What makes a conference memorable and fun?
February 12, 2013 8:30 AM   Subscribe

I would like to hear about the little things that really stood out and details you still remember to this day from conferences or conventions in any field.

I am planning a small conference for about 110 people in July. This group is a national organization that meets annually in a different city each year.

The planning commitee has collectively ticked all the major boxes and have figured out the big things like budget, venues, catering, website, schedule, speakers, volunteers, and publicity. In the early planning stages, I saw this question, which was very helpful.

Now, I have some wiggle room in the budget, and I'd like to hear about things that have worked well for others to create a relaxed and memorable event with feeling too forced.
posted by nathaole to Work & Money (26 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: *without feeling too forced. Thanks!
posted by nathaole at 8:31 AM on February 12, 2013

Definitely food. Might not apply, since you mentioned catering, but nothing is worse than having 35 minutes to find something to eat in an unknown, ghosttownish (where so many conferences unfortunately are) neighborhood. Even just snacks can make a big difference.
posted by threeants at 8:33 AM on February 12, 2013 [4 favorites]

Finding something fun for the group to do in the evening that is very local - for instance, when we've hosted events in cities with a major-league baseball team, we'll take the whole group out to a game and give them all $20 or so for concessions. People organically coalesce into groups and have a great time.
posted by jbickers at 8:33 AM on February 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

While I haven't been on a conference myself, I know many professional women who have. And many professional women who have babies. And one of the things that immensely helped them was knowing exactly where a clean-non-bathroom-space-with-an-outlet for breastmilk pumping was.

It took a lot of stress off of them while at the conference to have that need met.
posted by zizzle at 8:42 AM on February 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

Organise a couple of slightly later sessions that are way less formal and more irreverent than the main program. Example: Convene a panel session for the purpose of telling old war stories from your field, provide them with beer and let them rip. Or borrow a Wii and have a wii bowling tournament in the bar.

Recruit a few attendees who you know, and who know the area, to network with all the lonely looking strangers and invite them to the same restaurant for dinner in the evening. No budget required, and helps people meet one another.

If there are likely to be partners staying in the hotel, organise some kind of daytime event for the partners (and kids, if any).
posted by emilyw at 8:44 AM on February 12, 2013

You need wifi - truly excellent and reliable wifi.

Also great giveaways - iPad or better - get attendees excited and if it is a draw they will stay till the end for it.

make sure there's ad hoc meeting space (chairs) for side talks.

Give away water bottles and have water coolers around.
posted by crazycanuck at 8:48 AM on February 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

It is a little late for this, but take almost all of that money and put it towards funding for grants to young people (do you have grad students?) so that more can attend, make sure they are not even implicitly excluded from anything, and then encourage them to take the older folks out.

You can't organize that trip to the local vaguely sketchy gay bar that everyone remembers fondly for years, but they can.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:05 AM on February 12, 2013 [6 favorites]

I find that the most useful & enjoyable part of conferences is sharing ideas and making connections with other people, so anything you can do to facilitate that would be great.

If people are on their own for dinner, can you make it easier for people to find dinner companions? It works well having several hosts/coordinators make reservations at different restaurants for a certain number of people, and then having signup sheets at the conference registration area with the host's name and contact info, reservation and meeting time and some information about the restaurant. Then meet your group at the registration area at the appointed time and go! I almost always make good connections that way, and I love not having to find a restaurant myself in a new city.

My organizations have also had themed lunch tables so folks who are interested in similar subtopics can find each other to chat. Cordial groupings of chairs or cocktail tables for any snack breaks also help to make it easier for people to talk to each other.
posted by fussbudget at 9:09 AM on February 12, 2013 [5 favorites]

Ways to meet other likeminded people. (Small meals in groups of 6-10 work really well.)

If it's a group where a little less formal is okay, a social convention I went to for several years had little stickers (fun ones: animals, lots of different colored stars, interesting shapes. Size of a pencil eraser to a dime is good)

Anyway, in whatever your communal space is (registration table, hospitality suite, whatever), have those out, start a list with a couple (with the corresponding sticker next to it)

Good ones that work well are:
- This is my first time at this event
- I live locally, please ask me about local stuff
- Any obvious groupings within the larger convention (specific interests, people who like [software tool], whatever

Don't worry about getting everything, and aim for stuff that makes a good conversation starter (though if you get enough funky stickers, they work for that anyway. "What does the elephant mean? I hadn't seen that one." gets a conversation going just as well as "Oh, you've got an elephant, so nice to meet someone else who is infuriated by the way Dewey Decimal handles the 200s.")
posted by modernhypatia at 9:20 AM on February 12, 2013 [4 favorites]

Tacking onto fussbudget's comment, let people share what they do or what they have to offer in a structured way during sessions so they know who they might want to network with after.

It has to be structured so that one person doesn't drone on and on, but ultimately, I think people genuinely do like talking about what they do.

So for instance, in my field, one would ask, perhaps, "In a show of hands, how many people in the room have regular "worried well" that you feel like you have a handle on?"

Or, "Please go around the room and VERY BRIEFLY share your institution and title."
posted by Sophie1 at 9:21 AM on February 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

I go to a four-day conference every summer. Some things that have been done:

--prizes or a raffle at the end, to encourage folks to stay the whole time
--scavenger hunt designed around local sites (This was in a state capital city, so these were easy to find.)
--"combat" golf - an evening of mini-golf with goofy made-up rules
--interesting lunches catered by local restaurants
--32g flash drive as a giveaway to all attendees
--healthy snacks, as mentioned above - granola bars, fruit and the like
--one evening is a more formal dinner for all attendees, with speechifying and whatnot, but mostly drinking
--One or two folks end up appointing themselves Cruise Directors and encourage small groups to have dinner together, or do other casual evening activities together. You may want to specifically have one or two people assigned to this job.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 9:42 AM on February 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

I also have attended a small annual professional conference that rotates between cities, and was the chairman of the organizing committee one year.

If you're going to have a keynote speaker, that person damned well better be an entertaining speaker. Otherwise, don't bother.

You need to have a schmoozing-oriented event (maybe even two). These are hard. They're usually billed as the "convention banquet" but if you have people sit down to a meal, they're not mingling, and if you feed people hors d'oeuvres to facilitate mingling, that gets expensive really fast, and the participants may not feel like they've gotten a meal out of it.

People are very divided on conference schwag. I think it's a waste, but some people really like it.

Ready access to good coffee will make a lot of your participants happy.

One quirk I didn't plan on: we had participants coming from all over the country (and a few from abroad) to Austin. The conference hotel, like many public facilities in Texas, ran the AC at arctic levels that many participants found uncomfortable. So ask yourself if there's some local quirk that you're used to that your visitors might have trouble with.
posted by adamrice at 9:46 AM on February 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh, something I forgot to mention:

One conference was memorable just because I happened to go out for a beer with the person sitting next to me, and found we enjoyed each other's company. So encourage folks in the sessions to introduce themselves to each other, maybe even sit in the same seat each time if that's how your sessions work. I was in a classroom learning software with this person, so it was nice to have a familiar face next to me each day.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 9:46 AM on February 12, 2013

I'd do a little advance reconnaissance on good bars and cafés near the conference venue. Pick two or three and recommend them in the programme (with a map!). It's really nice to have somewhere that isn't an official conference place, but that gives you a high probability of bumping into other conference people. A lot of pleasant and useful interactions take place in such venues. As a bonus, people also know where not to go when they get totally conferenced out and just need to take a breather.
posted by pont at 9:49 AM on February 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

N-thing having some snacks and beverages at the beginning and maybe during breaks for those people who don't know the area. (Actually, I recently went to a conference less than a mile away from my house and I was frustrated that the cheapskates at the conference hadn't even provided crappy coffee.) That goes a long way to making sure folks are punctual—whenever things start late at conferences I've been to, it's because a bunch of sheepish people (including presenters!) couldn't get their coffee in time. Plus it's a nice opportunity to chat with people during breaks instead of having to dash to find some and then make your way back.

And wifi. Definitely make sure the wifi is free and make it easy for people to figure out how to connect (i.e., put it in the program.)

Also, make sure the attendees get something that makes them stand out as being attendees (bright tote bag, attractive lanyard, maybe a t-shirt) because it leads to more hanging out outside of the conference. I'm super introverted but it makes it easier for me to strike up conversations while I'm out and about during breaks or after hours. Plus if you go the tote bag route it's great because being at a conference all day = need for a tote bag. Otherwise, I think most free stuff is unnecessary.

And as someone who usually attends conferences by myself, I definitely appreciate all the tricks above for getting people to socialize. You'd be surprised at how far encouraging people to say hi to the person sitting next to them can go—now that I'm not attending conferences with a bunch of friends as a student, I realize how hard it is as adults to want to try to get to know other people.
posted by thesocietyfor at 10:00 AM on February 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

The running joke at many technology conferences is that the real conference takes place in the hallway, but you can't convince an employer to pay for you to go stand around the hallway at the DoubleTree so there are topical sessions. The biggest value of any conference I've attended has been meeting interesting people who do interesting things. Anything you can do to encourage people to socialize makes the conference better.
posted by dgran at 10:10 AM on February 12, 2013

I love modernhypatia's suggestion, and would add that even if it's a more formal conference, you can just have ribbons that people add to their name tag. The conference I just went to in January had ribbons for stuff like:

- New Attendees
- Committee Chair
- Young Professional, etc.

This is really, really helpful for new attendees in particular since you're often trying to encourage them to talk to people like committee chairs or get involved in young professional groups (or whatever the case may be) at the conference and this just makes it so much easier.
posted by andrewesque at 10:25 AM on February 12, 2013

Been to/hosted lots of conferences. I definitely agree that you want to choose some optional (or funded by you) events highlighting local food, music, sports, arts, adventure, etc. I also definitely agree with the idea of less formal/after hours/optional sessions (better yet with beer!). And yes, to the extent you may have lactating mothers and they won't have hotel rooms, set aside a private space for them.

- Coffee/snacks before the day and at snack time
- Build in adequate time so that you never, ever run late.
- Breaks of 10 minutes every 50 or so.
- Let speakers know in advance that you are militant about timing, how much time they have (particularly if they are sharing time/space with other presenters), and how you will warm them when it is time to wrap up their points.
- Big, exciting speakers have really made certain conferences memorable for me
- Times during the day when there are choices - 3 different discussions happening in 3 different spaces and the participants either get to choose, or are assigned based on some criteria
posted by semacd at 10:33 AM on February 12, 2013

I go to earth science conferences, so there's often an option for field trips to cool local geological features. Not sure if that can be applied to every field, but it's something to consider and it's another chance for attendees to hang out in a less-formal setting.
posted by fermion at 12:07 PM on February 12, 2013

We just did a sales kick off for 80 people and had a really good experience in of all places, Charlotte, NC.

It's a hub, so airfare should be competative.

The Hilton downtown did an exemplary job with A/V and Catering. Can't say enough about it really, above and beyond. The meeting room and breakout rooms were perfect.

The location is pretty good. Across the street is an entertaiment complex, the Epicenter, with lots of restaurants and bowling and Howl at the Moon.

We did an event at Tilt on Trade, a pseudo-dive bar. The staff bent over backwards for us, they have off-site catering that was pretty decent for bar nibblies and the bar was great. We got a karaoke DJ (the less said about my performance the better) and the whole thing was a hoot. It's .30 of a mile from the hotel, so an easy walk if weather permits.

Just a thought. It's not really a destination, per se, but it was a good option for us.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:24 PM on February 12, 2013

Coffee and light refreshments not just at coffee/snack time are nice. (This also fosters chitchat, in the traditional nature of water coolers.) People skip sessions, arrive late and leave early, or feel a pressing desire for more caffeine at odd moments. The most glorious version of this I ever encountered was at a conference in Italy that staffed the break area with multiple baristas, ready to make one an espresso drink of one's choice or a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice, all day long.
posted by redfoxtail at 12:32 PM on February 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

One of my favorite conferences has healthy "to-go" snacks packed up and ready for everyone when we walk out of the closing session. Bottled water, granola bars, trail mix, fruit, etc.

This is specific to the area, but another has a group lunch with an open-mic time where people can come up and share crazy teaching stories from their experiences that year.
posted by bizzyb at 1:48 PM on February 12, 2013

Make sure you your wifi is adequate to support three devices (laptop, ipad, phone) per person.

Hopefully your conference is in a place where people can leave the premises to eat. I go to lots of conferences and *hate* it when I am stuck in the same place for all of my meals, and never see the sun.

Long and frequent coffee breaks for informal interaction.

Long lunches.

Optional field trips to local sites are great!
posted by pizzazz at 2:45 PM on February 12, 2013

I attend (and sometimes run booths at) a fair number of conferences for both professionals and hobbysists in a range of fields, and here is what I have learned.

I am unhappy when:

-I have to hunt outside the conference center for decent coffee, water, and sustenance
-I don't have time to hunt for the above between sessions
-I don't have time to walk between sessions at all without running
-I can't easily find the schedule
-There's nowhere to sit (to network with colleagues and friends, get some emergency work done, call my sweetie, rest my feet) between sessions
-I don't know a single person there and everyone else is already grouped by their workplace/industry/social history

And so I have a great time at, fondly remember, and enjoy returning to conferences that have:

-Decent coffee, water, and snacks available
-Plenty of time between sessions so I don't have to rush
-Scheduled breaks (other than lunch) so I know when I can go out and find coffee/water/food
-A posted schedule plus programs lying around, or a decent schedule app (available for Android as well as iPhone)
-Plenty of seating in the lobby, hallways, etc.
-A few opportunities to get to know other people there and network (but not too many forced icebreakers or other horrid games)
-A party at the end of the first day so people can unwind and get to know each other

I like the ideas above about suggesting a few nearby restaurants in the program so people a) don't have to wander and hunt around what may be an unfamiliar area and b) know that they can run into other conference folks there, creating another opportunity for socialization and networking.

One or two high-quality, tastefully-branded if necessary gifts are nice to have, too, especially as compared to conferences where you leave with a bag full of weird branded junk you probably won't use again. Examples: nice 2gb+ flash drives, nice travel mugs or water bottles, durable tote bags with a handle long enough to carry over the shoulder, microfiber cleaning cloth
posted by rhiannonstone at 2:47 PM on February 12, 2013

My favorite conference does these things really well:

Flex sessions.
This addresses the problem of "the real conference" happening in the hallways. The organizers schedule in some unplanned blocks. As the conference goes on, anyone--with, one hopes, a modicum of some consensus--writes a conference topic into the blank space so everyone can see that at 2:00, there's going to be a repeat of a popular, overcrowded session from earlier that morning. Or maybe there's been a lot of talk in the coffee breaks about taxonomy, and there weren't any formal sessions on that, so a group of people decided to put on an impromptu session about it.

Entire mini conference schedule folded into the back of my nametag, hanging on my lanyard.

One-minute lightning talks on the last day. The very last session, after the closing keynote, is the remaining people who haven't already headed to the airport, standing up and saying things like "And this topic BLEW MY MIND because ubiquitous computing OMG blah blah blah. Thanks, Peter Morville! This is going to be so helpful in my next project!" It fosters a sense of community among conference attendees, provides a way to blow off steam (not all are as glowing as my example), and it gives immediate feedback to conference chairs.

"Birds of a feather" (BOF) lunch.
Tables are marked with pre-ordained topics. Blank placards are also available to set up your own BOF topic table. You can sit anywhere you like and talk about whatever topic interests you. It's an excellent way for newbies and more junior practitioners to learn from experts and speakers and luminaries.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 3:09 PM on February 12, 2013 [4 favorites]

I want to reiterate the idea of helping people get to know each other, without the forced icebreakers and games. Some good ideas above. A few more:
- When it's time for a break/lunch, make it a point to challenge people to not sit with the group they came with but to split up and sit at different tables. I hate to walk into a cafeteria and figure out a place to sit that won't feel like I'm intruding on a clique, but if the instructor told us all to do this, then I feel more comfortable.
- Give each person a card with a color, a letter, a number, an animal, etc on it. For group activities, group people using a different element on the card. First activity would group by color, next one by letter, next by number, etc.
posted by CathyG at 8:39 PM on February 12, 2013

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