1. Focus on the strategic and education design of the conference first. What are the goals of the event? How do we provide a memorable, unique, and remarkable experience? Think strategic first. Then proceed to the logistics and details of the event.

2. Think holistically about the attendee experience.
 Put the attendee first. What can we do to upgrade the attendee experience? If it fits with the goal of the event, how can we create a unique, themed experience from the first marketing piece to the post-event reflections? How can attendees help create the experience? Think of Disney, Starbucks, and Las Vegas, which all have experiential elements. Stay away from hokey themes. What “wow” factors can we employ?

3. Shake up the traditional conference format.
 Do all presentations have to happen at the front of the room? What about using multiple small stages throughout the room? What about in-the-round setups? Think about the music you’ll use for walk-ins and walkouts. Consider the décor as it affects the experience. Provide opportunities for attendees to learn without walls and customize their experience to their own needs.

4. Include money in the budget for quality speakers.
 At a minimum, conference organizers must cover conference registration, lodging, travel, and expenses for speakers. Stop asking professional speakers to present for free. Write incentives into speaker contracts. If the speaker scores 80 to 90 percent favorable from attendees according to your evaluation process, give them a bonus. If they score 91 to 100 percent favorable, give them a higher bonus. You get the picture. Put the burden of the speaking performance back on the speaker. They’ll either live up to the job or stop asking for fees to speak.

5. Choose your topics before you choose your speakers.
 What trends are affecting attendees? Identify the niche groups in your audience and topics that will attract each. Think about advanced topics too. Choose the topics first, then find speakers to meet those topics. Don’t depend on the call for proposals to provide you with the best speakers or best topics. Search for the right speakers and current thought leaders. Talk to those thought leaders and ensure that they know how to present using good adragogy (adult-learning techniques). Once topics are chosen, think of ways to extend that content by providing basic and foundational content through webinars and blog posts before the event. Then provide advanced content on site.

6. What is the best education design possible for a Web 2.0 world? Is this conference only about those attending the face-to-face event? Or do you need to engage a larger community including virtual attendees? What social elements can you add to the conference to extend the community experience? Should you provide a genius bar, free Wi-Fi, a bloggers’ lounge? View the face-to-face conference as one touchpoint within a larger eco-system of the community experience.

7. Vary the delivery of presentations. Intentionally structure vertical, monologue, and one-way presentations and then provide facilitated conversations about that content. When choosing panels, choose experienced moderators who can keep the discussion flowing. Create horizontal, networked learning with peer-facilitated sessions. Provide plenty of adult “white space” to allow attendees to digest information and connect with each other.

Source: Jeff Hurt, director, education & engagement, Velvet Chainsaw Consulting, jhurt@velvetchainsaw.com