How to get people to show up to your event

Chris Bent

Chris is Co-founder and CEO of Piccles

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How to get people to show up to your event

For many associations, their annual conference represented 80-90% of their annual revenues. Virtual events are easier to attend but they just don’t make as much money. And if you ARE able to pull off an in-person event, and it has become even harder to get people to show up.

“We can’t even get people back into an office, much less get on a plane and go across the country for an event.” As Beth Surmont from 360 Live Media so eloquently put it.

The pandemic has given everyone two years to sit at home and meditate on their life. This has resulted in a reorganization of priorities, a great resignation from unfulfilling work, and a higher value on time.

So if you want to get people to book a flight, take a swab up their nose, wear a mask for 8 hours, and wear something that isn’t athleisure to show up to your in-person event, IT BETTER BE GOOD.

You need to provide a ton of value and check all their boxes.

So what are those boxes?

Here’s a breakdown of the primary reasons people are attending your business event:

  • Learn something
  • Sell something
  • Buy something
  • Advance an agenda
  • Build a personal brand

There are also the nice-to-haves like “escape my kids for a few days”, “two martini lunches” and “explore a new city on someone else's dime” which sweeten the deal, but aren’t going to get your boss to approve the expense report.

So what can you do to get butts in seats at your in-person event?

We are valuing our time more than ever these days, so put simply, you get people to show up when they believe it will be the best use of their time.

Learn something 🔮

Our attention spans are shit: It is HARD to pay attention to a 45-minute talk without checking your phone. Keeping talks to 20 minutes will keep more energy and attention. You can go longer with a panel discussion which has multiple voices and and audience Q&A, but consider the balance between education and entertainment. And try out some different formats:

Conversation-driven sessions - a long table with attendees split into groups to collaborate and discuss so they can learn from each other.

Fireside chats - no slides, no stage, just pull up chairs around an expert to talk in a more intimate, conversational format.

Rapid fire themed sessions - Invite many speakers to jump on stage for 5-15 minutes each to add their unique perspective around a broad topic like “sustainability in events” or “are hotdogs sandwiches”

Sell something 💎

As a supplier of event technology, we have been to events where it seems to be ALL suppliers. It sucks. And I feel bad for the buyers as they are trying to do their own thing and have authentic connections while being treated like the last tuna in a school of sharks.

When selling something, it’s all about who else will be there, and the best way of knowing this is to set those appointments ahead of time.

Shifting trade shows to an appointment / meeting type model will help justify the time to your boss and provide the foundation for a productive use of time. Serendipitous meetings should be nice to have, not a requirement for success.

Buyer/supplier speed dating, public pitch competitions and a consciously created show floorplan can all be ways of building in more value for attendees looking to sell something.

Buy something 💸

Being in-person can allow buyers to supercharge their plans by meeting many suppliers in a short period of time. A well organized show floor can help them make the most of their time as they walk through rows of potential products and services to help their business.

Suppliers are the primary source of revenue for the in-person event, but that dries up fast without buyers, so you need to remove all friction for the buyer to get there.

  1. Sponsored buyers - First started by IMEX, suppliers can sponsor buyers to cover their hotel, travel, etc. and in return, have them at a few meetings and dinners.
  2. Exclusive launches - Technologists attend CES to see the latest and greatest. Hype up what buyers can expect that they won’t be able to see anywhere else.
  3. Product showcases - Collect a product sample from each supplier and arrange into one beautiful display with booth numbers next to the item. Suppliers will appreciate the greater visibility and buyers will like seeing everything in one space. After the show, these can be used for freebies or raffles (with suppliers permission of course). Everybody loves free samples.

Advance an agenda 🌱

You are passionate about saving whales, want more people need to know about the gestation period of fruit flies or think the future of events is hybrid.

Whatever it is, in-person events are the best opportunities to socialize and evangelize your ideas.

How can you help people advance their agenda at your in-person event?

  1. Badge swag - Create little ribbons or stickers that people can wear on their badges and visibly share their passions and connect with relevant others.
  2. Share the mic - A community pitch stage with a changing theme every hour let’s attendees get their message out there and attract a tribe. Innovators will love this as a way of socializing their businesses and ideas to strengthen them and find collaborators.
  3. Make space - IMEX Las Vegas this year launched a People & Planet pavilion where organizations related to the events industry were invited to share their initiatives improving the world. Piccles was invited to do a “Draw a tree, plant a tree” activation which resulted in a digital forest and 1,000 trees being planted for a real forest. Watch the recap video here.

Build a personal brand 🚀

  1. Unconference format - make everyone a decisionmaker and a thought leader at your conference. This is more manageable for events under 100 people. Instead of an agenda, attendees share on post-its what they want to learn and what they can teach. Organizers then spend the night matching interest to experts, and create a schedule with 2-3 concurrent conversations facilitated by the expert. This invites participation
  2. Networking - It’s no news that networking is one of the primary reasons people attend your event. Without meeting and connecting with others, buying things, selling things and advancing agendas becomes impossible. Building in moments of connection into your event will add a ton of value, and make a more welcoming environment for first time attendees. When I attended C2 Montreal, 80% of my time was spent on Braindates having 1 on 1 conversations. The digital technology facilitated the in-person connection. You can also try special badges highlighting a first timer, networking lounges and themed tables for impromptu, themed discussions. Group runs, activities and delightful experiences that get people doing something together help facilitate faster connection. Most people attending your in-person event already know “Your network is your net work” so the more people they meet and meaningfully connect with, the more valuable your event becomes.
  3. Let people leave their mark - everyone has a deep desire to be seen and heard - acknowledged as an individual while feeling part of the larger group. Simple experiences that let people leave their creative flourish in a public space go a long way. This could be a selfie wall, well advertised conference hashtag #, draw your logo on a digital wall, live t-shirt designing and printing...anything that lets people leave their mark.

In conclusion 🎟

  1. As long as this pandemic remains a threat It’s going to be harder than ever to get people to show up in person at your event. Open bars and goodie bags don’t cut it anymore.
  2. Consciously create AND ADVERTISE all of the value drivers for your potential audience that can’t be accomplished online (buy, sell, learn, build, advance)
  3. Be creative - organization and enthusiasm are all that’s needed for many of these ideas. Since your attendees will care most about these value drivers, they also make great sponsorship opportunities to mitigate any potential costs.

Next, we’ll talk about the dreaded H word - Hybrid Events. Why you hate them, why they’re so expensive, and what you can do to maximize the benefit of a global audience, intimacy of an in-person experience, and feel like you’re only planning one event.

Thanks for reading 🥒

Chris 🙂