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Rethinking Conference Schedules

When it comes to scheduling in-person meetings and conferences — or even hybrid events with a virtual component — there are two sides of the proverbial coin: the conference goals and the attendee experience. And a good schedule will satisfy both.

Planners need to know the why of the event before they can start on the how. Sit down with the organization or client to “figure out what their goals are and why we are doing this,” said Leticia Harnung, owner of Minneapolis-based LMH Consulting Services. “If you don’t start with the why, you’re just spinning your wheels.”

Planners should first consider the meeting goals and use those to direct the agenda and schedule, said Ayesha Navagamuwa, conference director and senior project manager with the Virginia-based Infinity Conference Group, which gets many scientific meetings that require knowledge- and research-sharing during a mix of presentations, small-group discussions and networking.

A continuing-education conference schedule will look different than an event that is primarily for networking or raising funds for the host organization, said Matt Burdetsky, principal at Capital Meeting Planning Inc. A conference where people need to complete continuing-education credits will include more education sessions, whereas other conferences may want to build in dedicated time for networking.

“It really does vary quite a bit,” he said, “so we need to ask, ‘What do we need to accomplish, and how do we do that in a way that’s still mindful of attendees?’”

Plan for the Attendee

Once the goals of the meeting are clear, planners must also consider the attendee experience, something planning committees sometimes forget or flat-out neglect.

“A lot of our clients want to squeeze in so much during a day — they want to manage their travel dollars. But we do try to advise them to be conscious of the attendee experience,” Navagamuwa said.

The planner sometimes has to push back on the planning team to ensure that attendees aren’t overscheduled and overwhelmed.

“Planners have to stay strong,” Harnung said. “They have to remind the planning committee how the attendees feel because [the committee is] just trying to get the why done; they’re not really always focused on the how.”

Too Early, Too Late

Planners should be wary of starting too early — and running too late. An event should probably not start before 8 a.m., and some organizers prefer not to start until 9 a.m. That gives people a chance to eat breakfast, drink their coffee, reply to emails and come into the first session ready to focus.

“Nobody should ever have a meeting at 7 a.m., unless you’re feeding people, and I mean protein,” Harnung said. “If you’re not feeding people breakfast, don’t put them in a seat until 8 a.m. at the earliest.”

And the same is true of how late to run. Meetings generally shouldn’t go past 5 p.m. because people will be drained and done, and organizers may begin to lose some of their attendees — either because they head back to their rooms or they just mentally check out.

Harnung recommends not doing 8-to-5 days back to back. Instead, consider starting later or stopping earlier on the second day to give people some downtime.

If planners include an evening event, whether an on-site dinner or an off-site social event, they should build in some downtime between the last session and the evening entertainment — but not too much time, or they risk attendees not coming back.

A good rule of thumb is to end the last session between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. That gives attendees an hour or an hour and a half to rest, respond to emails, call home, freshen up and return for the evening event.

Also consider where attendees are coming from for time-difference purposes. If a large number of attendees is flying in from the West Coast for an East Coast meeting, don’t start too early in the morning, or make sure they have adequate time the day before to adjust.

During a three-day conference, Burdetsky recommends having only one evening event to “let them go out with someone they’ve met there, rather than keeping them booked every night.”

It’s important to also consider the location and the venue. If a meeting is in a popular tourist destination or being held at a resort — and if it makes sense for the attendee demographics — organizers should build in some free time or schedule an outing to take advantage of those attractions and amenities.

Keep Their Attention

There’s no formula for a daily agenda; sessions can be 45 minutes long or 90 minutes long, depending on the needs of the conference. However, a good rule of thumb is 45 minutes of presentation and 15 minutes for Q&A with the speaker or panel, Burdetsky said, or perhaps a 60- to 75-minute session, as long as it’s interactive. Provide a midday lunch break, followed by afternoon sessions.

“There is no one-size-fits-all for this,” he said, “but when you strike the right balance for an agenda, it’s amazing how everyone is in a great mood, and the feedback you get is really positive.”

How the time is allotted isn’t necessarily as important as how it’s spent. It’s important to make sure the content is relevant to the audience and the presentations are diverse, interesting and engaging.

Don’t schedule three sessions in a row with speakers all in the same format, and don’t have one person presenting slides for an hour, Harnung said. Look at using different voices and different media. Planners could start with a panel discussion to warm up attendees’ brains before an education speaker, for example.

Navagamuwa said the average attention span for adults is 18 to 20 minutes, “so we try to keep that in mind when we’re deciding how many talks to fit into an eight-hour day.” Infinity keeps sessions short — about 45 minutes, including Q&A. It’s also typically better to do collaborative activities like discussions and brainstorming sessions in the afternoon: “You don’t want to bring people in from lunch to a heavy presentation; I don’t think those things will stick,” she said.

Breaks are imperative to allow attendees to stretch, use the restroom and get some coffee. Planners should allot at least 10 to 15 minutes between sessions, but some organizers are now building in extended break times. Capital Meeting Planning has hired a personal trainer to first lead 10-minute stretch breaks before letting attendees break for 15 minutes on their own. Capital Meeting Planning has also shifted from short breaks to 45- to 60-minute breaks to allow people to network, often having attendees take those breaks in the expo hall to give vendors and sponsors more visibility, Burdetsky said.