As a keynote speaker and a married guy, I’ve often compared conferences to weddings. In both cases there are hundreds of people to please. The location should be pretty yet affordable. The speeches/readings should be relevant, and you probably shouldn’t let your relatives sing. And of course, in both cases people will love you if you deliver an open bar.
And then there’s the reception. At a wedding, the trick is finding music that everyone will dance to. But for a conference, the questions are more complicated: What if people don’t like the comedian we just hired? What if people miss the last shuttle and get stranded at the museum? Will we be liable if people get devoured by hundreds of hermit crabs during a night-time beach-volleyball tournament?
Finding activities to satisfy all of your attendees is often such a daunting challenge that planners simply punt the decision and offer a free night where everyone can find their own restaurant or nightspot. But that doesn't best serve your attendees, who are there to network.
So if you’d like to close your conference with a bang, here are three possibilities you can use during a final event:
The Secret Networker
This is a great way to get people talking. Print 50 cards for each conference attendee with his/her name on it. (Half of them will think they’re drink tickets, which I find hilarious. Can you imagine a conference organizer who'd say, “Please, have 50 on us!”) Designate one staff member or attendee as the “secret networker,” and tell everyone on day one that their task over the course of the conference is to give their cards to as many people as possible. Then during the final social event of the conference, have the secret networker come on stage and use the cards he or she collected over the past few days as the only ones eligible for a prize raffle. I’ve seen this idea used a few times, and it never fails to impress me how much people get into playing—including one conference with 200 farmers who did not appear to enjoy games of any kind.
The Photo Booth with Embarrassing Clothing
Or as I like to call it, Old Reliable. I’ve seen this one at least a dozen times, so I can say with confidence that people of all shapes, sizes, ages, colors, and creeds love wearing giant sunglasses, feather boas, cowboy hats, or other accessories while posing with others doing the same. Ask people to pose with others they don't know but who are wearing similar fashion items, and attendees will quickly make new contacts.
The Drink and Draw
These have become popular at hipster bars but I also saw it at a conference, where it worked really well. Fifty easels were set up with small blank canvases, brushes, and some paints. On the stage was a finished piece that everyone could try to reproduce. A professional artist then recreated the painting while talking participants through the process. Drinks were available from the hotel bar. In the end, everyone got to keep their creation, and I heard plenty of people who didn’t participate lament their decision to sit this one out.
Jeff Havens is a speaker, author, and professional development expert who addresses leadership, generational, and skill-development issues with a blend of content and comedy. Contact him at [email protected] or visit JeffHavens.com.