How to Host a Marketing Conference That Doesn’t Tank

marketing conference

By Kerry Gorgone, {grow} Contributing Columnist

I travel a lot, either to present at conferences or to facilitate workshops. I’m even in a Facebook group for frequent business travelers (great luggage tips)! Attending so many events has led me to appreciate the ones that are well organized. 

The difference between hosting a memorable, worthwhile marketing conference and an expensive waste of time lies in the planning. It might seem tiresome and overly picky to think through every contingency before an event, but in nailing down questions in advance, you ensure that your event runs smoothly.

When things run smoothly, people can plan their sessions and still have time to experience the “hallway magic” (networking) that makes them feel the investment was worthwhile.

Here are some tips for making your own event a memorable one for attendees.

Plan as much as you can, and then plan some more.

One of the best run events I’ve attended recently is the brand new Insight Lancaster Marketing Conference in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The first event of its type in the city, Insight Lancaster brought 125 marketers together to learn the latest thinking on topics like SEO, social media, and more.

Organizers from the Lancaster Marketing Group pulled plans together in just a couple of months. But they achieved an end result better than conferences I’ve attended that were in the works for an entire year. Kris Bradley and the rest of the organizers met several times a week at 6:30 in the morning (you read that right) to ensure their event went off without a hitch.

Accept that you will need to dedicate the time to secure quality speakers, arrange sponsorships with vendors, coordinate with your venue, and manage conference communications. Spending some part of every day on the upcoming event will pay off, because any potential complications will have been prevented (or at least anticipated).

On the subject of speakers, plan your lineup to include a mix of approaches, genders, organizational types and topics. Try to incorporate as many perspectives as possible so attendees get a good overview of the current state of the industry. Uphold high standards: your event is only as good as your speaker roster.

You should even plan some shenanigans! Seriously. MarketingProfs has a whole committee dedicated just to B2B Forum shenanigans. Ann Handley heads it up. (Not even kidding!) Engineer some fun into your event: “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” as they say.

marketing conference

Shenanigans are a must!

Enable attendees to customize their experience (but don’t overdo it).

Insight Lancaster offered two tracks: one for practitioners and one for decision makers. By organizing sessions this way, organizers ensured that attendees would find topics relevant to their everyday work. They also minimized the possibility that people would attend a session that really didn’t suit their needs.

On the other hand, two tracks was enough. Some events offer dozens of small breakout sessions, splintering their audience into ever smaller groups. This makes networking a challenge and creates an inconsistent experience among attendees. It’s difficult to share thoughts on a session when only a small number of people attended that session with you.

Having two tracks enables attendees to find relevance in your content, but ensures people will have plenty of shared experiences to reflect on throughout the event.

Another fantastic event, Brand Driven Digital’s Social Brand Forum in Iowa, also excels at giving attendees a uniform experience. The premier conference for midwest marketers, Social Brand Forum brings in top notch speakers and keeps attendees together for the entire conference. There are no breakout sessions or tracks. Teams attending the event can easily implement ideas and suggestions back at the office, because they all saw the same sessions and have that common ground to build on.

If you really want to offer breakout sessions, label them by level. The MarketingProfs B2B Marketing Forum, for example, tags sessions intended for experienced practitioners as “Advanced.” This helps experienced marketers to identify sessions that will most benefit them, and keeps newer marketers from taking sessions that will overwhelm them.

Just don’t overdo it: SXSW Interactive has hundreds of sessions happening all over Austin at any given time throughout the conference. Even if you could customize a track for yourself, you’d have to run all over the city to complete it (assuming you could get into your sessions at all: SXSW is always mobbed). Splintering sessions to this extent makes planning difficult for attendees, so try to keep things manageable.

Get creative with choosing a venue: convention centers and hotels aren’t your only options.

One of the best things about Insight Lancaster was the venue: The Ware Center. Part of Millersville University, the Ware Center offered quality food and a gorgeous, centrally located facility at a lower price than traditional convention centers or hotels.

marketing conference

Mark Schaefer gives the opening keynote at Insight Lancaster 2016 at The Ware Center.

MarketingProfs has also used university facilities to hold marketing training workshops. These kinds of facilities often have attractive landscaping and interesting art in addition to good prices on food and beverage and an accommodating staff.

If you’re planning on a budget (and who isn’t), expand your list of potential venues to include college and university function facilities. You likely have some gems in your local area that more than fit the bill!

Enable registrants to do some good by sponsoring students.

Even if you try to keep ticket prices affordable, aspiring marketers still might not be able to pay for it. You could invite marketing students to volunteer at your event in exchange for a pass, but they’ll definitely miss out on some sessions that way.

Here’s an idea I love: At his “Social Slam” event in Knoxville, Mark Schaefer gave registrants the option of sponsoring a student who wanted to attend but couldn’t afford a ticket. Many registrants took advantage of this opportunity to give something back to the next generation of marketers. You might think about incorporating something like this to make your conference accessible to everyone.

Start on time and stay on schedule.

This seems so simple, and yet so many conferences start late. Starting late has a domino effect on all of your later sessions, as speakers struggle to cover all the material promised in the time allotted.

And hold speakers to the schedule, as well. If a speaker has failed to rehearse (bless his heart), he could easily go long. Have someone in the front row who can hold up a “five-minute” sign or make some other appropriate gesture to alert the speaker that time’s almost up.

Bonus tip: End your conference on a high note.

No one wants to feel as though a conference rolled into the station on fumes. End your event with panache! MarketingProfs wrapped up last year’s B2B Marketing Forum by dropping confetti and glitter on the crowd!

Hosting a successful marketing conference is simple, but it’s not easy. Plan, plan, plan, and pay attention to the details. If things don’t come off exactly as planned, there’s always next year!

kerry gorgone

Kerry O’Shea Gorgone is a writer, lawyer, speaker and educator. She’s also Senior Program Manager, Enterprise Learning, at MarketingProfs. Kerry hosts the weekly Marketing Smarts podcast. Find Kerry on Twitter.

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