Awesome AgendasDecember 16, 2021

A Great Meeting Outline Benefits Planners and Attendees By
December 16, 2021

Awesome Agendas

A Great Meeting Outline Benefits Planners and Attendees
Heather Odendaal, founder, CEO and event planner at WNORTH & Bluebird Strategy, says the best agendas are those that set the tone for your meeting or event. Photo by Jenn Di Spirito

Heather Odendaal, founder, CEO and event planner at WNORTH & Bluebird Strategy, says the best agendas are those that set the tone for your meeting or event. Photo by Jenn Di Spirito

As meeting planners and organizers ramp-up their event coordination efforts, they’re faced with challenges to host effective in-person, online, and hybrid events that create memorable experiences and capture new attendees. And one way to do this in a pandemic-modified world is by creating a meeting or event agenda that truly “wows.”

Not only should today’s meeting agendas answer potential attendees’ key question: “Why should I attend this meeting?” but the agenda should also resonate with the audience long after the meeting or conference has concluded. Sasha Pasulka, vice president of marketing at Splash, a next-generation event marketing platform, says in-person meetings and events are making a comeback. Over the last few months, we’ve seen the in-person events landscape shift dramatically with restrictions being lifted and adjusted across most states. Pasulka points to a recent survey from a London-based conference-venue provider etc.venues, which says that 76% of U.S.-based meeting planners said they will hold their next face-to-face event this year. “Because of the complexities of the ever-changing pandemic landscape, many organizations are choosing to host hybrid events, inviting guests to attend either in-person or online, which requires not only creating an agenda that will impress one group of attendees, but two separate groups with differing needs,” Pasulka says.

As Heather Odendaal, founder, CEO and event planner at WNORTH & Bluebird Strategy, explains, the agenda is key for setting the tone, discussions and mood of every conference or meeting. The agenda can also shape the type of people who will be attracted to attending your conference. Meeting planners have a unique opportunity to cultivate change within an industry or organization. “When a diverse group of people are brought together for an event, new ways of thinking are shared and can collectively have a large impact on the trajectory of that industry or organization,” Odendaal says.

Planners also need to understand the interests of the attendees and why they are attending the meeting or event to properly and accurately curate the program. Odendaal suggests utilizing social media, community software, surveys or email marketing to take a pulse check on attendees. “According to Bizzabo, 97% of survey respondents believe in-person events can have a major impact on achieving a company’s primary business goals,” Odendaal says. “As an event planner, it is your responsibility to arm yourself with the information to help ensure that your meeting or event can have a positive impact on achieving these objectives”

Defining the Agenda

Lee Gimpel, founder & principal at Better Meetings, says if people are planning a conference to wow attendees, each decision being made for the event should be examined through a lens of whether it will, in fact, achieve that goal. “There are a lot of aspects of conference and meeting agendas that clearly don’t put attendees first,” Gimpel says. “As an example: Think about almost any panel discussion with more than three people. Typically, conferences add panels with lots of people in order to please sponsors, exhibitors and friends of the organization, like board members and past presidents. However, putting so many people on stage to boost their egos tends to result in mushy sessions that not only don’t wow attendees, but drives them to pull out their phones and start replying to email. There are lots and lots of decisions, big and small, that just are made because they’re easy or what’s always been done, rather than what’s going to wow attendees.”

Gimpel likes to walk organizations through exercises where they really define a clear purpose for the event. “It’s a bit shocking how many events just happen by tradition, and they’ve lost sight of why the event happens — if they ever knew,” Gimpel says. “A lot of organizations get hung up on generic rationales to do a conference, like bringing together members or because it produces revenue. It’s not that you can’t generate revenue from an event, but if that’s the driving goal, the chances are not great that attendees are going to feel wowed. Good events that really resonate with attendees typically connect to a sense of mission.”

Experts suggest planners should remember that the event and event ROI don’t exist in a vacuum; the purpose of the event is to help more people engage with a company or organization.  Courtesy of Sasha Pasulka

Experts suggest planners should remember that the event and event ROI don’t exist in a vacuum; the purpose of the event is to help more people engage with a company or organization. Courtesy of Sasha Pasulka

Must Haves

There are key components that are truly ‘must haves’ within any agenda. Pasulka says the key components to any agenda must include the following:

  • Relevance and matching the agenda topics to attendees. If successful events are about creating engagement and interaction, then the job of the agenda is laying the foundation for that engagement. And that’s accomplished with relevant, thought-provoking topics and presenters that align with attendees’ interests and goals.
  • Clear attendance options, whether it is an online event, an in-person event or a hybrid event. The prospective attendees need to know in advance what to expect from each experience, ensuring they can make the best decision for themselves.
  • Detailed information on the content that will be covered. Not only does the event content need to be relevant, but attendees also need to know exactly what to expect.
  • Outline timing of sessions, what each session will cover and the format of each session.

According to Odendaal, panel discussions that dive into hot or even controversial topics are key, and an excellent moderator for the panel is a must. “Also, as we return to in-person events, meeting planners need to refocus on elevating the networking experience. The majority of event attendees prefer to do their learning and workshop-style events online,” Odendaal says. “There is a renewed focus on meeting people at in-person events, creating a stronger emotional connection to your work, and those in their field. Ensure your event has the opportunity for smaller breakout discussions, and consider having round tables of 10 with a facilitator at each to engage in conversations around the event theme.”

Odendaal says the No. 1 mistake that she sees meeting planners make is “over programming” the event. Many event planners will try to jam in so much content and so many speakers that they end up overwhelming their attendees. Odendaal suggests trying to strike a balance between content and space in the agenda for outdoor activities and networking events, where attendees can build organic connections. “Networking breaks should be a minimum of 30 minutes and lunch a minimum of one hour,” Odendaal says. “Also, try to not have more than six hours worth of content in one day.”

Another common mistake event planners make is putting hard-to-understand topics before lunch or before the end of the day. Tiffany Allen, principal, AEA Consulting Firm, says difficult topics should be covered in the mornings after the opening session. “And when creating an agenda, you must know your audience. One way to do this is to collect demographic data as part of the registration process,” Allen says. “Depending on the event, you probably will not have a group of homogenous attendees. It is OK to have breakout sessions so you can tailor specific sessions for the audience.”

Modifying the agenda components, regardless of how historic and long-standing they may be, may also enhance the overall feel of the meeting or conference. As Gimpel suggests, many conferences have some sort of famous keynote speaker. “Maybe we don’t need that. Maybe an event always has some sort of awards component, yet, maybe people are really tired of that. It’s so normal to have some sort of exhibit hall or vendor area that we might not think that there’s a better way to connect those who want to do business with those attending the event,” Gimpel says. “We might always have a session during lunch, but maybe people want to get out of the convention center and check out the city during that time. We might always do concurrent workshops in a half dozen rooms at the same time, but maybe that format doesn’t resonate with attendees. Many conferences include poster sessions, but these are often acknowledged by attendees and presenters alike as being rather fruitless and painful, so maybe it should give way to something else.” Gimpel adds, “Conferences that wow attendees don’t necessarily stick to the same template that every other conference uses. To this end, don’t feel bound by only doing hour-long sessions. Don’t feel like every session has to put people in theater-style seating while watching someone present a slideshow. There are tons of these ingrained aspects of conferences that just don’t wow attendees, but they perpetuate year after year.”

As a general guiding principle, Gimpel would suggest always putting people first. That might mean not doing long sessions where people are just sitting for an hour. It might mean looking for venues with natural light instead of those that feel like being in a beige bunker. It might mean prohibiting speakers from using PowerPoint and having to think of other ways to communicate with their audience. It also means thinking about how to really include participants so they feel valued and engaged, and not lonely and ignored.

“That’s true with something like a workshop, but it’s also true when it comes to people walking in and registering as well as what happens during an evening networking session,” Gimpel says. “People go to conferences largely to connect with other people who have the same passions and interests. When we forget this, and just focus on logistics or revenue, or continuing education credits or making sure all of our sponsors get to speak on a panel, then we dilute the energy and enthusiasm to the point where there’s just no wow factor at all.”

Gimpel adds that it’s one thing to create an agenda, but it’s another thing to create a good event. In other words, if you have boring speakers, it doesn’t really matter if they speak in the morning or the afternoon, nor does it matter if they speak for 30 minutes or 60 minutes. Similarly, most events include some sort of networking session such as a reception, but those are often dull, fruitless or attendees fall into cliques. It doesn’t matter so much if we hold the reception the first evening or over brunch the next day, as opposed to really thinking through what’s going to happen at that reception and how it’s going to wow attendees. “This means that just rejiggering the agenda isn’t necessarily a silver bullet,” Gimpel says. “You may be better off changing how you choose speakers or training those speakers so that they really do wow attendees. Or you may bring in a facilitator to design and run a networking event. Putting something on the agenda is fine, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be a great session.”

And although speakers with senior titles at top organizations often help “sell” the conference, it’s the intriguing storytellers that make the meeting or conference truly stand out. Consider diversifying your content with well-known speakers as well as hidden gems. “Do a call out to your community for speakers and ask them to submit a topic for discussion or keynote presentation,” Odendaal says. “For these newer speakers, consider having a dedicated hour or stage for their talks. This technique can also be used at internal conferences to elevate the voices of high potential leaders in your organization.”

Communication is Key

When having an event, you want the agenda posted numerous places. The agenda should be posted on the event website — if one exists — and should be printed for meeting attendees; and the emcee should talk through the agenda during opening remarks. “Again, the agenda sets the pace of the meeting and keeps it organized,” Allen says.

Since everyone digests content differently, Odendaal recommends having the agenda available digitally through email and through the conference app — if one is created — as well as having physical copies on hand and large signage posted at the event. “In recent years, we added the conference agenda to the back of the attendees’ lanyards so they knew exactly where to be at any given time,” Odendaal says.

As indicated, some of the best ways to communicate your agenda to attendees is on an event’s webpage, in the event invitation, directly through emails, through the event app and on social promotions. In other words, the agenda should be made available to every attendee in the channel that is most convenient for them, so it can be used as intended: as a roadmap for the event itself. “Clear, unequivocal communication remains an important tool — perhaps now more than ever. Event planners need the right event technology platform that allows them to disseminate the agenda through the desired channels quickly and uniformly,” Pasulka says. A centralized platform can also streamline the process for updating the agenda if late changes become a necessity. If such modifications are left to manual processes, attendees might be stuck with outdated information, which leads to confusion and, ultimately, a less-effective event.

Another big mistake Pasulka sees event planners make with regard to agendas is developing agendas that are aligned with their priorities, rather than the aims and objectives of the attendees. This is understandable; after all, events are a business development tool, and if they’re not delivering business results for your organization, then they’re not providing value. “But the best way to get results is to offer value to the attendees, and that starts with an agenda that is well-tailored to their specific needs and interests,” Pasulka says. “When event planners adopt this perspective, they can expect their event ROI to increase”

Finally, remember that the event and event ROI don’t exist in a vacuum; the purpose is to help more people engage with a company or organization. “The ability to design, create and execute virtual, in-person and hybrid event programs that create memorable experiences and engage attendees drives business value,” Pasulka says. “So, setting an agenda and planning out the details in order to wow your audience can pay off big time in the long run.”  I&FMM



Back To Top