Events: Education vs. Networking
Ice cream socials, keynote speakers, exhibit hall cocktails and roundtable discussions. Trade shows and events often attempt a balancing act between filling attendees’ brains with knowledge while also giving them time to network and socialize. When planning an event, it can be difficult to schedule activities to balance rigorous education with a little leisure time.
So how do you find out what your attendees want from your event? The answer is good old-fashioned industry research. Join industry associations, read industry periodicals, network with key industry practitioners and conduct post-event surveys, says ALM senior vice president Stuart Williams. "Anyone with the ability to write a large check can rent the Javits Center," says Williams. "And it is possible, with a great story and an even better sales force, to get exhibitors to rent the space in the expectation of an appropriate audience. However, this is where the real work begins: How do you get the audience to attend? Back to research."
Mixing It Up
The harmony between networking and education depends on certain variables including type of industry, type of event (tradeshow vs. conference) and the seniority level of attendees. Look at your research and listen to alumni to find the best fit. Sponsored or invitation-only events require greater levels of networking to satisfy those paying for the events, says Williams, as do events targeted to mature markets, resort-style events and events with multi-track programs. "Programs aimed at industries where there is not a centralized ‘hub’ of businesses (i.e., the companies making up the industry are fragmented geographically) can benefit from greater networking opportunities," he says.
At b-to-b trade shows and conferences, providing information on trends is what attendees are looking for. Sponsors can also be resources to show attendees how to put these trends into action. "There is nothing that we do that is not rooted in deep education," says Eric Faurot, senior vice president at CMP Technology. "If you’re running any kind of live event and you are not helping your constituencies network, then you are failing them."
But one thing is common for all events: Attendees are coming for face-to-face contact to gain knowledge about their industry, whether they learn it from a peer or a panel. "Attendees want more than just great instructors," says Donna Esposito, director of events at BZ Media. "Networking with peers is definitely a high priority and we have adjusted our program over the years to include more time and opportunities for networking."
For BZ Media, networking events range from big and broad to small and focused, including keynote sessions and receptions. Birds-of-a feather sessions in the evening hours also bring in big crowds that want to have informal but passionate conversations about common issues. And food figures in the mix, too: "We found that using butler-served hors d’oeuvres at receptions is more conducive to conversation than a buffet," says Esposito.
New Breakthroughs, New Challenges
Events are no longer just classroom-setting lecture sessions broken up by turkey sandwiches and coffee breaks. Pleasing both attendees and sponsors through education and socializing sessions can create harmony but can also cause new headaches.
Trade shows are moving more and more toward traditional conference-like education, while still hanging on to their customary networking mission. The result is often called a "confex", a trade show or exhibition surrounded by multiple conferences, according to Williams. "As the vast majority of revenues still come from floor exhibitors it is vital that organizers attract as many decision-makers as possible to the floor as opposed to ‘window shoppers,’" says Williams. "Hence the move toward high-level, content-driven tracks accompanied by ‘bundled’ delegate packages that include access to the conferences, the trade show floor, private events and entertainment where applicable."
At one of its conferences CMP creates a "power pass" program against the sponsor’s customer database to determine which attendees are customers and which are prospects. CMP then creates a separate VIP program with different perks, separate registrations and programs for customers and prospects.
"You have to realize your commitment is first and foremost to your attendees because without them you have no sponsors," says Faurot. "That doesn’t mean they
Magazine readers have long contributed content directly into the pages of magazines. While audience participation is always part of an event, some publishers are looking to take it a step further.
CMP is also moving toward new types of educational and socialization sessions at its upcoming Web 2.0 conference slated for April 2007. In addition to the five or six tracks offered to attendees, it has created an open conference track where the attendees gather on the first day of the conference and write down ideas and issues they would like to discuss on a white board.
The agenda for the next three days is then created from that meeting. The approach fuses education and socialization.
"In the b-to-b world, information is your value so attendees are more interested in learning and understanding trends," says Faurot. "At a big trade show they just want to see that large number of products in one place so they can get a sense of where their industry is going."