Business Conference Activities

Mary Gormandy White
conference room

While all business conferences generally include a variety of speakers discussing topics of interest to the attendees, the best events incorporate a range of different types of activities. Make sure that the next event you're planning is a success by including options that will appeal to all segments of the target audience.

Keynote Speakers

Keynote speakers can be a big draw for conference attendees. These are usually general session presentations, meaning that there are no other speakers holding sessions at the same time. The topics are usually beyond standard professional development fare, offering inspiration or unique insights. While keynote presenters can be scheduled at any time, they are often booked for the first and last sessions at a conference.

Depending on the size and budget of the event, some groups book celebrities or other high profile individuals as keynote speakers. For example, Dan Rather was a keynote speaker for HR Florida in 2016, and Malala Yousafzai will be speaking at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) 2018 Conference & Expo. Smaller organizations often book local celebrities or motivational speakers for these sessions. You can find keynote speakers through organizations like the National Speakers Association or Big Speak.

Breakout Sessions

Breakout sessions are educational programs held throughout the day at business conference events. More that one session is scheduled at the same time, to allow attendees to choose from a variety of topics so they can customize their schedule to a degree. Consider booking successful professionals in your field, industry consultants and trainers, government agency representatives and other experts for keynote slots. Consider placing a call for speakers on your organization's website to encourage people interested in contributing to submit proposals.

When scheduling breakout speakers, it's important to offer a wide variety of subject matter, and to spread out the topics so that people are likely to be able to attend programs that appeal to their interests. For example, if you have two accounting-related speakers, schedule them at different times so that the people who are most interested in accounting will have an opportunity to attend both. Offer vastly different topics at the same time, such as marketing or customer service, so that attendees who are not interested in accounting have plenty to choose from as well.

Brainstorming Sessions

Audience watching presentation

One of the biggest benefits of attending conferences is the opportunity to meet and communicate with like-minded professionals. Consider setting aside time in the agenda for brainstorming sessions specific to particular topics. For example, you could block out a few breakout sessions to be roundtable discussions on hot topics relevant to the attendees. Alternately, you could designate seating areas within the venue's lobby to be set aside for special interest discussions at different times throughout the day. Attendees interested in learning more about what others think about the designated topics will appreciate having an opportunity to participate in something like this.

Retail Sales

Conferences often feature portable retail stores where attendees can purchase branded items that the sponsoring association offers, such as t-shirts, pens, portfolios and more. These retail sales outlets also typically carry books written by authors who are speaking at the event. If your group isn't able to invest in a large amount of inventory, just provide a few display items that attendees can order at the event for you to have drop-shipped to their home or office. They'll probably appreciate not having to carry around or pack items to take home, so you may find that you sell even more this way.

Book Signings

Speaking of authors, it is a good idea schedule book signings for speakers who have published books during the event. It's generally best to host a particular author's book signing immediately after the individual's speech, as attendees who are excited about the individual's presentation might go directly to the signing to purchase a book to have signed. This can help your group boost book sales, and it also makes the prospect of speaking at your event particularly appealing to authors.

Trade Show

information table at conference

Most business conferences include a trade show portion, which involves setting aside an area where vendors and sponsors can set up booths to display their products and services in exchange for a fee. The money that comes in as a result of fees related to trade show participation can help cover the costs of putting on the overall event and also help the planning organization earn revenue to support its operations.

For some conferences, the trade show stays open all the time, while at others the exhibitor booth section is only available to attendees during times that sessions are not going on. Each exhibitor is assigned a specific booth space where they set up displays promoting their products and services. They assign team members to staff the booths and interact with attendees. Most distribute product literature and offer some kind of giveaway (usually promotional business gifts or snacks), as well as collect contact information from attendees to use for marketing purposes in the future.

Silent Auction

If your conference is a major fundraiser for the sponsoring group or other association, consider hosting a silent auction. This involves collecting donated items that attendees can bid on for a specified timeframe during the conference. Once bidding closes, the highest bidder for each item "wins" - which means that they will purchase the item. Those who engage have fun shopping and competing, especially if they get some great bargains, and the organization enjoys an additional revenue stream from the event.

Food: Meals and Snacks

Food is an important part of any conference event! Chances are that you will need to purchase meals and snacks from the convention center, hotel, or other venue where the event will be held. You should plan to have a light breakfast in the morning if the event starts early in the day, a plated or buffet lunch, and afternoon snacks. Some events also include evening meals on one or more nights, particularly if there is an awards ceremony or special evening keynote presentation.

When ordering the menu, be sure to have a wide variety of options to account for special dietary restrictions. If you are offering buffet selections, be sure that there are choices for people who can't (or choose not to) eat things like gluten, sugar, wheat, nuts or meat. It's also advisable to have options available for those who follow a vegan lifestyle. If you are serving plated meals, allow attendees to opt for meals that fit their way of eating. One way to do this is to include a section on the registration form where participants can specify dietary restrictions or place special orders.

Kick-Off Reception

networking at conference

Consider hosting a kick-off reception on the first night of the conference focused on engaging participants with the event and promoting supporters (vendors and sponsors). The idea is to host a fun event that people will look forward to attending and that will give them a chance to socialize with other attendees in a structured way.

These receptions are often held on the trade show floor, providing attendees with a first glimpse of the exhibitors in a relaxed setting where food and beverages are served. This creates a value-added benefit for vendors and sponsors who pay to have exhibitor booths, as these receptions are typically well attended by conference participants.

You can probably find a sponsor to underwrite the cost of this type of event in exchange for promotional consideration. If you are going to serve alcohol at the reception, consider giving each attendee a certain number of drink tickets so they can get a few beverages at no cost. This will help control the cost and minimize other potential liability issues as well. There should be no charge for the food or other types of beverages.

Social Connections

It's a good idea to incorporate additional informal ways for attendees to connect with each other and socialize in a relaxed way. For example, you could include a Tweetup that allows people to connect in a fun why while also enhancing the event's social media presence. Select an official hashtag for the event, so attendees can share their experiences online.

It's also a good idea to allow attendees to sign up to participate in group events that they would pay for on their own, such as meals at certain kinds of restaurants, with speakers or authors whose work is highlighted at the event, or to see the local sights. This is particularly beneficial for people who are not attending with other people they know as it provides them a way to get to know other attendees and engage in the local area without having to venture out on the own.

Entertainment

Entertainment can be a great added feature for large conferences, particularly those that span multiple days. Some multi-day conferences include after-hours events like concerts, comedy performances or parties that participants can attend. Admission for attendees should be included in the overall event registration fee though you should probably also allow them to purchase additional tickets just for the entertainment-focused portion(s). That way, it is possible for business travelers who bring friends or family members along to include their travel companions for these types of events.

Workout Groups

It can be hard to stay on-track with your workout routine when you're out of town at a conference. It can be helpful when the event organizers publish a schedule of organized group exercise activities. For example, you can get a committee member familiar with the local area to host daily walks or runs, or set aside an area at the venue to offer group fitness classes to those who wish to participate.

Attendee Door Prizes

People love winning things, so it can be great to provide ways for attendees to register for and win door prizes during the event. You can include door prizes provided by the sponsoring organization as well as items contributed by vendors. For example, some groups may award a cash grand prize (funded by the organization or a sponsor), along with smaller prizes donated by trade show exhibitors.

Many groups manage the process of awarding door prizes by providing attendees with bingo cards populated with the name of each sponsor or the first several vendors who register and pay. Attendees have to visit the specified booths to get unique stamps or signatures, then the completed cards are entered in a drawing. Cards are pulled at a pre-specified time (typically at the end of the day), with prizes being awarded to participants who are in attendance.

At some events, vendors who have door prizes award them by collecting business cards from attendees or scanning bar codes from their badges.

Exhibitor Door Prizes

Some groups also offer door prizes to exhibitors as a way of further engaging the individuals and companies that provide financial support for the conference. One option is to draw names of one or two exhibitors to receive free booth space for the following year's event. You may also want to consider drawing names of vendor representatives to award fun prizes they will enjoy receiving. They will appreciate it, and it may help them urge their employers to participate next year!

Evaluations

It's important to get feedback from this year's attendees, as well as the vendors and sponsors. Provide a way for everyone involved to complete an evaluation form. You could distribute paper evaluations at the event or follow-up by sending a survey within a few days. No matter how you ask for feedback, it is important that you do! It's also important that you listen! Publish the results and take the feedback that you get into consideration when you start planning next year's event.

Have a Great Conference

While this isn't an all-inclusive list of every possible type of activity that could be included in a conference, it is a great starting point. Review these ideas and encourage the others involved in planning your next event to do the same. Use what you learn to select some activities and as a starting point to think of other ideas that may help make your event even more appealing to your target audience. There are a lot of conferences out there, so it's important to take steps to make sure that yours provides valuable professional development opportunities and resources, as well as some fun.

Business Conference Activities