What are the keys to organizing a successful conference? Detailed planning? A good team? The right venue? Great speakers? Lots of booze? A stimulating program? Now you’re talking: stimulation. Everything else is just contributory.
You can have the best speakers, a huge budget, a great venue and Cordon Bleu cooking, but if the delegates aren’t excited about it, you’re wasting everyone’s money and, more important, their time.
Today, thanks to TV, our attention span is measured in seconds. We need continuous sensory stimulation-changes of pace, scene, speaker, style, background, message. TV producers know this.
As conference organizers we are (of course) in the INFOTAINMENT business. (Lousy word, but we haven’t the space to bitch about that right now.)
I don’t care if all you ever do is organize training courses for undertakers. They will learn quicker, better and more profoundly if they are stimulated and entertained. Even undertakers have funny bones...probably several.
Let’s be specific. I’m not talking about fancy product launches or the razzmatazz of a political party conference. I’m not even talking about what happens on stage. You can hire "creatives" with ponytails and designer jeans for that. I’m talking about the little things that we take for granted. That’s where we should be creative-at the low-cost end of the spectrum of ideas. That’s where we can introduce the unexpected, where we can innovate.
Take coffee breaks for example. Why do we have them? I’ll tell you-because hotels include them in the daily delegate rate. Hey! Who’s running this thing? Me or the venue?
Why coffee? Why mid morning? Why those awful assorted biscuits that come in huge tins called "Party Time?" Why queue for it? Why bother? The coffee’s not that good anyway.
Does everyone really want coffee at the same time? Does everyone even want coffee? Did anyone ask the delegates? OK, I’m being unfair...you can get tea.
So what could be done to break the mold?
What about ice creams, cheese straws, fresh fruit, smoothies, milk shakes, slices of sponge cake or Valium? And don’t ignore the local edibles such as Bath Buns in Somerset, churros in Spain, Sachertorte in Austria, Berliners in Berlin or Danish pastries (but only in Denmark). I could go on, but you get the flavor.
Coffee breaks could be sponsored by Colombia, Costa Rica or Kenya; tea breaks by Ceylon and China (why not invite Earl Grey along?).
Now take a look at the duration of business sessions at the average conference-45 minutes to an hour. Great! All the surveys show that human beings stop concentrating after 25 minutes. So why do we insist on 45-minute sessions? Because we always have.
Next time you plan an event, carry a big "WHY" around in your mind and every time you decide something, stop and ask yourself: WHY am I doing this and WHY am I doing it in this way? And if there isn’t a really good answer, do it differently, or not at all.
Get creative, harness your imagination, think outside the box, stimulate the senses. Add that dash of Tabasco to the conference recipe.
Meetings (like all learning) should be FUN.
TONY CAREY, CMP, CMM, is an award-winning writer and past member of MPI’s International Board of Directors. He can be reached at [email protected].
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