Putting together a strategy for a corporate event can be intimidating, even in the best of times. The past few years have certainly made event planning even more complicated — especially with the global coronavirus pandemic, technological advancements for meetings, and increased competition for events. In the midst of all the elements of planning, it can be easy to overlook the goals of an event.
We can help you break through the chaos of event planning to focus on what matters most. Our years of experience helping industry leaders conceptualize and manage successful events has allowed us to create our own proven, concrete approach to corporate event planning. We’re sharing our tips with you in a two-part blog series.
In this post, we’ll cover how to determine your agenda and goals, create your overall message, and how to keep attendees engaged throughout the event.
Our second post in the series digs deeper into the individual presentations and how to make them engaging for your audience.
Build your team
Successful corporate event planning is a team effort, so finding the right team is essential. You’ll need to break down planning into phases, plus engage with subject matter experts and key stakeholders throughout each phase.
Early on, you’ll need a team who can develop a common strategy and objectives, during the preparation phase you’ll need messaging and tactical experts, and as the event gets closer, engage with those who execute and manage logistics, as well as marketing and sales for lead generation. After the event, you’ll work closely with your data team to measure and evaluate the various elements of the conference.
Regardless of which team you assemble, attention to detail is crucial for each member to pull off a successful event.
Determine your agenda and goals
As you build out an agenda for you event, think first about four pillars of any event: a welcome/kickoff, an opening keynote, a celebration, and a closing keynote.
As you think about each of these event hallmarks, when done successfully each use emotion to evoke a connection among attendees and help them remember their experience in the years to come.
- A welcome or kickoff event can set the tone for the event and capture your audience’s attention. Whether it’s an in-person reception with food and live entertainment, a virtual one with opportunities to network online, or some hybrid of those two, start out on a high note with your attendees.
- An opening keynote speaker should inform and entertain. If you want to maintain high energy throughout your event, you want an exciting speaker who can also communicate a distinct point of view that’s relevant to your event topic and/or industry. These requirements will look different depending on if the event is virtual or in person.
- Attendees are often joining the conference for entertainment as well as work. If the event is in person you could bring in local musicians, artists, storyteller, or dancers for a fun evening celebration. For those looking for low-key socializing, many multi-day events organize a morning yoga class or a walk/run. Online events could also broadcast entertainment, break down groups into virtual games, or bring on a well-known celebrity or comedian.
- For your closing keynote, focus on selling attendees to come back for a future event by leaving them inspired and engaged. They will hopefully return for the next event … and bring along friends and colleagues.
Company or organizational goals
As part of the planning process, you and the team will want to set goals for the conference and clearly communicate them to attendees, so they know what to expect. The goals for the conference should align with your company or organization’s overall strategic goals, but should also be relevant to the people who have paid to attend. People will be more likely to be satisfied, return to future events and will be more productive in breakout sessions. Identifying goals early can also help with the planning process because it gives you a single source of truth when making key decisions later when it comes to content, marketing, sales, and presentations.
In addition to developing your event goals, make sure you take the time to contextualize your goals for the audience, ensuring the topic is relevant for the target audience. Every time you touch upon your event’s message, make sure it’s either highlighting your key points from a new angle, offering additional insight, or providing actionable ways to live the message.
While it’s essential to keep corporate or organizational goals in mind when planning an event, it’s equally as important to consider attendee goals. Your event was compelling enough to get attendees to register and plan to attend, but you must try to live up to those expectations in the form of a quality experience.
Plus, if you want your attendees to come back for future events, you want to meet their objectives and make it memorable. Everyone is different, but through our experience planning and executing corporate events, most people are looking to do some combination of the following: learn something new, stay up to date on trends, network and meet new people, generate leads for their organization, or learn about new companies and solutions.
Not sure which of those is most important to your attendees? Or if they have different goals entirely? When in doubt, ask them! You can get creative with gathering attendee feedback before, during and after the event. Many software tools exist to help collective feedback from attendees in an interactive way.
Some ideas for gathering feedback that we love:
- Quick informal polls: As an ice breaker for transitions in between sessions, use word cloud or poll tools to ask why attendees are at the event, what they hope to get out of a session, what motivates them in their field or role, or what they miss most about in-person events (if virtual).
- Break surveys: During scheduled breaks send out quick surveys about favorite snacks or other lighthearted information. Use those breaks to ask for immediate feedback, since it should be easy to adjust on the fly.
- Encourage feedback on social media: An online event offers the chance to reduce barriers among speakers and attendees. Encourage tweets or direct messages and make sure speakers understand their responsibility to reply and bring ideas and questions back to the larger group.
How to use feedback to help your attendees meet their objectives:
- Use surveys to connect people: During registration or using surveys at the event, ask questions that allow you to accommodate people or bring like-minded individuals together, then provide different experiences for interest groups. You could separate people by areas of interest, job title, years in the field, interest in mentoring, or even a need for quiet contemplation during full-day events.
- Incorporate feedback quickly: Use all the knowledge you’ve gathered in your follow-up, so your thank you or pitch is relevant to participants’ needs, interests, or timeline.
- Use surveys to improve your next event: Some feedback will be tough to implement on the fly, but consider interesting ideas for a future event. If attendees are looking for more opportunities to network informally with other attendees, set up a dedicated meeting space. If people are asking for time to connect with vendors, find ways to incorporate sponsors into the main events rather than separating them into a vendor hall.
Choosing your event type
We all live in a world where concerns about COVID exist in some form, and with safety recommendations and regulations constantly changing, the biggest question is often: what type of event should we have? We recommend asking the following questions as you plan to make the best decision for your organization. Check out our full blog post on this topic.
1. Do you have the capacity to deal with contactless interactions throughout an entire in-person event? At what cost?
People’s standards are EXTREMELY high for contactless experiences at in-person events; a recent study showed that 82% of people expect much of their life to involve contactless experiences in 2021 and beyond. Can you meet or exceed their expectations, using QR codes, pre-registration, contactless payment, pre-arranged seating charts, safe food handling, socially distanced networking, outstanding tech, AND human support for any problems? If not, go virtual.
2. Is your market tech savvy or is it inherently tactile?
From kindergarteners to senior citizens, we’ve all learned how to have meetings, celebrations, conferences, and even funerals online. But that doesn’t mean it’s your target audience’s preferred choice. Is it essential that attendees interact in person? Are your products inherently tactile? If the answers are yes, your target audience is deeply invested in having in-person experiences and will probably find ways to get to your event. However, if the answers are no, if your targets are comfortable with technology — or if they tend to keep to themselves at conferences — then you can confidently offer them a great virtual experience instead.
3. How big is your event?
Creating distance learning for 10,000 people is a lot harder than for 1,000. So size alone may be a determining factor. But if your target size is huge and your event will be in person, consider segmenting them. Maybe you can offer live options to one subset, but virtual options to others. Or split your event into several targeted, smaller events, to reduce fears about gathering in large numbers.
4. Can you require COVID-19 vaccinations?
Make sure that your vaccination policy is clear and that your protocols can be easily viewed by potential participants. You don’t want anyone to be surprised or confrontational at the door of your event. And have a plan in place for what you will do if someone shows up and refuses to show proof of vaccination; again, make sure that plan is clearly stated on all your marketing and registration materials.
5. What kind of social interactions, speaker-attendee opportunities, and sponsorship benefits do you want to offer? What is the cost to do that virtually versus in person?
Consider what you’ve offered in the past, or what you hope to offer this year, and consider the response by your target audience. Did what you offered in previous years generate lots of leads or conversations? Then stick with the in-person formula you know works. If the response was mediocre, you’ve got little to lose by trying something new and shifting online … and maybe a ton to gain.
Planning for each event type
Each event type has its pros and cons, but once you’ve chosen your route, it’s important to optimize the event based on the unique challenges of each type.
As an event planner, your job is to embody a quote from British actor Michael Caine: “Be like a duck. Calm on the surface, but always paddling like the dickens underneath.” This is certainly true as pandemic restrictions and concerns have changed throughout 2021 and 2022. Our three biggest guidelines:
1. Plan for the worst, unlike ever before
- You’ll have to track the latest information about COVID-19, including how travel restrictions or other concerns affect not just your event, but all of the places your participants are traveling from.
- Start with agreement among your team and the venue about who will be your authoritative source of information, whether it is the CDC, World Health Organization, or a state or city entity.
- You will also need an in-depth understanding of the infrastructure of the event space. This includes information about air filtration, food preparation, safe-distance room set up and movement of people, and cleaning and sanitation protocols.
- Determine what you will require in terms of masking or certification from speakers, vendors, and participants, and what you will do if someone doesn’t comply. Make that information clear in all registration materials.
2. Plan for different scenarios
- Have a contingency plan for the worst situation, like an outbreak at your event or a new variant. Create a crisis communications team and make sure everyone understands the chain of command.
- Brainstorm at least two or three different scenarios, based on the experiences we’ve all lived through since the 2020 coronavirus crisis began.
- Create fully fleshed out plans for what you’ll do if the unexpected happens
3. Plan to support your attendees
Many people are traumatized by the events surrounding the pandemic. Psychologists and social scientists warn that people are struggling to readjust to in-person social interactions. Expect awkwardness and discomfort as we continue to re-enter the world and attend in-person events.
- Can you provide emotional reinforcement or recovery experiences for your participants, whether that’s guided stretching or meditation, art or music therapy, or quiet zones to calm overstimulated nerves?
- During the registration process, ask participants if they have concerns or special needs. At the event itself, tell them what resources are available if they are struggling or uncomfortable.
- Participants will have to adjust to a new way of conferencing, with much less close contact and fewer opportunities for informal networking. You may need more staff on-hand to deal with immediate needs at the event.
Check out the full blog for more details on planning in-person events in 2021 and beyond.
So how do you make your virtual event stand out — and be worth the cost — when your target audience has recently enjoyed content for free? How to leave attendees happy with their experience.
1. Replicate the physical
- If there’s a location people associate with your event, start with a nod to that. If not, orient them to your business with a quick video tour or show the faces of your staff with a note about their interests or skills.
- Allocate time for an ice breaker every time you shift between experiences; many people need to warm up to the idea of talking or reacting. If your group is smaller, encourage people to share something personal, like a favorite place to travel or best local restaurant.
- Accept that people will lose focus or walk away from most online events. Give explicit permission to turn off cameras and microphones but remind them if there are specific times when the devices need to be on for group conversations.
- Don’t forget to add branding elements to meeting rooms and the background of speakers’ screens, so the tone and style are consistent
2. What are your attendees getting from the experience?
- The experience will certainly be different from an in-person event, but the learning can be just as robust in a virtual event. Be clear about what customers and prospects will gain by attending and make sure you deliver on it.
- Be ruthless when developing your budget. Virtual events can cost even more to produce. Make sure you know the real costs. If registration fees do not cover the start-up costs of creating a virtual event, is that a loss you’re willing to bear?
- Thoroughly outline the agenda. Just like in-person events, people will look for times when they can step away to network or do their job. But a virtual event offers a great opportunity: people can very easily jump in and out of sessions. Encourage people take advantage of this, but gently remind them what they’ll miss if they don’t stick around for an entire presentation.
- Use your confirmation email to remind participants what technology or apps are needed for the best experience. No one wants to frantically download as an event is starting.
3. Personalize and accommodate
- Provide different experiences for different kinds of attendees. You could separate people by areas of interest, job title, years in the field, interest in mentoring, or even a need for quiet contemplation during full-day events.
- Online events should accommodate as many needs as possible. Closed captioning should be standard. Consider live translation into your region’s secondary languages. Explore best practices to exceed ADA compliance.
- Use all the knowledge you’ve gathered in your follow-up, so your thank you or pitch is relevant to participants’ needs, interests, or timeline.
4. Don’t forget your sponsors
- Virtual events offer massive potential for repetition and high visibility.
- Start by asking your sponsors what they want from a virtual event. What about a video tour or other experience that wouldn’t be possible if people were at a convention center? Or a special sponsor time when participants can watch a live video feed to see a product or service in real-world use?
Looking for more info on virtual events? Check out the entire blog on this topic.
Hybrid events generally refer to a trade show, conference, seminar, or workshop that combines both elements of an in-person and virtual event. Growing in popularity, hybrid events are a creative way to include more people to attend who may have budgetary, health, or safety reasons for not traveling.
We’ve developed five tips to help you has you plan a hybrid event for your organization.
1. Ensure learning goals are top of mind
- Be clear about the goals of your event and the benefits to attendees.
- Show how the goals are relevant to their current problems and your industry’s emerging issues.
- Provide highlights that attendees can share with their supervisor and colleagues
2. Incorporate networking
- Find ways to open conversations among attendees. Love them or fear them, ice breakers are critical to helping people do this kind of networking.
- Use badges (either virtual or actual) to allow people to self-identify or self-categorize, and then bring those groups together.
- Encourage and share DMs, tweets, and Instagram posts. Reward people who share with a giveaway or discount.
3. Set the bar high for interactive experiences
- No matter what your budget, you’ve got to provide a virtual experience that feels professional, minimizes the potential for technological glitches, and maximizes flexibility.
- The solution may include a mix of live and pre-produced content or an investment in high-quality visuals
4. Don’t be surprised when attendees drift in and out of the event
- Expect people to drift. Unlike a live event, there’s no awkwardness if someone walks out of a virtual presentation. Use this to your benefit.
- Encourage people to create their best experiences. Point out any presentations that include small breakout groups, so people know it’s important to stay. If you can, show how many registrants are at each presentation; we’ve all joined what we thought was a large event only to stare into a handful of faces when we’re unprepared to talk.
- Make events on-demand so that people can attend whenever it fits their schedule.
5. Everything is possible for potential speakers and attendees
- Think BIG about who can speak at your event and who might attend.
- Is there a niche market for your content that you’ve always dreamed of tapping? Or a speaker you’ve dreamed of inviting?
- Time zones and travel budgets are less relevant, so make your most optimistic asks.
Want to create your own hybrid event? Our blog on the topic can give you more info on building one.
Developing overall event messaging and themes
Once you’ve determined your team, agenda, goals, and event type, next you can determine your event’s central message, keeping your company and audience goals in mind. Once you have your message set, help make it relevant through the speakers, topics, and activities. Lastly, find a memorable way to close the event, hopefully leaving your audience inspired by your content.
- Create a central message
- Humanize your event
- Inspire and surprise attendees
- Leave a lasting impression
Create a central message
Before you can create a truly memorable, successful event, you must ask and answer the question, “What do we want our guests to remember?” Your answer will guide you in setting the right tone for the event, from your opening presentation through the closing session.
Choosing a focused message isn’t an easy task, but one that’s possible with careful consideration and research. What you’ll need:
- A unique perspective on a topic that’s relevant to your audience and an area of authority for your organization
- Develop unique opportunities for discussion on this topic. Which ways can you encourage debate both at the event and afterward?
- As you consider guest speakers or entertainers to invite, think about who fits with this topic. Who is the current thought leader in that sphere? Who do you look to for innovative thinking and creative ideas? What musician, comic, writer, scientist, researcher, athlete, or elected leader can shed light on this topic from a different angle, while drawing the audience in with a big name?
- Determine ways to incorporate your key message into all elements of the event, not just the opening and closing sessions. Chances are your audience is grappling with the challenges and opportunities inherent in the topic, so provide chances in breakout sessions and panels for attendees to discuss with each other and ask experts their biggest questions
Humanize your event
As you develop your speaker list, you’ll want to ensure they are relevant to the overarching message and theme of the event, but don’t forget to look for people who are relatable and personable as well. The best events have an authenticity and human connection, which draws directly from the speakers.
We’ve all attended events with a big name draw who ends up being less interesting when they’re giving a speech in front of a crowd. And we’ve likely wandered into a random session and been blown away by someone lesser known with a great message and delivery.
Our events experts have attended countless events in-person and virtually, and we’ve compiled the best qualities to look for in potential speakers. Look for speakers who do the following:
Uses appropriate humor
Humor makes people relatable, and jokes help audience members relax. Of course, any humor used needs to be appropriate for a professional audience, so get a second opinion on any jokes, and when in doubt, leave it out.
The safest types of jokes at corporate events are self-deprecating, as they humanize the speaker while making someone who’s highly accomplished seem more like the rest of us.
Interacts and personalizes
Move through the crowd or bring members of the audience to the stage to personalize things. Add online interactivity through official event hashtags and build excitement before the opening by sharing content online.
To further personalize things, highlight the stories of people at the event. Bring partners and customers on stage to tell their story or show how you helped them directly. Post snapshots of people (with their permission) to your event’s social accounts.
When you share the stories from real customers and partners, it sends a signal to your audience that you actively care about them and want to engage with them.
Polls the audience
While you have everyone gathered at your signature event, give your audience a chance to offer their thoughts on relevant topics. Learn from your community what they need to know, so you can build your next event to better serve them.
Create opportunities to get feedback throughout the event, whether it’s before the event, during the sessions and breakouts, or after the closing session. Audience members can help you determine which speakers to bring back or add to the roster, learn more about food and facilities, and find out if your central message resonated.
Cultivates community spirit
A feeling of community lasts long after an event. How can you capture it in between events, to remind people of the powerful experience they had?
Often, community spirit becomes a happy memory for past attendees that could drive them to participate in a future event with your organization.
Inspire and surprise attendees
As event planners, we always have certain information we want attendees to take away, but beyond those specifics, we also want people enjoy themselves. Ideally, conference goers should leave with a positive feelings, which helps increase the chance they’ll attend additional events in the future and/or continue their relationship with your organization in some way. One way to make that happen is to create opportunities for surprises and fun for guests.
Be bold and capture the moment at hand
Great events not only impress those who attend, they build up your public image and position you as an influencer within your industry. They go beyond updates, advocacy, or product premieres. They endure —and they truly motivate and inspire those in attendance. Some become legends like South by Southwest or the Sundance Film Festival.
Every event represents a chance to build your public image for employees, partners, clients, customers, and press. They are marketing and sales opportunities as well as chances to cultivate thought leadership or build your relationship within the community. By making your event bold while you’ve got media attention, you can extend your influence and reach.
Your audience won’t connect with or be inspired by your event if it isn’t relevant to their immediate concerns — if it doesn’t speak to the larger zeitgeist.
Inspire powerful emotion
Inspiration can be both personal and universal, stirring emotions to drive action. Using emotion within an event can create a strong memory in the brain. Step back and think about an important memory for you, say a personal milestone or a time you felt proud of your work on a difficult project. When you think back, it’s not the little details that are prominent in your mind. You might not remember what you were wearing, or even what you worked so hard to accomplish. But you remember how you felt.
To inspire your audience, you need to reach them emotionally, using different notes and tactics throughout the event. Your role is like a conductor who calls on different players to use their instruments at the right moment, pulling together the orchestra to create something beautiful.
To maximize the impression you make on your audience and ignite that spark of inspiration, look for opportunities to inspire and create an emotional connection. The emotions that stay with us the longest are those of surprise, delight, community, and inclusion.
Surprise your audience
Audiences often respond positively to a surprise or a break in the routine throughout an event. Bring in a musician to lighten up the mood after a long, productive day, or break up that post-lunch slump with an unannounced guest speaker who is prominent in your field. If you don’t have the budget to hire a highly paid speaker, consider a hands-on event or bring in a local artist or entertainer to amplify the mood.
Leave a lasting impression
Anyone who attends an event develops an impression over time that’s shaped by how they feel on the first day, who they meet at sessions or during coffee breaks, and who speaks in keynotes and breakout sessions. An often-overlooked contribution to the overall impression is how you close out an event.
Events often end with a keynote from a prominent speaker and/or company representative. Make that last presentation one to remember and inspire attendees to join for future events.
Consider including a big surprise to close out the event, which could be a star guest speaker or a valuable perk like free products or services. If people don’t feel an incentive to stay for the entire event (whether it’s in person or virtual) chances are you’ll have some attrition as the week goes on. It’s a missed opportunity when someone leaves an event early because they aren’t getting everything they were promised or see your company as less valuable than they once did.
As you bring your event to a close, the last day should continue to touch on the overall themes and hook your audience with call to action for after the event.
An outstanding event doesn’t have to require a large budget or star talent. However, it takes a lot of hard work, knowledge, practice, and commitment. The strategies we’ve outlined in this post are drawn from extensive experience helping clients plan and execute successful events. With these tips, you are set up well to plan an event that connects, inspires, and influences your audience.
Once you’ve created your overall event strategy, the next step is planning out individual presentations for your key leadership. The second blog in the series covers all the dos and don’ts for creating the best presentation for your event.