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Attack of the Zombie Attendees

February 29, 2016 // Insights

Unconventional Planning Ideas to Help You Survive

By Don Ball, Co-founder of COCO

Let’s face it: organizing events might be one of the hardest jobs out there. You bring in great speakers, amazing food, decorate the place to the hilt – and you still see some attendees more engrossed in their cellphones than the event.

What does it take to grab attendees by the collar and make them get more out of an event?

First of all, the problem is not you. You are doing nothing wrong. In fact, odds are you’re doing everything you’re supposed to be doing, like working with the best venues, the most reliable caterers and arranging for the best content… but so is everyone else. The day after you clear out of the hotel ballroom or conference center, another conference, organized by another brilliant event manager, takes its place. And so on and so on.

What’s the problem, then?

Just imagine it from the attendees’ point of view. Your next event might be their fourth event that year at a similar venue, with a similar format, with comparable food.

So, what does it take to have people leave your event feeling like they really got something out of it?

At COCO, we only got into hosting events by accident. We’re a coworking community – we’re like a membership club for entrepreneurs and creative and tech workers, who pay to work at our four Twin Cities locations. In return, we provide work tables, meeting rooms, high bandwidth internet and all the coffee they can drink.

Along the way, we realized that our members were looking to us to help them learn and for a chance to socialize. As fresh entrepreneurs, many were seeking additional ways to network and to continue to develop professionally. We also received inquiries from corporations looking to host strategic or creative meetings, and could we help them plan the meeting, as well? Being entrepreneurs ourselves, we said yes, and then figured it out as we went. So, here are some of the lessons we’ve learned along the way.

Venue Matters… But Not in the Way You Think

Our job as event planners is to book a venue that is rock solid. All the right amenities. No surprises. The catch is that those venues may be the same old tired spaces that everybody else is booking. So, as an attendee walks for the third time this year into the same venue, what do you think her expectation is? Is she anticipating sameness or uniqueness? What’s his curiosity level? High or low?

As you look for venues for your next event, consider surprising locations that will let your attendees know that they’ve arrived at a unique environment. Not only should they be pleased with the change of pace, but picking an offbeat venue also allows you to do new and one-of-a-kind programming.

For those located near Minnesota, or looking to bring a group here, there are terrific options for non-traditional settings. If you’re looking for someplace outside the Twin Cities, certainly keep these venue types in mind.

  • Libraries – Minneapolis Central Library has great event facilities. The James J. Hill Library in St. Paul is stunning and available for rentals!
  • Summer Camps – We’ve actually tested this out ourselves and came up with some amazing results.
  • Parks – It doesn’t have to be for the whole event, but imagine “holding classes outside” for a portion of the time!
  • Universites or Colleges – Many people remember college fondly and the event will evoke memories of learning and exploration (and getting into trouble!). Local colleges and universities often have gorgeous facilities that are available for rent.
  • Gyms – Not just any gym, but an old industrial hangar like Uppercut Boxing in Northeast Minneapolis provides a change of scenery.
  • Meeting Halls – Northeast Minneapolis has the PNA Hall, St. Paul has the C.S.P.S. Hall, and both are old school remnants of the cities’ historic immigrant past.
  • Breweries – Have you been to Bauhaus, Summit or Surly? They have the means of hosting groups, giving tours and letting people sample their wares.
  • Coworking Spaces – Imagine walking into a huge room with 150+ entrepreneurs working on innovative new ventures. The energy is palpable, which makes it the perfect venue for strategy, brainstorming or design meetings!

Consider New and Alternative Session Formats

We’re all familiar with events and meetings where expert speakers and panelists speak while attendees sit passively; this is a recipe for distraction. Attendees don’t always leave these traditional sessions feeling smarter or more engaged. Instead, consider spicing up your next event by incorporating some of these alternative formats:

  • Pitches – In any organization, there are people working on interesting projects. Why not have them give a five-minute “elevator pitch” in which they make the case for what they’re doing and why they’re doing it? It’s a painless way to get a lot of people up to speed on a lot of projects. Bonus extra: make it a competition for funding or a prize and appoint some judges, like on the TV show “Shark Tank.”
  • Shareouts – Every company is sitting on tons of intellectual capital. One way to spread that wealth is to have execs do short, five-to-10-minute shareouts about what they’re working on, what their biggest challenges are and what kind of help they need. The key here is to get people sharing – that leads to cross-pollination, collaboration and mutual support.
  • Peer-to-peer Workshops – Again, most organizations have some incredible talent not just at the top, but sprinkled throughout. Consider inviting some of these experts to host workshops or informal talks. Topics could include “Best business books,” “Social media 101,” or “Top innovations in our industry.”
  • Unconferences – An unconference is a loosely-structured format that encourages the exchange of information and ideas between participants, rather than following a conventionally-structured program of events. Attendees know ahead of time what the big issue is, but the actual sessions aren’t determined until the beginning of the event. At that time, attendees themselves volunteer to fill time slots with talks, conversations or workshops that are suggested and led by participants.

Make Ample Use of “Whitespace”

Think back to conferences you’ve attended. Have you ever noticed how productive the in-between parts can be, like when you leave a great session and end up talking to other people who were fired up from the same session? As you plan larger events, think about how to “leaven” the event with strategic downtime. Whether it’s longer lunches, coffee breaks or just more time between sessions, think about how to give people the opportunity to collide and converse.

Throw in Some Curveballs

The most memorable part of an event doesn’t have to be the main attraction. Why not throw in some surprising features or amenities that cost you little, but can make a big impression?

  • Offer chair massages at the back of the room
  • Organize morning runs or hikes
  • Set up a morning or lunchtime yoga session
  • Take out-of-towners on a sightseeing excursion or walking tour of the city
  • Slot in a stand-up comedian – who’s not even on the agenda!
  • Organize field trips or learning excursions to unrelated businesses – a brewery, a factory, a theatre, Mall of America or a museum
  • Include an exhilarating volunteer experience, like a couple hours of packing food destined for food shelves

Invite “Outsiders” In

Most of us have spent so much time in our respective fields that we know the jargon and all the reasons why innovation isn’t happening. But outsiders regularly disrupt entire industries (see: Apple, Uber, Tesla, Airbnb, etc.) because they have no preconceived notions of how things have been done for the past 20 years. So, why not find a way to get those outsider opinions into your next event? Some ideas:

  • Invite startups in your industry to a pitch competition
  • Have customers talk about their experiences with products/services in your category
  • Invite a futurist to speak on the outlook for your industry
  • Have outsiders participate in a design, brainstorming or strategic planning session

Get Outdoors!

A year ago, we decided to take our mission of inspiring and enabling dreamers and move it to the great outdoors. We rented a camp on the North Shore of Lake Superior, and for speakers, we invited a genuine Arctic explorer, a mindfulness guru and a bunch of entrepreneurs who told us their personal adventure stories. Add in a big dose of nature, dorm living, camp food and nightly bonfires, and you have a recipe for success. People cut loose, opened up, learned a bunch and left on a high. Summer camp and weekend retreat organizers have known this for a long time – when you get people outside their element, magical things can happen!

Don Ball is co-founder of COCO, where he spends his time dreaming up ways to inspire and enable COCO’s member community of dreamers, creators and doers.

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