7 Ways to Keep Your Conference Relevant Year After Year

  • — October 2, 2017

    We’ve all been there — bland conferences where attendees trudge through endless rows of booths, scan their tags dutifully, and feign interest in yet another predictable sales pitch. Those conferences bore and lose relevance quickly.

    However, there are best practices you can follow to keep your conference relevant year after year. Knowing what attendees want, delivering that consistently, and cultivating an environment that allows attendees to bond is the formula for success that can apply to many different sectors, even in industries like IT where professionals get a bad rap for being “antisocial.” If you create the right environment, you’d be surprised how many IT pros get excited to see each another and offer up bear hugs.

    Put your customer needs first

    It’s easy to get too caught up in the financial aspects of a conference. But focusing on profit or growth targets leads some conferences to cram in rows of booths and sell sponsorships to practically anyone, while forgetting about their customers’ needs. Inviting in hordes of sponsors and attendees and scanning badges is not an authentic experience. Care first about the experience you create for your customers, and they’ll return not because their job demands it, but because they want to.

    At Spiceworks, we host an annual IT conference called SpiceWorld, but it’s not your typical humdrum tech conference. We’ve created an enthusiastic following with a one-of-a-kind experience, and we’ve stuck to that experience, sometimes at the expense of short-term revenue. We put our attendees first and look at the event as part of our overall business strategy to help everyone in IT get better at what they do… all while having fun. We’ve even had two IT pros get married during our conference! By always putting customer needs first, this allows you to set the bar for what must get done, and then everything else follows.

    Ask and deliver

    Your customers have a job to do, and they’re attending your conference to find help and get better at their jobs. It’s important for them to trust you’re on their side and you have their best interest at heart. Talk to them regularly to learn exactly what they want from the conference. Find out what their biggest challenges are and what topics interest them. Let them review the conference sessions and use those ratings to go back and improve some of the experiences the next year. Asking and then actually delivering builds trust, creates authenticity, and keeps attendees coming back.

    Pick great vendors and show them the ropes

    It also pays to give attendees a genuine opportunity to learn from the vendors at your conference. Attendees want informative conversations that go beyond the typical marketing spiel. And vendors want to sell to people who can benefit from their products and potentially recommend them to others. When authentic, this exchange goes beyond the standard conference model.

    Remember that your vendors are not just there to sell their product – they’re there to sell the conference and your brand. Make sure the vendors are aligned with what your company stands for. And educate them on the experience attendees expect so they can put their best foot forward and create the experience you want while driving the results they need. It’s a win-win for both parties. To differentiate your conference from the pack, vendors must up their game because they’re a significant part of the experience.

    Hire speakers who excite

    Having attended countless conferences and endured some lackluster openings, we know the keynote must be engaging. It’s the one time you have all the attendees in one spot for an hour or two, so you must deliver. I once attended a conference where the CEO talked for 45 minutes about the company vision, and he was interesting enough. But then the next hour and a half featured the biggest sponsors on stage pitching their products – it was a disaster. Don’t make this mistake. You don’t have to hire the biggest name in the industry, but find someone who can engage the audience, offer practical advice, and bring in some laughs.

    Experiment without fear

    Never be afraid to try new things. In 2016, for example, we premiered a series of 15-minute tech talks on the showroom floor, but with no pitching allowed. The program was packed every session and got great reviews, so it will return. It always comes back to delivering exactly what your audience wants.

    And don’t be afraid to try something new and fail. The willingness to reinvent the experience is what keeps people excited. For us, our attendees know that if something doesn’t work, we won’t do it again, even if it means it will cost us because a sponsor paid for that experience.

    Do the heavy lifting for attendees

    Make it easy for attendees to convince their managers to let them attend. For SpiceWorld, we provide a “convince your boss” email template so our customers can just fill in the blanks, show the costs to their bosses, and make a compelling argument. Find what works for your customers to help them articulate the value of attending your conference.

    Honor and encourage your traditions

    Consider a buddy program where new attendees pair with the event veterans who can guide them through the conference and offer some companionship. Enthusiasm from veteran “buddies” not only welcomes new customers, but also helps them feel like they’re part of the family. This passing on of conference traditions is important to keep those traditions alive every year.

    Our traditions include a legendary afterparty and sense of camaraderie that harkens back to our first conference 10 years ago with only about 50 people at an Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. Although we’ve grown into an event with about 2,500 people, we still host an afterparty and see a lot of informal hanging out when the conference ends. Right after the closing remarks, it’s tradition for Spiceworkers, attendees, and sponsors to grab a beer together on their own time.

    A sense of partnership and goodwill between conference holder and attendee creates a priceless brand experience. The cost of your product or service becomes almost inconsequential if you have your customers’ back and vice versa.

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