Post authored by De-de Mulligan, President, Chief Content Strategist, Mulligan Management Group.
One of the most effective ways to ensure the long-term health of your event is to convert first-time guests into loyal, life-long fans. But you can’t do that until you see the event experience through their perspective.
Imagine this scenario: you walk into the opening reception of a large conference, and quickly realize you don’t know a soul. You pick up your nametag from an unmanned table and head to the bar in hopes that you will see someone familiar or a conversation will ensue while standing in the long line.
You see people hugging and conversing all around you.
Everyone seems to know each other.
The room gets louder by the minute. From what you can hear, many are catching up on each other’s lives in the year between this annual convention.
Once you have your glass of wine, you realize no one has uttered a word to you in the 20 minutes you’ve been in the room.
Quickly downing your drink, you head back to your hotel room with the hopes tomorrow will lead to a more connected conference experience.
We’ve all had this experience at one time or another, am I right?
It’s awkward, uncomfortable, and leaves people feeling isolated. This is not how your first-time guests should feel.
Even if you’re planning your 25th annual conference and most guests return year-after-year, you’ll hopefully always have first-time guests.
Typically, articles like these list helpful and encouraging tips. However, we’re taking a different route. Pessimistic as it may seem, we’re looking at what not to do to achieve retention (unless, of course, you don’t want people coming back).
Here are five sure-fire ways to alienate newbies and push them away—and five ideas to help you avoid doing so.
Guaranteed Ways to Miss the Mark with First-Time Guests
#1. After they register, but before the conference, please keep them in the dark.
Don’t thank them for registering and don’t share with them anything they might experience. The less information guests know, the better.
Walk this way instead: Send them a personalized message from your organization’s CEO or Executive Director, thanking them for registering. Share what they might expect, the schedule of events, and suggest which breakout sessions they will get the most significant benefit. Please encourage them to call/text/email you with any questions.
#2. Upon arrival, let them fend for themselves.
Leave nametags in the corner. Don’t put out any signage. Make parking a mystery. Let them ask other guests a series of uncomfortable questions that leave them feeling ignorant about the venue and event.
Walk this way instead: Assign a mentor to each new guest. Greet each participant at various touchpoints – from the registration table to the beginning of each session.
If you or your team members see someone standing by themselves, make it a point to go over and start a conversation or connect them to other guests. Create an exclusive networking event for them and their mentors before the conference begins.
#3. Let everyone sit anywhere at meals and don’t allow for special requests.
Most new people tend to sit by themselves or with other newbies, let them fend for themselves when it comes to connecting over a meal. Also, making sure everyone eats the same meal—regardless of dietary restrictions—will help you keep costs down.
Walk this way instead: Balance the tables with an even blend of new and returning guests. Allow them to learn from one another and share their various insights.
Since we are now in a vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, organic, and allergy-filled society, ask guests what they want to eat and work with your catering manager to deliver on their requests.
#4. Keep all networking time unstructured.
Guests have enough structure throughout the convention. Give them free rein over their networking time to connect with people they know, making it especially awkward for first-time guests who don’t know anyone.
Walk this way instead: Provide some structured networking sessions. Here’s one idea: provide tabletop topics about interests or challenges in your industry. Keep each table to 8-10 people and allow discussion on that topic for 30 minutes. When time’s up, have guests switch to another table and start over again.
#5. Don’t follow up…ever.
What’s the point? You have their money, so it doesn’t matter what they thought about your event. By all means, don’t ask them what was helpful or how you could improve.
Walk this way instead: Within a week of the event’s closing, call each first-time guest and thank them for taking the time to attend your conference.
Ask them for direct feedback about meeting their expectations and ways you can make your event better. Inquire if they will attend next year.
If they hesitate or say no, try and turn the situation around then and there.
Bottom Line on First-Time Guests Becoming Returning Ones
Creating a warm, welcoming, and helpful environment for first-time guests is the key to get them coming back next year. While it may take extra time and effort on your part, it can and WILL pay dividends in the years to come, all because you put yourself in their shoes.
Who knows? Play your cards right, and they can become a mentor and evangelist your conference needs.
What have you experienced that turns off first-time event visitors? On the flip side, how do you continue to delight them? Share your thoughts with us in the comments section below.
De-de Mulligan is the President and Chief Content Strategist for Mulligan Management Group.
As a former meeting planner who has received Ohio MPI’s Planner of the Year award twice (2006 & 2012), she brings a unique perspective to these blog posts as an experience meeting planner and blogger in the industry.