How to Make Next Year's Event Even Better

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Balance continuity with surprise, says Don Neal, founder and CEO of 360 Live Media, in an article on Associations Now about making your event even more popular the second time around. "No company plans a flawless conference, so some elements—logistics, entertainment, content or programming, for instance—should change going into the second iteration. However, [organizations] should also preserve the elements that worked, as a way of establishing continuity."

Among Dan Hanover's 10 habits for putting on successful events is this: If it works don't do it again. "Reset and refresh your campaigns every year," said the Access Intelligence VP. "We try to one up ourselves every year—there's always a better way of doing something. Resetting events gets attendees to come back. Changing out content is not enough to be considered an event refresh."

Hanover also believes that the fear of missing out is stronger than the positives of saving. "We say, 'You're going to miss these five things and your competitors will know them,'" he said. "Instead of save or early bird, we say prices go up this Saturday! Lead with the content not the discounts. Design to the attendee—calibrate the look and feel to the sophistication of your attendee."

At Northstar Travel Group, organizers were able to get closer to their audience after initial events. "We need to go in and ask, 'What are your needs?' It really solidified our client relationships when we started traveling with [our audience]," said Loren Edelstein, editor in chief, Meetings & Conventions magazine for Northstar Travel Group. They started adding to the event experience—taking a group kayaking or other niche outings. It led to a "different kind of connection with our audience," she said.

Neal also wants you to talk to your audience at an event. Of course, he recommends surveys but even more powerful, he said, are one-on-one interviews with attendees. Ask a pool of about 25 attendees what worked and what didn't, while also bouncing off ideas that you might have for future events. 

After that, Neal recommends an extensive postmortem. "Doing a thorough diagnostic on 'What worked and what didn't work? What should we preserved? What should be eliminated? What should be added?' is really important," he said. Organizations should start this diagnostic in real-time as the event is happening with 30- to 90-second interviews with attendees. "In the moment, people are often very clear about what they do like and what they don't," Neal said.

Here, we've gone back and forth with how much free time to give attendees at events, deciding that some free afternoon time is probably good these days. But maybe organizers need to use that time to interview attendees, as Neal suggests—even five minutes should be doable. I think most attendees would be okay with that, showing concern for the customer experience. 

Neal also wants to give a bonus to those who have been with you for the first year and more. His suggestion of a "free registration for year three if the second year doesn't live up to expectations" seems a bit much. But a "three-year pricing deal on the event" may be more reasonable. For the audience who didn't come to the initial event, Neal suggested leveraging some FOMO, "sharing what they missed and outlining the really great juicy things that worked."

Gathering testimonials from your early event attenders is always a good idea. These can go on your site for next year's event as soon as you have it up (which should be quickly).

But again, Neal seem most intent that you change some things up. "It's sort of the paradox of life," Neal said. "We like stability, predictability, continuity on the one hand, but if we have too much of it, we're bored and we're anxious and we're looking for something new. So, it's what makes life interesting—and this is not just true for events but across the board. ... It's about really having that tension, and that fulcrum, and that equilibrium correct."

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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…