It’s 6:15. You’ve arrived at the hotel ballroom where the party is being held. Flashing your conference badge at the door, you go in and survey the scene. There’s a band at the far end of the room playing songs from the 1980s, which is about right for this crowd. You see a couple of bars with people crowded around them. Buffet tables line one wall and servers are passing bite-sized snacks around the room. People stand at highboy tables or sit at low round tables, leaning in to each other to be heard as they talk.
You go to a bar and get a drink. You know they’re not serving the good stuff, so you get a glass of wine instead of scotch, hoping it won’t give you a headache. You look around for someone you recognize as you walk around the room.
A colleague sees you and waves you over to her table. You’re glad to see her; somehow you’ve missed each other all day. You try to chat, but it’s really loud in the room. You’re hungry, but you’re having dinner later, so you snag an hors d’oeuvre from a passing tray. Every so often someone you know wanders by, and you exchange greetings and small talk.
You look at your watch. It’s 7:30. You know that the party ends at 8, but you have to be in the lobby at 7:45 to meet the suppliers who are taking you to dinner. As you leave the ballroom you think about all the parties like this you’ve attended, assessing this year’s event. About the same, you think. OK, but nothing special.
If you’ve been to an association conference in the past 10 years, you’ve been to this party. Maybe you’ve even wondered why the organizers bother. Good question. They might have F&B minimums to meet. Or a sponsor who’s particularly attached to the event. Or because there’s always been a party like this, on this day, at this time, and the organizers have never considered doing anything else.
Whatever the reason, unless this party is the highlight of your conference, you should question its existence. The truth is, it’s a failure if people come only because they don’t have anything else to do and the drinks are free. So here are a few other ideas for activities that will make a real impact on your attendees.
ORGANIZE DINE-OUTS. A dine-out is when individuals sign up in advance for a pre-determined (and vetted) restaurant and, when they arrive, are seated together. It’s best if an experienced conference-goer acts as the table host. This is a great way to engage people who are new to the conference and help everyone make connections.
CREATE A TICKETED EVENT. Turn the two-hour schmooze-fest into an elegant seated dinner that requires an additional fee. Organize the dinner around awards or other meaningful business. It probably will take awhile for attendees to get used to it but, in time, this could turn into the hot-ticket event of your conference.
ALLOW PRIVATE DINNERS. Vendors or suppliers often want to hold lavish private dinners for current or prospective clients but are restricted by your entertainment policy. Let them do it.
ARRANGE A NIGHT TOUR OF THE HOST CITY. Take attendees on a guided tour. This may be the only chance they have to see the sights. And it’s a chance to relax and share an experience with fellow attendees.
BE CREATIVE! There are many things you can do to enhance attendees’ enjoyment of your event. Talk to CVBs about what their city has to offer. You may be surprised by all the fun activities you can arrange to replace that boring cocktail party!
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