How to Collect Better Feedback About Your Meetings

How do you know what can be improved at your conferences if you aren’t getting honest feedback from attendees and other participants? Some ideas on how to collect it.

Quite a few years ago, we had a publications review done of Associations Now. A publishing expert and journalism professor paged through a few issues of our print magazine—we didn’t have a digital presence at the time—and sent us an almost hourlong recording of what was great, good, not so good, and required immediate improvement.

I remember walking into the conference room with my colleagues to hear that recording for the first time and feeling simultaneously anxious and excited. Part anxious, because I was thinking about the possibility that he might not have liked the magazine at all or might have concluded that we were way off base. Part excited, because I wanted to know what he thought the best elements were. After all, who doesn’t like to hear the work they’re doing is good?

And, while we conducted regular reader surveys, there was something about this feedback that just felt a little different. Maybe it was because it was coming from an industry expert who—before opening one of those issues—had never seen or heard of the magazine. Or maybe it was because I knew his feedback would probably be some of the most honest we’d ever received. Unlike readers and members who may have worried that criticism could somehow come back to bite them, this reviewer had nothing to lose. In fact, we were paying him to critique our work.

To this day, I think that review provided some of the most insightful feedback I’ve received about any publication I’ve worked on. It made us think about things differently, and it led us to make some small changes in the weeks and months ahead.

But enough about us: How do you collect honest and even critical feedback about your conferences and events?

Maybe you’re lucky. Maybe your attendees, speakers, and exhibitors come to you and tell you what didn’t work and needs to be improved. But not everyone is in that position, and they have to work harder to gather this information.

Associations often rely on postconference surveys to gauge satisfaction and collect feedback. In a post a few months ago on whether associations get what they need from these surveys, I suggested some new questions to ask. One of them got to the heart of asking for honest feedback: “What could we have done to make your conference experience better?”

That’s a start, but could you go a few steps further?

For instance, some groups have gone the mystery-shopper route and deployed a “secret attendee” to come to their conference to provide feedback on elements like the registration process, tradeshow layout, and onsite technology tools.

Another option is to hire an event planner or meeting expert to come to your event, observe it, and then provide you and your team with a wrap-up on what worked and what didn’t. Like the expert who evaluated Associations Now, an external reviewer has nothing to lose by telling you what needs to be improved. And, although it may be the priciest option, it may also produce the most honest feedback.

How do you get honest feedback about your meetings and events? Please share in the comments.

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Samantha Whitehorne

By Samantha Whitehorne

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

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