Meetings in the Post-Pandemic Era
Experience Builders

Clear Your Conference-Design Blind Spots

In this article:
Event planners get so used to their process that they sometimes don’t see the elements of their meetings that aren’t working. Experts offer advice on how to take off the blinders and use attendee data to create meetings that participants will love.

The longer a meeting planner has been with an organization, the more they have a sense of what their attendees want. Or do they? Sometimes familiarity causes planners to make assumptions that don’t align with attendees’ needs and expectations—especially in changing times.

“I think a lot of times we make assumptions about our attendees—like they are introverts or they hate visiting the exhibit hall,” said Megan Finnell, CMP, director of meetings and conferences at the Medical Group Management Association. “When we do that, we build in blind spots because we are planning based on our bias and assumptions rather than the data from our actual attendees.”

The MGMA team learned that lesson the hard way. After receiving lower-than-expected networking scores for a conference, they made changes not once, but twice, on future events. In both cases, “our scores actually went down,” Finnell said. She shared her conundrum with a meeting planner friend, who offered a response that changed how she approaches event planning.

“He says, ‘You’re not even asking them what they want. You’re just throwing things at the window and seeing what sticks,’” Finnell recounted.

That’s when she decided it was time for her team to challenge their assumptions. They created lists of everything they knew about their attendees and identified those that were supported by data and those that were not. Then, they surveyed members to find out whether the assumptions were true.

“We found out that, surprisingly—and yet, not surprisingly—our assumptions were completely off in many cases,” Finnell said. For example, “60 percent of our attendees said that they prefer talking to exhibitors in their booth.”

Reconsider Content

Blind spots can also arise from the processes organizations use for meeting content creation, said Stephanie D. Jones, CMP, CAE, managing director of professional development and event strategy at the Water Environment Federation.

“We all have these legacy processes that are in place,” Jones said. “I think it’s time for us to take some of that control back and use what we are learning from the data about what people want.”

Legacy processes often include the people on committees that choose content for meetings and the way they select it.

“I think there are opportunities for you to bring in some members of your organization that don’t traditionally sit on your program committee,” Jones said. “Also, this process where if you get this certain score [in attendee evaluations], you’re automatically on the [next] program—we can’t do that anymore.”

“A lot of times we make assumptions about our attendees—like they are introverts or they hate visiting the exhibit hall.” —Megan Finnell, Medical Group Management Association

Finnell agrees that legacy programs often create the worst blind spots.

“The most heated and beloved places of the conference that your planning team holds dear—that’s where you should really start to examine your blind spots,” Finnell said. If a speaker showcase is believed to be an untouchable attendee favorite, find out if attendees actually see it that way. “Say [on surveys], ‘Tell us how important speaker showcases are to you,’ or ‘What kind of content is most important to you?’”

In addition to looking at survey data, Jones recommends interviewing a wide swath of members to get a sense of what they really want in their meetings. “It’s more engaging with your audience and really listening, finding out what they need in terms of their education, depending on their career level, and what their goal and purpose are for attending your event,” she said.

Use Feedback to Redesign

After learning that members actually like talking to exhibitors in the expo hall, MGMA reconfigured its meeting to lean into that preference.

“We broke for three hours in the afternoon for the exhibit hall,” Finnell said. “And I know every planner is saying, ‘We’re going to lose them. They’re going to leave.’ But we put a few stages in the hall and carefully curated content that was good. We shut everything down except for that space and had a bunch of different activations in the hall. We made sure that that was the place to be.”

MGMA moved the keynote addresses to after the exhibit hall time to encourage attendees to stay through the afternoon. “It really worked well for us, and we saw a lot of fruit from it,” she said.

Finnell recommends reviewing your assumptions now, before you get too far along in planning your next meeting.

“It’s always time to check your assumptions,” she said. “But I think the best time to do it is shortly after your conference ends as you begin the next cycle, before you even draft your schedule of events for the next year.”

Jones added that eliminating blind spots is key to providing the valuable conference experience your members expect.

“The status quo is no longer acceptable,” she said. “People spend a lot of money. They take time away from their family, time away from work. So, you want to make sure that they’re getting what they’re looking for when they decide to spend three to four days in a different city at your event.”

Rasheeda Childress

Rasheeda Childress is a former editor at Associations Now.

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