The Perks of Having a Secret Attendee

Getting feedback—both positive and negative—is a great way for associations to improve and evolve their conferences and meetings. Learn how a secret attendee can help better deliver on attendee expectations.

Should you plant a spy of sorts among your meeting attendees?

That’s a question I asked after I read a blog post earlier this month by Wes Trochlil on “secret shoppers.” Wes argues that associations should hire secret shoppers to pose as customers “to better understand the experience the customer is receiving.”

While Wes focuses on issues like the service members get when they call an organization or the experience they have when registering for events, I think the idea can also be applied to association meetings and conventions.

In other words, consider hiring a “secret attendee.”

So, just what would this secret attendee do? Consider these elements as part of the job description:

Registration wrangler. Your secret attendee will go through the same process as everyone else. Some areas they’ll delve into: Was the registration area easy to find? How long did the entire process take? Were staff members smiling and helpful? If there was an issue, how accommodating was the staff to remedy it?

Sure, an attendee may notice that lines snake too far down the hallway or that the registration process took way too long, but a secret attendee can also spot where the bottlenecks are in the process and offer some suggestions.

Technology tester. Association meetings today include a wealth of tech and tech-enabled tools. Among them are the official conference app, matchmaking tool, and various social media networks.

You’ll want your secret attendee to see how easy all of these are to navigate—even for the tech novice. Also have them ask fellow attendees what they like most and least about these tools.

Other duties that fall within this category: Is the Wi-Fi fast enough? And are there enough places for people to charge their phones, tablets, and laptops? If you see people huddled around plugs in random spots, the answer to the latter question is probably no.

Tradeshow observer. The secret attendee will have an eye out for traffic patterns on the show floor. Areas to be looked at include whether attendees are interacting with exhibitors and for how long, when the tradeshow floor is busiest and slowest, and how attendees are navigating the hall.

If food and beverage are on the show floor, the secret attendee will look at how long the lines are, check if there is enough food and options for everyone, and observe whether attendees are dining and dashing.

Education expert. Part of a secret attendee’s job when it comes to a meeting’s education offerings is to make note of which sessions garner the most and least interest from attendees. He or she will also observe how attendees are engaging and responding to the sessions, if sessions cater to different learning styles, and if seating and room layout help or impede the learning process.

Networking ninja. A major reason that attendees go to association meetings is to network with their colleagues, so it’s a given that a secret attendee would analyze a meeting’s networking opportunities. He or she will not only look at the different types of networking activities offered (e.g., first-timers reception, conference buddy program), but also how well the association helps attendees make connections and whether attendees look engaged with one another.

Of course, hiring a secret attendee doesn’t replace or allow you to disregard the feedback you receive from your actual attendees. In fact, today’s technology makes it easy for people to give feedback in real time, so you can make quick adjustments if possible. A secret attendee may just look at things in a different way or see details that attendees may not notice or think to offer feedback about. And if you’re looking for more details on the secret-shopper process at meetings, check out this 2014 post from Donna Kastner.

Has your association considered deploying a secret attendee? Please share in the comments.


Samantha Whitehorne

By Samantha Whitehorne

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

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