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How to Design an Unforgettable Attendee Experience

The first step to a great event is understanding how to meet these four categories of attendee needs.

Creating a memorable attendee experience should be the top priority of any event. A memorable event raises your credibility, encourages future event growth, and expands your influence. 

Planning for an unforgettable event means striving to meet the needs of each attendee. This may seem like a tall order (after all, how can you anticipate everyone's needs?), but it’s not unattainable. 

While there are many reasons for an audience member to attend an event, I've found that their specific needs fall into four categories: practical, demonstrative, transformative, and transcendent. Breaking your event planning down into these classifications will give you a better chance of creating a positive experience for everyone. 

For each meeting or event, start by identifying the event objectives, target audience, demographics, and key stakeholders; then complete a SWOT—strength, weakness, opportunity, and threat—analysis. Once you have an understanding of these factors, you can successfully plan for each area of attendee needs. 

Practical Needs: Begin at the Beginning 
At its most basic, a conference helps attendees meet a pragmatic goal or fulfill a basic need. These audience members participate to earn credits, find information, or make connections. They may have chosen the event due to cost or location, or because they are required to attend. 

These practical considerations are the most basic, but also the most prevalent. When one of these needs isn't met, it's an immediate source of frustration, making it far more difficult for an attendee to enjoy the experience. That's why you should address these needs first. 

A few practical considerations include the physical location and its accessibility. Something as simple as proximity to an airport can make a big difference. An awareness of the attendee demographics can also be helpful. For example, if the audience is female, you could convert a men's bathroom to avoid long lines. Cost is another consideration. What is the going rate for similar programs (if applicable) and can you make any special rates available to your group? 

Once you have met all the practical needs of an attendee, it's time to look to the next category. 

Demonstrative Needs: Feed the Ego 
Beyond the practical, there are more personal reasons for attending an event. These desires stem from the ego and include access, prestige, and emotional satisfaction. 

Your audience may be looking to spearhead a new initiative at work, or for the opportunity to access an influential person. These attendees are looking for a meaningful personal experience that will help them gain prestige and feel fulfilled. 

Accomplishing this requires a carefully crafted tone and seamless flow. Sensory appeal is a factor here, and careful planning and attention to detail helps. The best events reach all five of the senses, sometimes so subtly that the attendee doesn't even recognize it—though it certainly influences their experience. Think about the sights, sounds, even tastes present at the event and consider how you can make them more appealing. 

Examine creative networking opportunities, including key times for attendees to meet the experts. You may include a question-and-answer session, a book signing, a reception or some other special event. Concurrent sessions, another possibility, give your attendees a sense of choice. Finally, the opportunity for hands-on learning incorporates fun and entertainment into the event. 

Transformative Needs: Allow for Connection 
At the transformative level, meeting attendees are searching for something deeper. They want to connect with motivating concepts, access game-changing content, and expand their network in a meaningful way. 

Unlike attendees seeking to fill demonstrative needs, these desires come from a genuine desire to be a part of the event and grow from it. While this may involve some prestige, the intent is to implement positive change. 

This means providing opportunities for attendees to make connections, reflect, and take action. It may be as simple as providing a VIP experience for attendees, or working in networking time and space. 

Practice scenarios can also be helpful. Providing examples, sharing successes and failures, and maintaining an open dialogue all help attendees have a transformative experience.  

Transcendent Needs: Create Lasting Impact
The final set of attendee needs is also the highest level. The audience member transcends the more basic needs of earning credits, prestige, or knowledge. Instead they approach the event with the intention of reaching their full potential. The attendee seeks to use the event as a catalyst for positive impact within their community. They take on the mantle of responsibility for spearheading that impact on their own. 

From a planning perspective, there are a few questions to ask yourself. How can you engage your attendees? Does the event provide fresh ideas, present the success stories of others, and ask them to step up to the plate themselves? Does it challenge them to make a difference—not only in their own lives, but in the lives of their coworkers, their community, and the world at large? 

At this level, the goal of an event planner is to help attendees see that their worth extends beyond their value within their select circle. If they accept the challenge, they have the ability to shape the world. 

Most attendees will be looking to fulfill many needs from several categories. This is why it's important for an event planner to cultivate an experience that reaches attendees at all levels. 

When you pay attention to each set of needs, you set the stage for participants to feel fulfilled and create an unforgettable event.  

Polly Rossi, CMP-HC, CMM is owner of Meeting Achievements, which provides full-service and à la carte meeting planning services. 

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