It’s the homestretch. The last group of breakout sessions starts in five minutes, then the closing general session, then you head to the airport. You’re loitering in the hallway outside the session rooms trying to decide if you want to go to in or just sit down somewhere with a cup of coffee. After checking the program one more time, you decide on the coffee.

There is a break station in the hallway with beverages and snacks, so you grab a cup and a bite and head toward the lobby where you know you can sit. You have your laptop, so you think about doing some work or maybe just surfing the Internet on the convention center’s free Wi-Fi.

You open your LinkedIn page when someone sits down opposite you. You glance up to say a polite hello — until you see who it is. It’s HIM, the celebrity industry expert, the legend, the person everyone aspires to be. You’ve only met once, briefly, and you’re sure he doesn’t remember you. You introduce yourself and, to your amazement, he remembers. What a guy!

What happens next is a conversation that makes the entire trip worthwhile.  The two of you talk about everything. Your industry, where it’s headed, your careers, your families, your favorite movies. You keep thinking he must have somewhere else to be, but both of you keep talking and the hour flies by.

When people spill out of the breakout rooms he gives you his business card. He invites you to come by his office  the next time you’re in his city and implies there might be a career opportunity for you. As you shake his hand and watch him walk away, you realize that what just happened might not have been a conversation so much as a job interview. You can’t believe your luck. If you hadn’t been in this exact place at this exact time, this wouldn’t have happened.

 ::

Meeting organizers spend a lot of time and energy figuring out how to make attendees behave a certain way. But as we all know from experience, people don’t always do what we want them to do.

Don’t get frustrated. Find out what your attendees are doing instead and support those activities while keeping them attached to your event. Don’t make people go looking for a cup of coffee or free Wi-Fi, for example. If they’re going to blow off your sessions, at least keep them in the general meeting area.

If you do your event right, attendees should:

  • Feel that their time was well spent.
  • Speak well of your meeting to others.
  • Come back.

You don’t do that by focusing on what YOU want. You must focus on what THEY want.

Find out by asking them (formal surveys and informal conversation) and by observing (track session attendance, roam the halls). What you find out may not be what you want to hear, but if your event is going to survive and grow, you must let go of doing things the way you’ve always done them. Be courageous. Embrace change. Stop living in the past. People want a different experience. Now give it to them.