When planning a business meeting, conference, or other professional event, attendance is a key benchmark of success. You want to attract enough guests to fill seats, satisfy expectations, and make the event a financial success. Participants want to learn new information and interact with peers and leaders in their field.
Increasing attendance and attracting the right people to an event doesn't happen by accident. The most successful meetings go beyond star-studded keynotes and inspiring presentations to create a professional, valuable, friendly environment for everyone. This process starts in the initial stages of planning.
Create a Strong Agenda
The agenda of your event is the first thing attendees will look at when deciding whether or not to participate. Choose a strong central theme to anchor your event, then structure workshops, panels, keynotes, and other parts of the agenda to provide valuable and varied content within that theme.
When setting your agenda, consider the needs of both attendees and presenters. Leave plenty of time for breaks and meals, and organize the day around the big events that you want everyone to attend.
If you will have multiple workshops or panel discussions at once, space out events headed by your main speakers so everyone has a chance to hear them.
Even with the best agenda and most interesting keynote speakers, logistics are going to impact your attendance. Keep in mind the needs of both your attendees and your industry when planning dates, times, and locations for your event.
- How long is your event, and how local are the attendees? Short events can happen during the workday or immediately after. Multi-day events may need to be planned over a weekend.
- Are there busy seasons in your industry or popular events that have already been established? Plan your event during a time that will have less competition for attendance.
- Will attendees need to travel or stay overnight? Pick a location convenient to lodging, airports, or other means of travel. Look into negotiating a reduced hotel rate for attendees, either where the event is being hosted or close by.
- Where are you hosting the event? If it is at your business, you'll need to plan for seating, food, and parking. If it is at a hotel or convention center, pick a location with experience planning similar events.
If you are hoping to establish an annual or repeated event, be sensitive to the needs of attendees as you plan your logistics. Making the event easy to attend and establish a reputation for both starting and finishing on time.
Use Marketing Techniques
Treat your event like any other part of your business and develop a marketing mix to use for publicity and promotion.
- Identify your target audience. Who are the ideal attendees for your event? What do they care about? Can anyone in the industry attend, or only those you invite personally? Are you trying to connect individuals of similar rank and experience, or attract attendees at different points in their careers?
- Establish concrete benchmarks. How large will your event be? How many attendees do you want? What goals are you trying to achieve?
- Develop a marketing mix. Create a plan for promoting your event based on your target audience and event goals. Will you advertise openly, either online or in trade magazines? Use search engine optimization to drive people to the event website? Send out only personal invitations to a select list of guests?
How you generate interest will depend on the size and scope of your event. But no matter how large it is or who your target audience, using traditional marketing and sales techniques can help you increase attendance.
One of the keys to achieving great attendance to your event is by inviting people early and following up. An invitation schedule could include:
- Invite and confirm any keynote presenters or panel speakers as early as possible in the planning process.
- Mention the event to guests you (or your team) know personally before sending invites.
- Send a paper or electronic save-the-date to individuals or organizations that you hope will attend.
- Send paper or electronic invitations, including agenda highlights and special guests, with an RSVP request.
- Forward the detailed invitation again with a personalized note to colleagues or acquaintances that you know.
- Follow up with invitees who haven't yet sent in an RSVP one month before the event.
- Send an event confirmation to attendees one week before the scheduled event (electronic or over the phone, depending on the number of attendees).
- Follow up after the event via email to invite feedback or announce any upcoming events that attendees might also be interested in.
Send Out Personal Invitations
No matter who your target audience is, extending personal invitations can be a valuable way to secure attendees and generate excitement about your event. Guests who receive personal invitations are more likely to RSVP yes, even if they don't yet know you or your organization.
Send a physical invitation accompanied by either a personal note or phone call to friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, as well as high-profile guests that you don't know but hope will attend.
For some events, it can help to share this responsibility. The guest list of an event is often compiled from contact lists that are maintained by a variety of individuals, and those individuals with the closest relationships to the invitees should extend a direct invitation to their own guests.
If you are planning a large symposium or convention with hundreds of attendees, inviting everyone personally won't be feasible. But when planning larger events, even a few personal invitations can go a long way. Identify major players in your industry who you want to network with or who might raise the profile of your event, then reach out by phone or email.
Follow Up and Thank Attendees
Many attendees appreciate receiving additional handouts, presentation slides, recommended reading, or other materials that may have been referenced by presenters. The follow-up is an excellent opportunity to share that information, extend thank you messages to those who attended, and begin publicizing any additional events you have planned for the future.
Follow-up emails and mailings are also an excellent time to solicit feedback about your event through an online survey, mailed form, or email comments. For example:
- Did attendees feel that the material covered in the presentations and keynotes matched their expectations?
- Did the event provide valuable opportunities for networking or learning?
- Did the event meet guests' expectations?
- Where was there room for improvement?
- What did attendees think was the most important takeaway from the event?
- Would they attend a similar event in the future?
This sort of feedback can help you understand where your event succeeded and where it fell short, which allows you to improve your planning process for any future meetings or conferences.