As a corporate meeting planner, you’ve done your homework. Together, with your client, you have coordinated all the elements for what is sure to be an outstanding conference. All goes well until the last day, when you observe attendees’ attention flagging. You can see it in their faces, their overall body language. They stop taking notes. They no longer ask questions. A glazed look crosses their faces. Some continually check their watches or phones or even start checking in for their flights home. What’s a meeting planner to do?
First, know that you are not alone. Survey respondents often cite “lack of engagement” as one of the top three challenges of in-person, hybrid or virtual conferences and events. And especially among virtual attendees, “Zoom fatigue” has become an all-too-familiar refrain. In fact, says John Chen, CEO of Engaging Virtual Meetings, “We have statistical data that shows that multi-day physical and virtual conferences do have a drop in visits and attendees by the last day.”
Even with an anticipated drop in meeting attendee costs due to pandemic budget constraints, “33.7% of marketers say that the average cost per virtual event attendee is between $500 to $1,000,” according to Markletic — not exactly inexpensive by any measure when seeking as high an ROI as possible on overall conference costs. Obviously, it’s in event organizers’ best interests to maintain momentum and attendee engagement throughout the duration of the entire conference so they’ll come to the next one.
Eileen McDargh, CEO of The Resiliency Group, identifies three key roles in coordinating a successful conference: host, speaker and tech support. The host brings the “synergy and the energy,” says McDargh, also author of “Burnout to Breakthrough: Building Resilience to Refuel, Recharge, and Reclaim What Matters.” “The host keeps the ball rolling, asks attendees questions; provides a summary of takeaways.” In a nutshell, she adds, “If you’re the host, you’re the glue.” By managing the program pacing and attendee interaction while exuding “energy, playfulness and spontaneity,” the host assumes a critical role in the overall success of the conference.
Chen, author of “Engaging Virtual Meetings: Openers, Games, and Activities for Communication, Morale, and Trust,” agrees: “Never lead a meeting alone so the speaker can focus on the attendees. Use a producer.“
As an in-demand conference speaker — speakers being the second element — McDargh says, “I bring my own level of energy. It’s what keeps people engaged.” She also advises that “You can’t ignore the virtual audience” in a hybrid meeting. McDargh refers to her experience at the Music Hall of Fame in which her presentation was livestreamed to attendees around the world. She brought the in-person audience together with virtual attendees by sparking conversation between the two groups: “What do you want to say to people joining us here today from Brussels?” While the scope of McDargh’s presentation typically includes a keynote and/or facilitating follow-up conversations with attendees in one or more breakout sessions, she makes a point to watch speaker presentations that precede and follow hers. As a result, she’s able to tie in key points in each of those presentations with her own program content and to the conference theme as a whole.
The third critical component to ensuring a successful conference, according to McDargh, is the quality of the technology employed, which entails everything from the flexibility of the platform used — in one incident, McDargh was unable to play music while speaking, for example — to equipment set up, audio and internet connectivity. It also pertains to recording options for playback purposes. She cites one recording of her presentation in which the main visual became the slide deck of her presentation while her image ended up the size of a postage stamp in the corner of the screen.
Although “content is king,” as Chen attests, it’s challenging to keep viewers engaged in replays without the added energy of a host and speaker to land the content unless recorded effectively. In some cases, McDargh has been asked to pre-record her presentation, which risks even more lack of attendee engagement without the speaker’s ability to leverage the energy in the virtual or in-person room.
Even though “Technology gives you the ability to be invited into people’s homes,” McDargh says, it’s up to the host, speaker and tech support to ensure the program comes off without a hitch. That’s not always been the case for McDargh, who mentions one particularly high-profile event at a destination hotel that was inundated with problems due to a poor internet connection, among other on-site technology snags that disrupted the program. To minimize the potential for such disruptions, she says, “You have to have multiple dry runs” with key stakeholders in the program’s success.
Through collaboration and coordination among the host, speaker and tech support, the odds of enticing attendees to stay to the end increase exponentially. “What seems to work for me,” says Jan Dwyer Bang, MBA, CSP, president of Boundless Results, “is having the meeting attendees discuss in small groups — or breakout groups if virtual — so they have a chance to share what they learned and how they will apply what they learned in their work lives; then having a few people share when they come back together as a whole group, or if time, having one person from each small group share some takeaways to the large group.”
Also important: Don’t forget to break up the content into small bites at times. “You need to give frequent breaks, but not just leave a blank screen,” McDargh says. “You could show a trivia game or scavenger hunt, like ‘Right now, find one thing from your childhood.’” She adds, “I’ll also say, ‘Looks like you could all use a break.’ Then, I’ll put on music and have everyone get up and move around, dance.”
Dwyer Bang also advocates keeping the energy high: “I think having something upbeat, and positive planned — perhaps a funny video that gets people engaged or an activity that gets meeting attendees on their feet in a large group activity, or an activity in small groups. Even if they are doing the activity where they share with others what they learned — this could be done standing up or with a chart, etc. Having music at the end can help too.”
She cautions, “Sometimes, when I train people who are more quiet and introverted, having people share in small groups may be something they don’t prefer, so sometimes that group can be ‘quiet.’ I have found jumping into the small groups in Zoom breakout groups just to see how conversations are going helps a lot.”
Beyond creating energizing activities while meetings are in session, Chen reminds planners: “It’s not a conference, it’s a community” As he explains, “Events still have event culture, meaning that the natural energy for a conference is before and during the conference; it’s much more challenging after the conference. The best conferences create a community” in which people continue to participate. He cites a number of ways event organizers can do so effectively: “They can create ways to opt-in to join a community, such as a Facebook group or on Slack. They also continue to add value throughout the year between conferences.” For Chen’s conference communities, “A great example is Gamicon’s Game Garage. After Game Garage became a hit at the conference, they continued every Friday featuring a different speaker every week. It helped involve speakers who didn’t get chosen to speak at the conference and gave attendees access to new ideas and networking every week. I host a virtual happy hour every Friday since March 2020 that has a loyal following.”
Dwyer Bang adds that following up with the client is a good practice. “I like to do a client debrief call after the event so that I can hear from the client how things went and also provide some consultation on what things they can do to reinforce the concepts when their meeting attendees are back in the workforce.” With her group attendees, she says that “Sometimes 30-day or 60-day check-ins are helpful, or engaging them after the workshop by providing follow-up resources and tools, and a summary of some of the highlights of the workshop.” She continues, “Since I use assessment tools, I also share to meeting attendees that, if they would like their team to engage in some assessments as a follow-up to what they learned, I am available.” She adds, “These are all very helpful, but I think when a meeting attendee has a positive, emotional experience during the event — and they were able to learn something and make connections with others — that memory can be a motivator too.”
A number of years ago, so a popular story goes, someone sat next to Terry Eugene Bollea, aka Hulk Hogan, in first class on a domestic flight. When the person asked for the secret of the entertainer’s success as a wrestler and TV personality, Bollea reportedly leaned in, and whispered, “Ya gotta have a gimmick.” The same can be said for motivating attendees to stick around for the final session of a multi-day conference: You have to give them a reason to keep coming back for more.
For Dwyer Bang, the answer lies in setting the stage on the first day of her three-day leadership training program. “Each person picks a person’s name randomly at the beginning of the training. Their assignment is to observe that person model effective leadership. I emphasize that they are not ‘stalking,’ but rather, they are to observe that person whose name they were given and take what we are learning and see if there is an example of some leadership trait in their behavior, or perhaps it is something they said in class that the attendee was impressed by, or the way they operated in small groups, etc. At the end of the third day, in 30 seconds or less, a participant shares their observation and positive affirmation of that person’s leadership, and presents them with their certificate of completion. Then, the person that just was affirmed will share the person they are affirming. It’s a great way to engage the entire leadership class.”
McDargh does something similar in her presentations by creating a storyline, what she calls “dropping a trail of bread crumbs like in Hansel and Gretel, or a compelling Netflix drama,” that weaves the program content through the conference from the first day to the last. Attendees must attend the last session to hear how the story ends. “And who closes a book without reading through to the end to see what happens?” McDargh asks. She also likes offering giveaways, such as her book, Starbucks cards and other goodies on the last day of the conference.
Chen notes that “people love prizes.” He says, “Having a raffle or prize drawing with ‘Must Be Present To Win’ has helped keep the excitement for those who stay to the end.” He adds, “There’s nothing like texting your friend who missed a grand prize because they left early.”
Chen recommends additional strategies to incentivize attendance on the final day of the conference. “Save your best keynote speakers for the end,” he says. “For instance, at one in-person conference, Oprah Winfrey was the closing keynote speaker, and people waited eight hours in line for the best seats.” While most meeting planners may not have the budget to bring in a celebrity keynote speaker with the cachet of Oprah, what they can do, Chen says, is “Give the people what they want. On the last day of my five-day conference, we input all the fun, team building and experiential activities. Those who stay want to experience the latest in team building, and every session is fun and engaging as there are no lecture programs on this day. Putting hosted buyer sessions on the last day is another way to get key people to stay.”
Ultimately, Chen says, “If you want engagement, ENGAGE. To me, engagement on the last day is the same as engagement on the first day. Engage and interact with every attendee before the end of the session. Make sure your speakers look good and sound good as presenters.” He also suggests orchestrating the event “[like] air-traffic control. Engage by making sure only one person is talking at a time. Get productive with amazing virtual tools, like polls, whiteboards and simultaneous editing documents to engage your audience.” Finally, he says, “End on a high note, coach your speakers to end not on Q&A, but a high note. Research shows that in a product market demo, people are more likely to buy if they have a high note with the product in the last five minutes. Your meeting is exactly the same way.” C&IT