Meetings need trust, timing and yes, surprise

Do your meetings and events leave your participants wanting more?

This year, I have attended more than a dozen conferences designed for meeting and event professionals. Most recently, over a period of 12 days I attended four industry conferences. This is more than the average, as most people will attend three to six conferences at the most per year, and each time we plan a meeting we are hopeful to have the “right” audience – in both size and mix of people. How do we do that? My overarching observation is a great meeting needs the three elements of trust, timing and surprise.

Meetings need trust, timing and yes, surpriseWhy trust matters

Trust is extended by every participant who registers, believing the chosen meeting will offer applicable education, unmatched networking and a certain je ne sais quoi we won’t get elsewhere. As participants, when that trust is broken, we always feel a sense of disappointment, and it is this feeling that will lead to us not returning a second time.

A loss of trust could occur because education fails. Perhaps it is not relevant to what we need at this particular time, or we are not given the time to reflect on how we can apply it to our own situations, or it is a sales pitch from the stage, or it is simply not interesting. All of these can be resolved with a few simple steps from the planning team, which may include:

  • Focus groups to understand your audience and their expectations – what challenges keep them up at night your program may help them solve?
  • On-site crowd sourced learning, such as some of the participant driven techniques Adrian Segar lays out so well in his most recent book and which we have seen groups such as PCMA use successfully at Educon recently where 13 new sessions were decided by the participants at 9 a.m. and ran at 1:30 p.m. with the titles, presenters and locations uploaded to the QuickMobile event app before lunch.
  • Rehearsing your speakers! Too often we have programs filled with industry based but not professional speakers which we have chosen based on a one paragraph description and a catchy title, but we do not review or see the content, and often don’t ever see the presentation. This does a disservice to your attendees when they expect to leave with learning that is relevant, or actionable or disruptive and thoughtful.
    Unfortunately we think hiring speaker trainers or assigning an experienced staff person to run each presenter through a rehearsal is a luxury, when in reality you only get one chance to get it right, so why do we risk this? When you have key messages to deliver, getting them right matters. The reason TED Talks work and are watched by millions is because they rehearse their speakers!
  • Limited evaluation processes happen most of the time, and you end up basing judgements on the session on usually less than 10 per cent of the audience – which usually includes one lover and one hater, so you have skewed results to base your next program decisions on. Using in-app surveys linked to the sessions and having your staff or speakers include one minute for this at the end of every session massively changes these results. Try including surveys in a gamified environment, and the results improve even more.
  • Great keynotes that make you want to talk to people about them after they are done, and for this Collinson Media are absolute rock stars.
  • Use the technology that makes sense to support your messaging and content – and this may vary by session. Don’t use technology without intent.
  • EDIT! You cannot be all things to all people, so have clarity and focus with your committees and in your communication to potential participants

When education is your biggest selling feature and a key area for people to leave feeling fulfilled, you cannot risk losing the trust of your participants by not delivering on this key area. It goes beyond just building the program.

We can also break trust by not offering networking opportunities that are meaningful, and in a worst case scenario participants who arrive feeling anxious about not knowing others may leave with that same anxiety having spent perhaps days feeling uncomfortable. In most meetings there are very few natural extroverts, and many introverts and ambiverts, so finding ways to safely and authentically connect people – who have already arrived with a shared interest in a topic – is incumbent upon the planners. A few successes I have seen recently include:

  • A four minute mixer where you have two minutes to meet someone and tell your story, and then two minutes to hear theirs, exchange cards and move on, meeting about eight new people on the first afternoon of the FRESH Conference.
  • A reception that is not too loud to talk over. This seems so obvious, but we have all attended many events where you simply cannot carry on a conversation. A shining example of good sound volume was earlier this year at Catersource/Event Solutions where PTE Productions lined up the evening’s entertainment from acoustic to over the top DJ so you talked, watched and then danced.
  • Simply reminding people before they start a small group activity in any breakout to introduce themselves first, and have presenters build in time for this in any interactive workshops. Conversation starters lead to conversations.
  • Use your social media channels – many people attend events who have met online but not face-to-face, and a common hashtag followed by a meet-up is an ideal way to let people meet and continue dialogues started online

Timing is critical

Timing is so critical to an event’s success, both in the date selection, time of year for location and then the actual event itself. For meetings, we are so keen to fill the space with marketable time – education, meeting the sponsors or exhibitors, going to a hosted reception or dinner. We tend to follow the same patterns of very early mornings, jam-packed days and long evenings, with little room for rest or reflection, let alone keeping up on the work participants often have to do. Some antidotes to stretching participants as best as possible that I have liked recently include:

  • A meditation room as a breakout during the FRESH Conference.
  • Napping pods provided by Steelcase for the TED Conference.
  • Built-in breaks for movement between hosted buyer appointments – the length of the break dependant on the size of the show.
  • XBytes’ 10 minute “exercise in your chair space” options showcased at PCMA.
  • Simply providing good food at regular intervals. We cannot run our bodies on white/beige food – please bring on the colour and keep up nutrition and hydration!
  • Blender bikes where you jump on and whip up your own smoothie – refreshing on many levels!
  • Sell the meal for what it is. Fails this year have included a “breakfast” that only offered mini donuts and cake style muffins; “dinner” that was only passed hors d’oeuvres, and no, a slider is not a meal!

Timing is also about moments of serendipity, when participants find themselves having conversations in unexpected places such as elevators, hallways, buffet lines or as an evening event winds down or on a bus transfer. These are often the most memorable, and as planners we cannot create these, but we can allow space for these to happen.


Surprises, when they make you smile, are the moments that become part of your participants’ reasons to return, the pictures they share with life partners and colleagues and on social media which extend the story of your event beyond its walls. Surprises must be well planned, thoughtfully designed and perfectly executed.

Flash mobs, hidden cirque performers who drop out of the ceiling 90 minutes into an event, wine fairies, giant tricycles with waiters bearing trays of water, video walls that have messages and photos from the audience incorporated in real time, marching bands or dancers who lead you to the next session, a concert from a band you love and didn’t know would be there, a breakout such as C2 had floating on acrylic 10′ above guests, a salad station where the chef is cutting the lettuce from the basket it is grown in… The list of small and large surprises is endless and is one area planners can truly work with their clients to make your event the must-attend event.

Consider pulling your program out and running it through this filter of trust, timing and surprise with your team and see what you might enhance – the exercise may offer you some surprises!

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