"First Timer Receptions" at most conferences come up short of amazing. The true purpose of hosting a special gathering of first year attendees is often forgotten behind the selection of finger-foods and the placement of the bar. In the end these parties are usually not usually exciting for anyone.
Opportunities to impact the conference attendee experience are usually found in the simplest places. Those of us in the meetings industry are often seeking ways to reinvent conferences with alternative meeting formats (which can be great), with the hope of delivering something unique and memorable. Sometimes the shaking up of our existing formats can be done with ease and still create that "wow factor" we seek.
Several associations have recently asked me about how they can breathe new life into their "First Timer's Reception". This has lead to some of the most fun conversations I have ever had in this business. It is fun to chat with organizers who are excited to try new things.
When people have a positive experience at an event they often look for reasons to come back year-over-year. They also tell their friends and encourage them to attend. Getting people excited in year one has a lasting impact. You do not get a second chance to make a first impression.
It is more complicated than ever to spur human-to-human engagement at live events (they are often focused away from the event via mobile technology) and this leaves first timers out in the cold. Those who have long-term contacts at an event tend to look up from their phones only long enough to socialize with those they already know. Cliques are a problem in most organizations, and they are the elephant in the room. But when all we can do is throw together newcomers without a plan we are creating new cliques for next year.
Brainstorming ideas with your team and vendors is paramount to finding the best options for your event. Vendors, sponsors, and speakers see dozens of events a year (if not hundreds), and can help identify new concepts that can be used in your own agenda.
Each event is different, so there is no simple formula, but below are seven ideas that may spark some discussion for your next conference:
6 Ideas for the "First Timers Reception"
1. It is not just for "First Timers". There is no reason your reception has to only include the newcomers. When it is positioned for the "First Timers Only" it can give off the vibe of being the "Kids Table" at a family Thanksgiving. By stating that 1st year attendees need a special place to network, it can create false walls within your community. Make the new attendees the stars of the show and invite and engage the more well known members of the conference society to participate. This will undercut the vibe of a hierarchy. If your VIP's behave in away that says "this is important", it will be amazing. If they blow it off to go to the bar with their clique, everyone will know it.
2. Have a speaker. Do not just have anyone address this group. Often a senior staff member or a board member does an "Info 101" session, and rarely are these talks interesting. Instead, get a speaker for the event that can set the tone for the whole conference. Yes, this may cost some money, but "First Timers" are your future, and worth the investment. Another idea is to ask your morning keynote speaker to do an special talk at this event the night before their speech. It should be different from their keynote (but most speakers have several talks). When this is done right it will set up what is to come in the main event and build excitement. Many people enjoy meeting the speakers, and having a smaller intimate party where that is possible will have positive impact. Many speakers will happily add on another talk for little or no additional fee. If your keynoter is not an option, get one of your breakout speakers to be the featured presenter.
3. Host a "Human Library". This idea is becoming a popular alternative style session at events. The idea is that industry experts volunteer to be "checked out" for 15-30 minutes for short conversations. The attendees sign up for these live chats that can be one-to-one or small groups (do not let people sign up in advance, as on-site will encourage an on-time arrival and keep anyone from having priority). By putting this into the "First Timer's Reception" it creates a special perk for the newcomers, as they get to ask question of the most experienced and influential people in the organization or industry.
4. Provide high-quality and useful gift. Shirts with the conference logo for the first timers sends a message that they are special. People appreciate nice things, but hate the cheap stuff. Be sure if you have a gift that it is not crap. Get a nice Polo shirt or other item that people would want to wear or use after the event. You can even have the people sign up in advance for their size and give them an "opt-out" option so you are not wasting an expensive gift on those who are not interested.
5. Make it an experience. There is no rule that says the "First Timers Reception" has to be in the hotel ballroom or other free conference space. Take them off-site to a local venue that will add to their experience. It does not even have to be a reception. Indoor sky-diving or GoCart racing will be something everyone will always remember. Many organizers cringe at the thought of anything that is not done on the cheap, but if that is your motivation your results will be a direct reflection.
6. Do not host a reception and then forget the First Timers exist. To make the inaugural experience at your conference really special there is more to it than a party. Highlight and honor these new attendees all throughout your event. Make it clear to the whole group that those who are new are the future of the organization and the paramount to the success of the conference.
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