apps, social media, text messaging and push notifications; full or partially virtual events with robust online environments that encourage real-time interface with presenters and global participants; gamification, which encourages friendly competition at the event for social badges and pride; and new and innovative approaches that nurture the ways adults learn and respond to information. Such modifications can aim already strong, reliable structures more directly at specific attendee groups’ needs.
While building a dependable product builds trust with stakeholders, building processes that allow for flexibility, adaptation and responsiveness may mean even more in the ever-changing world of event planning and execution.