Too often the event is a giant commercial or an ego stroke for senior executives. While customers attend, the experience is not an "industry happening". Too often people attend out of obligation instead of a strong desire to be present at the event. (You want people inside your customer's organization fighting to be the ones who get to attend: "I want to go"...."NO! Send me... I want to go!!!).
As budgets got tighter over the last few years some organizations saw the attendance diminish at their conferences, or they stopped holding their events. Meanwhile, other companies have seen an uptick at there users events during the recession.
The difference? Is the event a "Wow" or a "Cow"?
Characteristics of an event that is a "Cow":
1. Too much stage time is dedicated to reports about the host company. While your clients want you to be successful, they are more concerned with their own bottom line. If you are pontificating about your products, services, or profits..... you lose.
2. Too long or too short. Finding the right time frame for a conference schedule is important. If the event is too short people will gain little ROI from the investment of the time and money needed to travel to the event. The same is true if the event is too long. People want content, but they also bore easily. Planning an event is more than just filling slots, there must be a purpose to the entire schedule.
3. All content, no style. Many people argue when planning events for the data that will be delivered to the audience. They seek smart people who have done cool things to speak, but they put value on the skills necessary to present to an audience. Just because someone is smart or has done something cool - it does not mean they belong on your stage. There should not be a discussion of content vs. style... you need both in every presentation. It is not too much to ask for speakers who will educate and inspire an audience.
Characteristics of an event that is a "Wow":
1. There are appealing aesthetics in every aspect of the event. You need to have design elements online, in printed materials (including the name tags), and on-site at the event. Too often companies throw up a website, print a dull brochure, and have nothing on the stage but a lectern. We live in a time where everyone expects something more than pipe-in-drape stages, etc.... While these design elements take additional investments, to ignore them means failure. Blah sucks.
2. Celebrate the audience, not the host company. It is clear to everyone when the whole event focused on the attendees (clients). Make the purpose of networking for those in the audience to meet each other, not for your sales people to corner their clients. Everyone in the company should be educated about what it means to be the "hosts" of the event, and then everyone (regardless of job title) needs to behave as the "hosts".
3. Fun. When people have a good mix of learning and fun they are more likely to come back the following year. Humans are experiential beings, and when you can create an environment where people share an experience, they will have a better time. "Wow" events make all aspects of the attendees experience a priory. A successful "users conference" does not happen by accident.
If you would like to read more.... I have put an 8-page essay "How to Create an Atmosphere for Better Networking" on Slideshare.net.
Have A Great Day.
Thom Singer is known as "The Conference Catalyst". He works with meeting planners and conference organizers to set the tone for a meeting. His presentations educate, inspire and motivate attendees to engage deeper in the event and make meaningful connections. http://www.conferencecatalyst.com