Main Events: Tips and strategies for novice meeting planners

The meetings industry took a nasty beating at the height of the Great Recession, both financially and in the public eye. For a brief period, corporate travel was a favorite media whipping boy, especially if those attending conventions received TARP money. Then people finally realized that thousands of middle-class Americans work at hotels, restaurants, and convention centers, and they depend on meetings to make a living.

Once the uproar subsided, the meetings industry started to bounce back, a process that continues as the economy gains more traction. David Sachs, director of global sourcing for Meetings & Incentives Worldwide, Inc., a Caledonia, Wis.-based meeting management company, believes the industry is almost all the way back. “It’s back in many respects to pre-recession levels with the number of meetings and the demand for meetings,” Sachs stated. “What’s not quite back yet is some of the pricing, but that's coming back pretty fast.” 

Since meetings mean business, IB explores one dozen aspects of event planning for accidental meeting planners. 

Pros and Cons of Offsite Events

When does it make sense to have an out-of-office experience? When is it better to retain your home-field advantage?

Frankly assess the benefits

“Many offices have square meeting rooms with white walls,” says Reggie Driscoll, a meeting planner for the State Bar of Wisconsin. “This is not ideal for creativity. If you are crunching numbers, these rooms will work. If you are looking for a team-building exercise or looking to brainstorm ideas, it may be helpful to get away from the office.”

Driscoll cites several reasons to take your show on the road:

  • Once attendees are settled in, it’s easier for them to focus on your agenda.
  • It equalizes the playing field for everyone, because there tends to be less of a sense of hierarchy than there would be in the office.
  • Nontraditional spaces enhance creativity and encourage out-of-the-box thinking.
  • Out-of-office meetings feel less “corporate” and encourage a feeling of unity among your staff.

Be aware of the drawbacks

Just because it might be fun — and a little freeing — to take a road trip doesn’t mean you should do it. Probably the biggest reason not to hold your meeting offsite is that it simply costs more.

In addition to avoiding room rental and catering charges, says Driscoll, the advantages of staying home include the following:

  • You might benefit from having other staff members pop in for a half-hour or so.
  • You won’t waste staff time by forcing your employees to travel, and you can be reasonably sure that everyone will arrive on schedule. 

Unique Spots for Diverse Events

There are many unique, intimate spaces in and around Dane County where companies can hold productive meetings, including: 

Badger Farms

Perhaps the most unique thing about Badger Farms is that it’s still actually a working farm, but while it sells marsh hay to local farmers, it enables business entities to make some hay at its special events facility. Appointed with state-of-the-art audio-visual equipment and plenty of rural character, the Deerfield site has become a favorite for strategic planning retreats.

The Livingston Inn

Located in the heart of Madison, this 160-year-old Gothic revival mansion serves as a bed-and-breakfast for business and leisure. Its attractive architectural details, including nine fireplaces, offer an inviting alternative to the boardroom, and business amenities like Wi-Fi ensure that everyone stays connected. If you’re spending the night, you can take advantage of some well-appointed guest rooms on the second floor. 

Vitense Golfland

Hitting golf balls outdoors in heated stalls, smack dab in the middle of winter, is a lot of people’s idea of fun, but this golf oasis is about more than shaving shots off your game. Founded in 1955 by golf pro George Vitense, the multifaceted facility features “The Rock” climbing wall and other opportunities for team building, plus community rooms with Wi-Fi, full catering service, and dining facilities for business and personal use.

Wisconsin Brewing Co.

Ideal for networking, this brewmaster’s taproom (for up to 125 guests) and larger brewhouse, which can hold up to 350 people, accommodates customized events that include musical entertainment. With flexible floor plan options, AV equipment and staging, and a spacious outdoor pavilion, the venue’s popular brewery tours and guided tastings aren’t the only draws for meeting planners.

Wollersheim Winery

If you’re willing to take a short drive to conduct business, the Vineyard Room of this historic Prairie du Sac winery, featuring views of hillside vineyards, accommodates groups of up to 100 people and is fully equipped with digital AV equipment and Wi-Fi. Room rental does not require corporate groups to take tours and tastings, but most groups pour a little vino into their event. 

What’s Hot in AV Tech?

Audio-visual considerations typically include size of screen, type of projection, lighting, and acoustics. But thanks to customized software and Internet connectivity with smartphones and tablets, technologies have emerged to optimize presentations.

Speaking of speakers

Now that AV systems are integrated with customized apps, speakers don’t simply provide audio transmission, they feature wireless controls that enable a network of wireless connections. Combined with smart devices in a learning environment, they play a greater role in communication and collaboration as the event unfolds.

Let there be LED 

PowerPoint is gradually being supplanted by advances like touchscreen technology, image projection on multidimensional forms, and multi-image display presentation software. The latest advance, the incorporation of LED lighting into video systems, not only offers the green dimension of energy efficiency, it also enables presenters to color-match LED lighting to screen content. 

Wearing out technology

We’ve certainly come a long way from the bulky mainframe computers of the 1960s, as wearable devices such as smart-video glasses and video watches hit the market. Computer eyewear from vendors like Google Glass and Samsung Galaxy Glass are worn like glasses, but the coolest thing about them is that modern optics can make a very small display look like a TV-sized screen. Their event applications include social media interaction with networking apps, but some equate them more with virtual meetings.

“It’s a big fad,” Sachs noted, “and yet we don’t see a lot of it because our clients still find value in face-to-face interaction.”



How to Lure Back Guests

Your first annual event drew rave reviews and attendance was great, but what now? Here are several tips to assure attendees keep coming back.

Engage them

The event may be over, but it is still fresh in their minds. In an article published in Inc. magazine, Dave Welty, events leader at Maloney & Fox in New York, suggests planners “become facilitators by connecting guests with one another during and after your event. Create a Facebook page or Twitter account for your attendees to build a community around your event and keep them excited for the next one.”

Get personal

Personalizing events is a key to keeping them interesting, and keeping attendees coming back. Pete McAllister, owner of, agrees the days of “one-size-fits-all” events
are over, having been replaced by content on demand. If holding an event for Web developers, ask them to submit their company URLs beforehand, then offer an expert evaluation of their site at the conference. It gives them skin in the game, he says. 

Maria Peot, event manager at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, agrees: “By identifying the core audiences, planners … will be able to make sure that each attendee is able to answer the question ‘what’s in it for me?’ with a solid answer. Don’t make your attendees dig for a reason to come to the event,” she cautions. “That’s our job as planners.”

Blogger Kare Anderson ( believes meetings differentiate themselves by the positive memorable "moments" that guests experience, from the moment they are greeted at the door to the moment they leave the building. She suggests conducting a “sensory exposures audit” in advance to note any positive or negative moments guests may encounter along the way. What will their experience be like? What will they see, smell, taste, and hear? How can you improve upon that? 

Catering to Special Diets

Patty Lemke of Monona Catering is familiar with the adage that we first eat with our eyes, and that’s especially true in today’s foodie culture. Whether guests attend a social event or a convention, they arrive with educated palates, food allergies and sensitivities, and the expectation that all their culinary needs will be met. In Lemke’s view, the entrée must be a work of art that addresses special dietary needs, and so should other food and beverage offerings. Here are three best practices:

Employ ESP 

When selecting menu items, consider how all the senses will respond, because they control perception. Be sure there is variety in the color and texture of selections, and that they are produced as close as possible to serving time. If the morning pastry display looks great but people can’t smell ingredients like butter, chocolate, or cinnamon before taking a bite, items will not taste as good as they look.

Always meet special needs

Special dietary requests can be addressed through good communication with caterers. If an item typically contains nuts, ask for them to be left out of the recipe for your event. If servings aren’t limited to vegan or gluten-free items, accommodate such requests by including gluten-free muffins or cookies and gluten-free, vegan brownies as part of your break assortment. Make sure that all items are labeled with either “gluten-free,” “contains gluten,” or “vegan.”

Ask caterers to substitute rice flour for all-purpose flour in some dishes, especially those that are dusted in flour and sautéed or thickened with flour. Also, consider serving a vegan vegetable strudel or vegan potato cake with black beans that looks beautiful and satisfies the taste buds of even the most die-hard meat eater.

Successfully managing special dietary needs starts at the beginning of the planning process, so ask about them on the registration card. Provide caterers with a list of guests with special needs and provide the guest’s name and special need on the meal ticket presented to the server at mealtime (color-coded tickets are helpful). Having the guests’ names will eliminate confusion, assist in getting the right meal to the right guest, and help manage additional costs incurred when a second meal is produced for guests who didn’t make dietary needs known in advance.

Never ignore a special request because you think guests are being picky, Lemke adds. There are genuine food-related medical issues, and ignoring such requests could have dire consequences. Plan for slightly higher costs on special dishes because they cost more to produce.

Mitigate “meal envy”

Using meal tickets also helps manage those times when guests change their previously ordered selection to what their neighbor was just served. “If this happens, let the guest know you will be happy to accommodate their request, at the end of the serve, from any remaining meals once all others have been served what they pre-ordered,” Lemke advised.  

Proven Ways to Attract New Guests

Know your crowd, and market to them!

It’s all about marketing. In an article on, Daniel Fortin, president of DNL Logistique in Montreal and former president of Meeting Professionals International-Montreal chapter, suggests making reminder phone calls to as many invitees as possible, just ahead of an event. “Word of mouth is still the best way to create a buzz,” he says. 

While Twitter and Facebook are musts when it comes to pushing out electronic reminders, personal phone calls have become almost an anomaly and will make an impression.

To speak or not to speak

Anyone can give a speech, and unfortunately, we’ve all probably slept through many of those presentations. 

Keynote presenters should be experts who can effectively present material to a targeted audience in an informative and entertaining manner. A well-known keynote presenter can attract people to a conference on his or her name alone, but companies need to consider the financial outlay required, which can run in the tens of thousands of dollars. Partnering with other engaged businesses is one way to help soften the blow.

But there is another school of thought: In an article titled “The Evolution of Onsite Conferences,” blogger Jeff Hurt asserts that speakers are gradually evolving into facilitators of learning. “The information transfer from the expert to the attendee model is dead. It only creates walking dead.” The new trend, he says, involves designing learning experiences rather than lectures.

In the end, it’s all about creating what you believe will attract the best crowd and crafting the most engaging experience for your audience. “Attendee experience always trumps staff efficiency,” Hurt says.

Location, location, location

There are meeting places, and then there are meeting places. Sometimes, just having a unique locale will be enough to draw people to your event. But is parking convenient? Is the location walkable or on a bike path? What about afterwards? Are there restaurants nearby? 

A unique venue can add a coolness factor that may extend above and beyond the event itself, and attract attendees to boot. 

3 Ways to Defy Convention

Golf is popular, but it’s not for everyone. For their annual “Quota Buster Meeting and Campaign,” held just before an end-of-the-year push, the staff at MassMutual Wisconsin wanted some variety. So the two-day event features a business meeting and evening reception on Thursday and the attendees’ choice of golf or a spa treatment on Friday.

Kristen Parent, a marketing specialist with MassMutual, said the spa option has been a hit. It’s not that golf isn’t fun, especially with competitions both serious (recognition for lowest team score) and razzing (for the team that loses the most golf balls), but the spa treatments are an opportunity to think outside the box. With that, she offers advice to companies that seek conventional deviation.

1. Consider team-building creativity MassMutual gets even more creative with quarterly events. Having done laser tag and the Pedal Pub, it’s now considering a boulder-climbing adventure that could push employees outside their comfort zone. “Anything that brings a level of fun into the workplace,” Parent says, “gives us an opportunity to take ourselves outside of the office, relate to each other, and build camaraderie.”

2. Understand that some will hate it The unconventional has its downsides. Namely, some people will hate what you choose, but there’s a way around that. “The next time,” Parent says, “we do something that person A likes, and the next time we do something that person B likes.” 

3. Lean on the CVB While pleasing everyone can be tricky, the Greater Madison Convention & Visitors Bureau has an exhaustive list of meeting venues, community attractions, and quirky ideas like beer tours and 14-seat bicycle rides. Without variety, “an event loses its excitement,” Parent notes, “and at some point, people don’t look forward to having that event.”



How to Partner With a Charity 

The warm-and-fuzzy feeling you’ll get from including a charity in your event planning can’t be denied, but it shouldn’t be the only factor in your decision-making. Any partnership you forge has to make sense for your organization.

Make sure it’s a natural fit

If your charity tie doesn’t resonate with your attendees, it’s not likely to benefit anyone, so you need to really think through what you’re asking of your
attendees and whether it makes sense for your organization. 

“When partnering, it’s important to decide how you want your attendees to engage,” says Sue Sabatke, meetings director for the international Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association. “Will they be asked to bring a teddy bear for a sick child, build houses for Habitat for Humanity, donate food for a local food pantry, or give money for a project in the community hosting their event? If there is a natural fit for your organization, attendees will be more likely to participate.”

Avoid conflicts and controversy

Even worse than a charity tie that doesn’t fit hand-in-glove with your company’s goals is one that runs counter to your mission.

“You’ll want to make sure that you completely understand the mission of the charity so there is no chance of any conflict-of-interest issues down the road,” says Driscoll.

In addition, says Driscoll, the cardinal rule of social interaction applies: Avoid religion and politics. “Depending on the size of your organization, you may want to steer clear of political or religious charities unless you are able to partner with opposing viewpoints as well.”

It’s okay to be a little selfish

When deciding whether a charity tie-in makes sense for your event, consider more than just the well-being of your attendees and the charity's goals. Does the partnership help you? If not, keep your eye out for another worthy cause or skip the charitable angle altogether. "Would there be reciprocal marketing or benefits to your event that the charity could provide to make it beneficial for both of you?” asked Driscoll.

How to Head Off Disaster

There’s no way to prevent — or anticipate — every pitfall, but there’s plenty you can do to limit the damage when things don’t go as planned.

Have a plan B Before you kick off your event, it’s crucial that you have “plans B, C, D, and E” ready, says Sabatke. “Having contingency plans ready to roll is key. As the person everyone will look to, you need to be able to think on your feet, make solid decisions, and communicate the change to your organization’s leadership and on-site planning team.”

While having a plan B is vitally important, having a type B personality is a liability. When it comes to event planning, flying by the seat of your pants simply will not work.
“You should have a detailed list of what needs to be accomplished from the beginning of the planning through to the evaluations and closing the meeting afterwards,” says Driscoll. “A list of who is responsible for each task, and their deadlines, will allow you to quickly see how your event is progressing and who to contact with updates or questions.”

Understand your contract, get insurance The failure to understand contractual obligations can result in additional, unplanned costs, says Sabatke: “If you do not understand contracts, seek additional training or legal counsel that focuses on the hospitality sector. Make sure you understand what is important to your organization. So many people negotiating contracts focus only on the prices and gloss over the terms.”

Meanwhile, you may want to consider buying event cancellation and liability insurance. Event insurance has evolved and changed in recent years, says Sabatke, so you’ll want to make sure you’re up to date on coverage options.

9 Must-Have Meeting Apps

This “Top 10” toolbox includes nine apps and one handy resource

WebEx Meetings

This beginning-to-end Cisco app enables planners to accomplish via video conferencing whatever they can do face-to-face. As they form events, they can tap into schedules, share files, brainstorm, collaborate, and keep the conversation going afterward.

Poll Everywhere

This app provides short message service polling and Q&A sessions. It integrates with Twitter and mobile Web responses and, as is the case with standard audience polling systems, the results can be projected live. Polling questions can be integrated directly into a PowerPoint program, creating ease-of-use for speakers.


Of all the note-taking apps, MindNode might do the most with graphics, but don’t think it only attempts to baffle you with bull. There is an organizational method to its “mind mapping” madness, and that is to connect ideas with visual representations of your ideas. This particular brainstorming process is more intuitive than tangible, and lends itself to creative project management.


A workhorse mobile app for events, planners find QuickMobile useful for the full conference schedule. That includes personal agenda building, area guides (with Frommer’s integration), search capabilities for attendees and exhibitors, and integration with social media.

Flight Track 

An app offering real-time flight information for air travelers, Flight Track can also be used to track the flight schedules of key event speakers, including cancellations or delays. 


Making life easier for planners is the brand promise of OneLobby, a collaborative technology platform that simplifies conference production and logistics. It helps planners manage tasks, set due dates, and adjust priorities on the fly. All moving parts are monitored with dashboard reporting.

Super Planner

Designed specifically for meeting planners and Android phones or tablets, Super Planner can be described as a “tool of planning tools” that includes calculators for staffing, catering, venue capacity, staging, and other aspects of event planning. Add useful planning tips, and meeting planners have a resource for quantity and quality.


Designed by Core-apps for trade shows, FollowMe serves organizers, attendees, and exhibitors with interactive floor maps, downloadable event brochures, and real-time updates from show organizers. Clicking on a booth produces exhibitor information, and it works offline so people can use it on an airplane or a trade show floor with unreliable Internet service.


ootoWeb, which stands for out-of-the-office Web, is an on-the-go planning guide with several features: mobile websites, including registration websites for every event; real-time data; information for attendees’ smartphones; payment processing; and mobile meeting binders.

APEX (Accepted Practices Exchange)

Located on the website of the Convention Industry Council, this tool offers bandwidth estimators, request-for-proposal workbooks, accepted contract practices, and an event-specification guide with best practices in housing and registration.



3 Tips to Soothe Growing Pains

Growing attendance is a good thing, but it can create new headaches. What happens when the event outgrows the venue?

1. Move some walls

Flexible building space allows the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery to handle growing events.

When monthly public lectures began to outgrow her facility’s 200-person-capacity room at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, Peot compensated by moving some walls. “I am lucky to work in a building with such flexible space,” she acknowledged. “We made accommodations to allow for overflow seating in the building’s atrium area.” Adding a stage and using portable PA speakers assured attendees wouldn’t miss anything, regardless of where they were sitting.

2. Consider kiosks

When demand for booth space becomes an issue, step out of the 10-by-10-foot box. Extra space in lobby areas can be used for stand-up highboy stations with two chairs, comfortable enough for conducting business. Depending on available space, such sponsored kiosks offer a personal, one-on-one approach to conducting business when standard booth space is unavailable or unaffordable.

3. Redefine the event attendee 

Call it the 80/20 rule for event planning, but some large conferences are beginning to more carefully screen attendees. When its biennial show became too big, organizers of Outdoor Retailer, an outdoor-sports trade show held in Salt Lake City, began limiting attendance by tightening registration requirements for attendees who lived within driving distance. The logic behind that decision, according to an article in PCMA Convene magazine, was that “if you’re willing to fly in, it’s more likely that you’re not just coming to gawk at the latest in outdoor gear.” The same is true for the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, which began requiring attendees to prove upon registering that they work in the technology field or a related industry.

While Madison is not Las Vegas, booth sponsors would likely benefit from a pared-down crowd focused on conducting business, rather than collecting freebies.

Prime Software for Event Registration

Novice meeting planners, take note. There are many simple software solutions for online attendee registration and event websites, and they can really lighten your load.

Vendors like Cvent offer attendee-management software that helps planners manage the entire lifecycle of business events, from registration (including payment processing) to budget management to post-event surveys. They also enable planners to automate communications via email platforms and customize reports using relevant event data.

The solution smorgasbord is both wide and deep, and some software has very unique features. The digital registration offered by Eventbrite Entry Manager can be used to create email-marketing lists. When planners need to update attendees or announce a new product or service, they can do so while enabling the end-customer to review orders and control his or her payment method. 

Some offer both event registration and the ability to develop attractive event websites. RegOnline helps planners, especially those with limited technical skills, launch a website, measure key data, create RFPs, and market events with social promotion tools, including a free mobile event app.

Social media tools like Twitter and Facebook can help promote events, but branding your event requires a platform that only an event-specific website can provide. Historical event information, registration options, speaker profiles, hotel and venue information, exhibitor information, and more can populate an event website. is one of the most frequently used options, with built-in tools to promote events, handle registration, and accept payments. Other common features of such website builders are integrated social media tools and invitation-management systems. 

Event websites can be as creative as you want, with captivating illustrations and interactive features, but the common denominator must be a seamless, intuitive user experience because a clunky website, much like a substandard hotel, can drive people away from your event. 

3 Keys to Post-event Analysis

If you wait until after a meeting to plan the post-event analysis, you are beyond late. The steps you take in the post-event analysis have to be plotted before the event is held because part of this analysis involves getting feedback from attendees, and you want the event to be fresh in their minds. 

1. Capture the data 

Two questions to lead off: What do you measure to determine whether your objectives were met? Do you want to capture your data via an audience response system (transmitted via smartphone) during the event or via a post-event electronic survey? Some planners conduct surveys as the sessions end. “When the speaker is done, a quick survey question is sent out, such as: ‘Did you find this valuable?’” Sachs notes. “The more savvy groups are just capturing it as it occurs, before the memory has even moved on to the next thing.”

2. Negotiate the terms 

Capturing feedback from attendees and gleaning information from their behavior requires upfront negotiations with hotel and venue management. Not every hotel is capable of providing meeting intelligence about attendee behavior, so it’s wise to choose only those who can. 

“Communicating early in the process of negotiations with a facility clearly sets expectations on what data hotels need to track and provide at the completion of your event,” says Janet Sperstad, program director for the meeting and event planning degree program at Madison College. “Tie this data collection report to the hotel billing to ensure you receive it.”

3. Vet the behavior

The data worth capturing includes things like: How much food is consumed (i.e., how many covers were taken off the plates)? How much audio-visual was purchased? What was the attendee behavior related to sleeping rooms (when did they check in and check out)? What was your total room block? What was your occupancy each day? How many cancellations? “We can better plan for our future meeting needs based on our current meetings’ needs and consumption,” Sperstad notes. “Knowing this data allows us to allocate the right resources, make changes that reflect the needs and expectations of our attendees and stakeholders, and ultimately have a better event.”

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