How an effective program agenda can make or break your next event

How an effective program agenda can make or break your next eventBy Amanda Stewart

A significant investment is made in time and dollars in creating an event, whether it is a conference, national sales meeting, a reward and recognition trip, a gala or networking event. Connecting and engaging your audience is essential to the event’s success. A well-rounded program agenda, developed with the audience as the focus, will create a successful event, achieve your objectives and reap the benefits of the investment.

For successful meeting planners, the process of building the program agenda begins by asking some key questions:

  • What is the strategic business objective in hosting this event?
  • Who is the audience?
  • What is in it for audience?
  • If a participant had to pay to attend this event, would they?

An agenda needs to be designed with the audience in mind. A thorough needs assessment has to be completed before proposing a solution or specific services. What is the audience hoping to learn and hear, and what drives and motivates them? How does this align with the strategic business objective?

After completion of the needs assessment, an agenda is designed and it includes two essential elements: education and motivation. By adding networking, wellness, variety and leisure time, you have now rounded out the event to ensure your participants have the ability to absorb the information and be engaged in the event. Participants need a variety of events; they need time to exercise, leisure time to network and relaxation. By collaboratively developing the agenda with all stakeholders, you will be able to design a program that meets the corporate objectives and meets budget guidelines.

Look at history

Begin with what has been done previously. It is important to evaluate what has been done in the past and what has been successful and well received, what has not, and what enhancements could be incorporated into future events. Consider the following historical elements:

  • Participant surveys – if the event has been done previously, look at results from the previous three years. Participant feedback is a great source of information as they tell you what they liked and didn’t like.
  • Interview executives, stakeholders, and a sampling of the audience members. What does this event look like, what do they want to accomplish or have the participants walk away with?
  • Review previous agendas – who were the speakers, what was the setup, how long were the meetings, were there only general sessions, did they have breakouts or interactive sessions?
  • Schedule-of-events grid – ask for a layout of previous programs to see the mix of leisure time vs. planned activities. How many days/nights is their typical program? Are there team-building and other activities? What types of evening events have been done?
  • Hotels and destinations – get a five-year history, if possible. Where have the events taken place, location and quality of hotel?

Information gathering

Take the time to gather pertinent information in order to design the agenda and budget.

  • Based on the needs assessment – What type of event should you be planning? Is it an incentive, a conference where education is important, is it a “feel good” meeting that needs to be motivating, or is it a basic training event?
  • Budget – What is the overall budget for this event? Estimate the following breakdown of the total budget: 25-30 per cent for air, 25 per cent for accommodation, 15 per cent for food and beverage, and 10 per cent for tours, activities and airport transfers, 10-20 per cent for miscellaneous items.
  • Event scope  Determine the importance of incorporating communications and AV production to support the event and helping to deliver the message. Is this a full-blown celebration or product launch that needs that huge wow factor or is it something simpler? Do you need to cut somewhere else to include these elements, to meet budget guidelines? By reducing the quality of hotel from five to four stars, or the number of days, you could balance the budget and still deliver on the corporate objective.
  • Demographics – What is the age group, what is the level of participant – are they CEOs, or front line employees? Are they multicultural? What is the gender breakdown? Where are the participants geographically located? With this information, you are able to choose the right location, hotel, and program elements. If the participants are spread globally, look for a location that has easy air access; avoiding air routings or a destination where the majority of participants may need visas. What type of food and beverage do you need to support your group needs? Do you need to add interactive components to get participants networking?
  • Communications – Establish ways to engage the audience from the very beginning. Developing an effective communication campaign is essential to the overall success of the event. Set the tone of the event, from the first announcement, until the last participant leaves. Will this be an electronic campaign, or a teaser gift desk drop? Does the IT system allow for this type of activity? And how does this cost factor into the budget?

Leveraging and collaboration

Look at the big picture. Who are the stakeholders, and what can they contribute to the success of the event? Many people are involved in creating an event. Therefore it is essential that all parties collaborate and have the same vision.

By creating a critical path and scheduling team meetings, you will keep the project on time, on budget and the messaging consistent with the corporate objectives. Collaborating with the team on the program inclusions and creative elements will produce a cohesive event and can be cost effective. Look at re-purposing communication materials that the marketing team has produced instead of creating a brand new video or logo design. Are there resources in the destination that could help support the event, such as, a local security team? The objective is to manage costs and maximize value without jeopardizing the participant experience.

Cost savings

Cultivating strong supplier relationships will result in the ability to negotiate cost reductions and value adds that enhance the participant experience. Cost savings can be generated by leveraging any corporate contracts in place with hotels or airlines, provided that group bookings have been negotiated into these contracts.

Look for the similarities to be cost effective. If this is a multi-city event, can you use the same hotel chain or AV company in each of the cities? Will you be hosting this event in consecutive years? Can you negotiate a two-year contract to give you more leverage?

Review air needs, compare blocked air space to free selling the air. What flexibility do participants have to extend their stay? Cost savings can be realized, by giving your audience advance notice to register and confirm their air arrangements.


No matter how small the budget, there are always ways to customize and to make an event unique. Look for ways to incorporate opportunities that allow your audience to network, collaborate and have fun! Build these elements into the program design to create an extraordinary, enhanced participant experience. Instead of an opening video, what about a musical or comedic intro? Is there an alternative to the “talking heads,” or can you introduce an interactive component? Add a social responsibility aspect or a team building activity to the program. Is there room for a yoga class or casual area for participants to gather during breaks?

For an incentive program, the objective is to provide participants with an event that they can’t purchase on their own. If there are budget restrictions, look at ways to maximize the budget. Instead of a seven-night all inclusive, would a four-night program with some great events motivate your participants more?

If your main purpose is a meeting, why travel to a sun-and-fun destination to keep your participants in a meeting room all day? Are there ways to break up the meeting time frame to give your audience an opportunity to enjoy the destination?

Don’t jam pack your agenda with back-to-back events. Include some downtime or activities that encourage relaxation. Give participants choices of activities; they don’t have to go on a tour or play golf. Offer an extra night or credit to stay at the hotel and enjoy the facilities (a day in the cabana at the pool).

The bottom line

The focus always seems to be on the budget of the event. However, there is an additional investment incurred which is the cost of taking the top performers or your audience out of their work environments for the event duration. This element is often forgotten and must be considered. As a result, it is important that the audience you are investing in leaves the event motivated, educated and engaged. The ideas outlined above, allow you to effectively design and develop a program to meet your strategic corporate objectives.

About the author

Amanda Stewart is the President of Eventive Marketing Inc., an event management company that provides a Total Event Solution. She uses her 27 years of experience in the meeting and incentive travel industry to evaluate client needs, and develop customized programs for her clients. Amanda is a graduate of Fanshawe College and has been recognized for three consecutive years on the W100 and Profit 500 rankings.


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