Perfecting the First-Time Attendee Experience

Conference newbies can be just as anxious to attend your meeting as they are excited, especially if they don’t know anyone. How can you turn a first-time attendee into a meeting veteran?

A few weeks back I was at a friend’s birthday party and started chatting with a fellow partygoer. Turns out that partygoer was leaving for a few days to go to Texas to attend an association’s annual meeting. Not only was it her first time attending this association’s meeting, but it was also her first time going to a multiday event for her own professional development.

Given the plethora of options for professional development out there, associations must think about how you can turn the first-time attendee into a conference veteran.

And she was just as excited to go as she was scared. Why? “There’s going to be more than 1,000 people there, and I don’t know a single one,” she told me, comparing it to being that new kid in the school cafeteria, trying to find a seat at tableful of strangers who are hopefully willing to give you a chance.

I definitely understand her anxiety. In fact, I’ve been there. And I’m sure many of you have too. Going to a meeting without one familiar face can be intimidating and scary at times, especially if the idea of networking makes you want to cringe. Luckily, lots of associations recognize the importance of making the first-time attendee feel comfortable and prepared for their meetings.

Take, for instance, the Society of American Archivists (SAA). Members of its Students and New Archives Professionals Roundtable put together a first timer’s guide for its 2013 joint meeting with the Council of State Archivists. Included in it is a list of what to pack (e.g., business cards, comfortable shoes, phone chargers, etc.) and a guide on how to best network at the conference. In the latter section is a breakdown of networking opportunities made specifically for first-time attendees, including the Navigator and Lunch Buddy programs. SAA also has two other resources on its site for first timers: One has interviews with three previous attendees highlighting their tips and tricks for making the most of the conference, and the other focuses on how to best navigate the meeting.

The American Homebrewers Association also has a  fun first timer’s guide for the National Homebrewers Conference up on its site. My favorite tip—written by “AHA Conference Veterans for Fun”—is this: “As delicious as it is, beer is not really food. Don’t get carried away with your conversation on hop glycosides and hot side aeration and forget to eat.”

But online guides aren’t the only way associations welcome first timers; another is to offer onsite orientations before the meeting officially starts. These sessions allows first timers to buddy up and learn how to make the most of the conference experience. There are tons of association examples of this out there, including the International Facility Management Association and the Global Business Travel Association.

And while these approaches—and many others I didn’t mention—have proven successful to both associations and first-time attendees, I wonder what other creative or new things associations can do to acclimate first timers to the conference experience. After all, given the plethora of options for professional development out there, associations must think about how you can turn the first-time attendee into a conference veteran. And, of course, varying personality traits (e.g., extroverts versus introverts) and learning-style preferences can make it all a bit trickier.

I remember a conference I attended as a first timer almost five years ago. Why? Because the meeting was deliberate in setting aside time for us to introduce ourselves and talk to our tablemates for a few minutes before each session. Some of those people I talked to have become close friends and professional soundboards.

How does your association welcome first-time attendees and make them feel more comfortable in hopes that they’ll continue attending your meetings and events? Please share below.


Samantha Whitehorne

By Samantha Whitehorne

Samantha Whitehorne is editor-in-chief of Associations Now. MORE

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