360 Live Media
360 Live Media is an event strategy and digital marketing agency in Washington, D.C. serving association, professional society, and not-for-profit conferences.

Five Radical Ways to Change Your Event (That Don’t Cost Anything)

While at XDP, I had an interesting conversation with another planner about whether it was possible to have a general session without microphones. The cost of mics eats up a lot of her budget, so we were discussing other options. What prompted the conversation is that at XDP, the audience wears earbuds and the speaker mics are broadcast through radio frequencies, instead of the house sound. That still requires microphones, though. There’s an app called CrowdMics, which lets the audience turn their phone into a microphone, so you don’t need to run mics. But that still requires a sound system. We were saying there had to be another way to do it. It was a fun thing to contemplate and it got me thinking, how could we replace other basic building blocks of an event?


1. Eliminate the Microphones

In our conversation, the microphone solution we arrived at was instead of using a sound system, would it be possible to have everyone just dial into a conference line, and listen to the speaker through headphones? It seems technically possible. Experience-wise, it would be clunky. You would want to automatically mute everyone, or else there would be some serious background noise issues. The people sitting close to the stage would experience a slight echo, because they would hear the speaker talking in real time and then the short delay that always occurs with a conference call. The sound quality would be really poor. And I’m honestly not sure what might happen when that many people in a small area all use their phones at the same time. I know that bandwidth is an issue when a lot of people are using the internet in an area. I would imagine the call would drop for some people. I talked to one of my audio-visual partners about this, and he agreed it was technically possible, but would create a poor experience. So maybe conference call presentations aren’t the way to go, but should you end up in a situation where suddenly all of the sound systems fail, you could try this.


2. Get Rid of the Chairs

I used to tell one of my planners who would get nervous before an event that as long as people had a place to sit and food to eat, everything would be OK. But what if took away all of the chairs? I don’t think anyone actually likes theater seating – you feel trapped in those long rows of chairs. It’s really awkward to get in and out of the row because the aisle seats fill up first. Plus, it’s not very pleasing aesthetically. Theater seats are not good for people who don’t have full mobility. And typically, when the audience walks in the room, they are seeing the backs of the chairs, which isn’t very welcoming. But theater seating is a necessary evil. There isn’t another way to efficiently seat large groups of people, and the fun couches and funky seating like beanbags cost money. So, the thought exercise now is to have no chairs at all. On the positive side, it is very freeing to walk into a blank space. Imagine the room with the stage set and just empty space before it. It is a lot like attending a concert. You could encourage people to stand, give some guidance on yoga poses, or tell them ahead of time to bring blankets and set themselves up like a picnic. But we have to think about people who have trouble getting up from the floor, people being dressed to be comfortable sitting on the floor, and the space not being used efficiently so you can’t fit everyone in. That said, if you set the proper expectations ahead of time, you could probably pull it off.


3. Forget the Buffet

Now that we’ve gotten rid of places to sit, what about food to eat? Banquet menus are created for hotels and planners, not for attendees. It’s all about how to feed a large number of people in a short amount of time, with efficient prep and presentation. You always notice when the hotel food is exceptionally good, because we typically expect it to not be great. There are many groups who don’t serve food at their events because the budget doesn’t allow for it. But a lot of times they make the mistake of not helping their attendees find the food. If you followed the link above on expectations, you saw my post about directing attendees to local restaurants. But you could also invite local food trucks to set up outside of your event. Or follow the trend of hotels eliminating room service and set up a cafeteria-style shop for attendees to purchase their own food. It would be my dream to be presented with a mini-grocery store right onsite at the beginning of the week, where I could purchase the yogurt, fresh produce, and sandwich fixings that I want. I wonder if you could work with a local grocery store to set something like this up. Or, could you use something like AmazonFresh or Peapod to deliver right to attendees’ hotel rooms?


4. Remove the Screen and Ban PowerPoint

Another staple of the event is the PowerPoint presentation. I’m not suggesting we remove the content from an event – just the delivery method. There are various apps and things you could use to display slides instead of a screen, but we are trying to do this without adding costs, so how could we do it low tech? We could pass out handouts for people to follow along. We could have the speaker use interpretive dance or charades to get their point across. Or we could just ask that people listen. We don’t really do a great job of listening anymore, at least not at conferences. We look at the screen, read the bullets, and maybe hear a few of the key points before we get distracted.


We’ve trained ourselves to not pay attention at events. And this happened because we have allowed for bad presentations for too long. I’m sure you have seen some compelling presentations – think about what those presenters do. No bullets, first off. There are interesting images, dramatic pauses, probably some video, or even music. They aren’t presenting information – they are telling you a story. And that is why you want to listen to them.


So, start by removing the crutch of PowerPoint, so the speaker has to rely on their storytelling to get their points across. And yes, I understand that it is different when you are presenting data, but it still does not need to be dull. If you aren’t familiar, check out Melissa Marshall’s TED presentation, “Talk Nerdy To Me.”


5. Abolish the Trade Show


Let’s be honest – the trade show is an outdated way to do business. These days, it’s rare for attendees to bring RFPs to the event, and ROI is often still measured by how many names are added to an email list, whether they are qualified leads or not. Part of my job is to interview exhibitors about their experience, and I hear the same things over and over, no matter the industry or the size of the show:


  • “There isn’t enough traffic on the show floor.”
  • “We don’t have enough time with potential customers.”
  • “I’m not doing business at the event, it’s really that I have to show face there.”


Our bingo games and expo block parties are Band-Aids, not solutions to really changing this experience. What if the show floor was less of a shopping mall and more of a meal at a fancy restaurant? Instead of the attendee walking from booth to booth, looking for swag and maybe stumbling on an idea, what if the best stuff was served up to them based on what they wanted? Imagine being seated at a comfortable table, offered some water, and then a server presents you with a menu of options. You “order” what you like, and then the exhibitor comes to you for a comfortable and valuable conversation.


The menu could be presented like a restaurant menu – the tech list, the innovators list, the supplies list. There could even be prix fixe options that give you a flavor of everything, if you aren’t looking for something in particular. This option offers a more refined and more comfortable iteration on appointments. The attendee doesn’t have to do all of the work of seeking things out, because it’s been curated for them. If you have a two-hour time block, that’s six 30-minute appointments, tailored for you. If you are an exhibitor, that’s six 30-minute meetings with a qualified lead – with no shipping costs, booth set-up/tear-down, or tired feet.


XDP is the start of a version of this, and it isn’t as simple as it sounds. You have to help the exhibitors get there, you have to train them on how to sell like this, and you have to appreciate that results are measured in big numbers, not always in qualified leads. So be sure you are offering plenty of value for exhibitors, with tailored content or sessions to help them improve their sales skills. If you offer them valuable professional development that makes them good at their jobs along with the opportunity for real, qualified conversations with targets, it’s a hard package to say no to.


This has been a fun exercise to think through. If you end up trying any of these ideas out, drop me a line and let me know.