Insights and Lessons Learned on the Conference Floor

At the 2015 CanSPEP Annual Conference in Saskatoon, I presented a “Talks” style presentation sharing some stories and lessons learned and insights taken from my experiences leading large national conferences. Here is my quick look at what adds value to events, and makes them memorable.

1. Provide a boutique experience, even if the event is large.

Treat your event like your own dinner party. Be the person that sees who is new, who is on their own and introduce them to others to break the ice and get conversation started. Have staff and volunteers greet people and say hello at the entrance. This is appreciated!

2. Location, location, location.

Use your location and know your audience: Find something very ‘cool’ to include in the program that will make that city memorable, and make them want to go in the first place. With Windsor Ontario, I brought 493 delegates (80% male) across the border to the USA for a Detroit Red Wings VS Pittsburg Penguins hockey game. For $45 per delegate in 2008, they had a ticket, a slice of pizza and a pop and a seat at a game with Sidney Crosby on ice. It was the first match up since the Stanley Cup final that spring where the two had played against each other. Manifested buses with international delegates moving across the Canada USA border wasn’t easy, but it was very memorable and registration expectations were significantly exceeded! Find ‘Coolness Factor’ in your events. It keeps conference fresh, and that ‘wow’ made for happy return customers in future years.

3. In dealing with Security Detail for VIPs…

In Edmonton, we had Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach’s police escort opened an alarmed door during a pre-event walk through, and left me dealing with 3 concurrent sessions with about 500 delegates flooding out of session rooms.

4. Be prepared for emergencies on site and off site

Having a delegate faint at a cocktail reception at the Quebec National Assembly during a cocktail reception was not something you could anticipate. How it was handled, and how tricky it was to get into a historical building (with high security) with EMS (and protocol on security heirarchy) in Canada’s other official language was a lesson in working under pressure.

6. Working with others

Be nice to all the suppliers. “A-person-who-is-nice-to-you-but-is-not-nice-to-the-waiter-is-not-a-nice-person” Know that you need all the service staff to be on your side. Be genuine.

7. When working with a national, bilingual crowd, be careful with humour, language, and nuance in comedy

Working for a national association, the chair was a francophone from Montreal and we were at an evening comedy performance in Vancouver…a “who’s line it anyways” style skit comedy. I had seated him at the front for the show and had planned some jokes with the comedians prior to the show. He was to be called on to be central to the main skit. He hadn’t thought the show was funny and left without me noticing. When the comedians called on him, he was nowhere to be seen. They called someone random onto the stage and all the planned jokes were never used. The show must go on, and things just don’t work out as you plan sometimes.

8. When the event looks too fun, you may be your own worst enemy

If it looks like there’s too much fun to be had the people who have to authorize the expense might think it’s not professional development, but a junket. Be careful in what photographers get photos of…. You need those shots for next year’s brochures and for your industry magazine.

9. FEEDBACK: Give it and ask for it.

I think using evaluations wisely to improve events time over time is extremely important. Input on timing, content, focus, networking social events gives delegates what they want, not what you think they want. Read every item! I also think it’s crucial to provide constructive feedback to venues, sub-contractors, etc., for the purpose of improvement to their future offerings, and also to help your industry colleagues grow from what was learned and can be improved. Continuous learning is important for everyone.

10. Say THANK YOU.

Often. So….thank you for reading what I shared with CanSPEP members!

Ah, the possibility or impossibility of getting work done at meetings

Where does work happen, he asks in the video. I have lived through the half day meetings where we had to “fill the time” because “the time had been booked”, only to have the participants attend with very different goals: Some reported on the past, some shared ideas for the future, others digressed into minutia on updates that should have been left to one on one meetings. In my facilitator training, I learned this is all too common. I wish I knew then what I know now about setting clear objectives, meeting expectations, and moving forward.

I don’t agree with all in this video shared from a TedTalk, and believe that meetings and events can be a dynamic way to bring out the best ideas, engage and inspire. “Bringing people and ideas together” is my tagline. Yes, sometimes you have to quiet down and do the work, but when you get a dynamic conversation going with a variety of perspectives, great things often happen.