Written By: Molly Holt, Meeting Planner, National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA)
Entering into the Hotel Palomar off the busy DuPont Circle, I headed up one floor to the Emerging Professional Capital Chapter’s Classroom: The Importance of Engaging the Conference Attendee and Addressing Their Specific Needs. As I work with many different types of Attendees, I was excited to hear what this Classroom had in store for us! All three sessions would run concurrently, three times, so each attendee had the opportunity to hit all three topics or attend the same topic more than once; it was a great opportunity to expand your horizons, or hone in on the topic that is most important to your attendees.
My first stop was one that is currently a widely discussed topic: “Addressing the Different Learning Styles of Attendees.” We spent time reviewing the basics: identifying the 3 types of learners (Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic) and alertness depending on time of day. One planner mentioned her attendees preferred lecture style sessions in the morning and interactive sessions in the afternoons, due to varying levels of alertness. Another important decision for every planner is length of sessions, especially with evidence that adults are only attentive for 20 minutes at a time. One of my conferences first implemented a “TEDx” style schedule last year (15 minutes to present and 5 minutes for Q+A) and had great results. Other planners mentioned cutting back on presentation times and many of us shared that while speakers were hesitant (and some unhappy) at first, once they tried it, and saw how much more attentive and interactive the audience was, and how focused they were in their presentations, they were on board for following years – truly a win-win. While a 20 minute slot may not work for every conference, a key take-away was: we all learn differently and we all have fairly short attention spans. Ask your attendees for feedback on their preference for sessions, length, format and style, to see how you can improve, and vary your sessions based on that feedback the following year to keep your attendees interested and coming back.
Next up was “Accommodating Special Needs Attendees – Working to meet ADA Standards.” In my current role, I am not faced with accommodating special needs attendees very often, so I was blown away by the sheer amount I did not know regarding ADA Standards. We reviewed appropriate door width for accessibility, where and how often Braille should be throughout the hotel (everywhere there’s printed words, even menus!), door weight (should be light enough for someone sitting to open) and so much more. The presenters gave us a site visit checklist and brochure on what does and does not meet ADA standards that were both eye-opening. As planners, we all need to be aware of ADA standards, so I am excited to bring the check-list to my next site visit to ensure all the needs of my attendees are met.
My last stop was “Designing Memorable Meals for the Special Needs Attendee,” a topic near and dear to my heart, as I personally am a “special needs food attendee.” As planners, we are often faced with a multitude of food requests: vegetarian, gluten and/or dairy free, kosher, allergies – the list goes on! We honed in on a few topics in our discussion: need versus want (perfect example: plated meal & attendee decides at the table they prefer vegetarian because it looks better), cost and accountability (attendees not picking up expensive, special order meals), severe allergies and last minute requests. As a planner, you may not be surprised that the biggest takeaway was plan ahead. Address the needs in registration or include information for submitting special food requests on your event website (and include a deadline!); work with your Chef to create alternate meals if you have a large percentage of one special food need; come up with a plan if your attendees are leaving expensive meals behind (one solution was to charge the attendee only if they didn’t pick-up the meal and make the policy very clear to them) and make sure there is a clear way for attendees to identify themselves as special food needs on-site to the banquet staff. Lastly, be flexible on-site but be firm and consistent, and make sure everyone is giving the same answer for last-minute special meal requests.
Overall, I learned a lot of directly applicable information at the Capital Classroom and had a lot of fun doing it. Keep an eye out for the next Capital Classroom and be sure to join us!