What attendees really want from your events (but aren’t telling you)

What Attendees Want From Your EventsWhen I first started out in marketing two decades ago, I assumed that I could find out practically everything from my target audience with a survey. Just draw something up in Survey Monkey, mail it out to my list and – poof – the answers to everything would materialize in front of me.

Ah if the world were so simple. I soon discovered that I would NEVER get honest answers to certain things, like what people would really pay for a product/service. To get answers to those questions, you have to observe your audience closely and read between their answers to learn about their “secret” objections and desires.

We have been building online tools for the events industry for a decade now, and after many years of observing event professionals, after thousands of hours researching attendees and what leads them to register (or not), we have assembled quite a list of what attendees want from the events they attend but often don’t verbalize. Here are eight of those “secret” criteria at the top of attendees’ lists.

1. They want to start late and end late(r).

We all have morning routines that help us get the day going. And it doesn’t matter if we are early risers or hate mornings, because we all like to clear off our desks before we are required to go out in public.

Because of this, most attendees would much rather attend events that begin in mid-to-late morning at the earliest (as this survey shows) and in many cases they would prefer for it to start even later. This is why you see so many lunch or evening post-work events. And it’s also why you see so many conferences hold off on scheduling big speakers or panels until the afternoon or evening.

In addition, most attendees don’t mind events that extend past the dinner hour, as this won’t interfere with their workday.

2. They want (lots more) time to interact and network.

You spent all that time assembling kick-ass content, booking a hard-to-get speaker or entertainer, planning out a detailed, action-packed schedule, only to find lots of people mulling around the lobby and corridors talking.

This isn’t because your program is lacking or your event is boring. Rather, it’s because most people still attend events mainly to engage with peers and build their professional network. This isn’t the biggest kept secret in the events industry, but I still hear event organizers continue to express astonishment when they get feedback that there needs to be more breaks and down time. When attendees say “breaks” or “down time”, what they really mean is “time to network.”

Building in ample networking time is one way to deliver on this desire, but an even better way is to build in organized networking activities and exercises. This allows you to structure the time so that a majority of attendees will find it beneficial (including those introverts who tend to shy away from networking forums).

3. They want to browse … not buy (yet).

You know how many people will drive over to Target or BestBuy to comparison shop or try out items before they return home to buy it online? The same psychological principle applies to buying at events. Whether it’s a trade show or a bridal show, attendees are there mostly to browse, look, learn, compile information and get comfortable with the options available to them (great stat on this here).

Once they have a chance to regroup back at the office or at home and consider the options, they will be ready for the next step in the buying process. And if you try to pressure them at the event to buy, they will likely back off and possibly even eliminate you as an option. The best way to counter this is to establish a solid follow-up strategy with event leads and even institute an efficient lead collection system for exhibitors and sponsors.


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4. They want to use their technology … not (necessarily) yours.

The phrase “people love technology” isn’t fully accurate. However, what is accurate is that people love technology that they are used to.

Take this from someone who has been developing event tech products for a decade. The challenge isn’t getting attendees to use technology. Many of them are already doing this and using their favorite programs and apps, from email and text messaging to Facebook and Instagram to Google Maps, Lyft and Airbnb. However, getting them to adapt to a new piece of technology is much more difficult.

The reason is simple – people don’t like change, and this includes learning how to use a new event app or platform specific to your event. This is why many attendees decline to download the event app or are reluctant to use anything but the simplest features of your event technology. They just don’t have the time or desire to acclimate to another new piece of tech.

The best way to battle this is to first try meeting them on their own turf and integrating the tools they are already using into your event communications strategy. And if you do offer your own event app or event tech, make sure to offer a “Quick Start” guide for it and make sure it’s intuitive enough that it has a very, very short learning curve (like 1-2 minutes).

5. They want to not have to think about parking.

One thing that can dramatically drive down turnout among repeat attendees is if they had a bad experience the last time getting to the venue and/or parking.

When an attendee is registering for your event, often the last thing on their mind is physically getting to the venue on event day, and unfortunately this also means that many put off planning a driving route and deciding on where to park until the last minute (sometimes literally). So if they get there only to find out they must park a half-mile away and take a shuttle or pay a small fortune to park close, they will be arriving angry.

The easy way to avoid this twofold. First, you should confirm with local parking providers that they have ample space for the day and time of the event and, if possible, contract with them for a special attendee rate. And make sure to follow up with them the week prior to the event.

Second, you should send out clear directions to attendees a week before your event and then resend them the day before. This includes a map with where you recommend to park and fees for each parking facility. In addition, you should also provide clear instructions for reaching the venue via public transportation if it is offered in that locale.

6. They want to know who else is going.

One way to drive people to your event is to book a can’t-miss speaker or entertainer that will sell out the event long before it arrives. The other way is to show potential attendees that their friends or colleagues are already attending the event (as discussed here).

Social psychology studies tell us that people tend to follow the lead of others who are like them. If you allow your attendees to opt-in to an online list that shows they are coming, or if you make it easy for your attendees to post that they are attending on social media (like having social sharing buttons on your online registration confirmation page), then you can influence those fence-sitters to register for your event.

7. They want to learn something they didn’t already know.

Okay so this is my own pet requirement for what I want from an event, but I know for a fact I’m not alone based on the many event exit surveys I have conducted and compiled.

Yes, there are times when I am relieved to hear that what I am doing is still valid or what I already know still applies. But there’s an old phrase that applies here, and that is that people “don’t know what they don’t know.” Because of this, they are looking to you and your event to fill in the gaps of their knowledge and fill them in on what they’ve been missing.

This is where a survey can actually provide excellent guidance by allowing you to collect input from your target audience long before you have planned anything. Ask open-ended questions regarding where they feel their knowledge is lacking and even offer up cutting edge topics and tactics to see if they want to know more about them. And finally, have your speakers key in on providing juicy details, how-to’s and “secrets” that attendees wouldn’t easily discover on their own.

8. They want food-and-beverages that surprise them.

Attendees now expect more than linen tablecloths, PowerPoints and rubber chicken. They want an experience from top to bottom, and this includes food and drinks you serve to them.

With event budgets always tightening, it’s a huge challenge offering up haute cuisine on a Taco Bell budget, but this is where you can work with your caterer to be creative when it comes to both ingredients and recipes. See if you can get competitive prices on flavorful local or seasonal ingredients. Ask about interesting menu substitutions. You can even focus on one particular course, like offering exotic appetizers or a dessert table

So whether it’s food or technology, parking or networking, it’s critical to have a deep understanding of what attendees want and anticipate their sometimes unspoken needs so you can continue to serve them deep into the future.