Liz Lathan, CMP is a corporate event and experiential marketer who's obsessed with applying modern marketing principles to a segment of the marketing industry that has historically been an afterthought. The chief experience officer at Haute Companies, Liz has led event marketing strategy and teams at Fortune 500 companies and consults with small and medium businesses on how to optimize their events within their broader marketing program.
How To Pick The Right Type of Event
As event professionals, we know that face-to-face learning and networking is the difference-maker in advancing your knowledge and your career. But with limited time and limited professional development budget, how can you prioritize one over the other?
I've been a life-long knowledge-seeker and information tourist, testing out a variety of learning experiences from conferences to monthly luncheons to webinars to live online classes to networking events to unconferences to new formats like Spontaneous Think Tanks. I've found that all of them serve a purpose, so I thought I'd share my observations on each type of event.
Why they rock: From training to industry case studies to inspirational speakers, conferences are the #1 way to share information broadly to large groups. Throw in some networking receptions and white space for participants to meet each other, and you have a classic winning formula. Conferences are not going away — if done right, their tried-and-true format provides inspiration, education and the opportunity to build professional connections. Conferences are the BEST when they include some or all of the elements in the event types listed below.
Why they don't: Conference organizers are often pressured to fill the event with so much content that every spare moment of the event is scheduled to the minute. Attendees are rushed from session to session and xylophone-shamed back into a one-way conversation in a windowless breakout room. (Organizers should be mindful to plan in time for attendees to digest the information they're learning and not be pressured to schedule out every moment of their time. Organic conversations can often be the most fruitful.) Many conferences cater to extroverts with their large crowds and limited small-group time.
Why they rock: Building a community in your local area is the quickest and easiest way to broaden your knowledge and connections. By becoming a member of a local chapter of an association or participating in regular luncheons, you become a familiar face in your area and meet people you can call upon for advice or support.
Why they don't: If you are in a role that is national or global, don't limit yourself to the local connections. It's important to be a part of a national or global organization to broaden your perspective and learn more about the stage you're playing on. Many luncheons also have limited networking time and are programmed with speakers that take over the entire span of the lunch, so always either volunteer, arrive early or stay late to make the most of your time. Introverts may find it difficult to break into regular luncheons where participants already know each other.
Why they rock: For training or case studies, webinars are a great way to get information and CEUs without the expense of travel. A good webinar presenter can keep you engaged and can create a useful educational experience to hone your skills. On-demand (pre-recorded) webinars allow you to watch and listen at a time and place that works for you. They are also great for introverts to ingest information without having to interact in large crowds.
Why they don't: Minimal networking and interaction and a bazillion distractions make webinars not great for networking.
Live Online Classes
Why they rock: Usually structured like a real class with a syllabus, agenda and course content, these classes generally offer great interaction with the instructor and other students and encourage group conversations. Generally focused on skill-building or knowledge sharing, live online courses are a great way to get educated on a topic while building relationships. Saving on travel expenses is an added bonus, and the minimal infrastructure needed to execute these events makes them awesome to run. They're also a great place for introverts and extroverts to share knowledge.
Why they don't: These experiences are usually no more than an hour or two at a time, and lack the long-term relationship-building of face-to-face experiences. Overall, though, these are great opportunities for learning.
Why they rock: With the sole purpose of networking, meeting people, exchanging information and making connections, networking events are a fun way to grow your Rolodex and meet new people.
Why they don't: Often a sharks-and-minnows environment, participants may feel hunted by sales people or feel the connections are so shallow that they are fleeting. Deep conversations are hard to have in this environment, and they strongly cater to extroverts.
Why they rock: Centered around a specific topic, workshops are highly focused and highly facilitated, and they focus on a specific outcome, whether that's training or solving a problem. They could be 90 minutes or multiple days. Workshops are awesome for skill-building, team-building or planning due to their interactivity and goal-focus.
Why they don't: When poorly facilitated or just structured as a lecture but mislabeled as a "workshop," they can be a waste of time. Before signing up for something called a workshop, make sure it has a syllabus and a reputable facilitator.
Why they rock: Focused almost 100% on peer-to-peer knowledge sharing, unconferences are wonderful for introverts and extroverts, both young and experienced professionals to create an agenda together and share knowledge. Everyone has knowledge to share and knowledge to gain, and this experience brings out that expertise.
Why they don't: Poorly designed unconferences can leave participants confused and unfulfilled. Without proper facilitation, they can feel like forced fun, and not genuine. They are not good for formal training or CEUs because the agenda is created onsite and can't be submitted for CEU approval in advance.
Spontaneous Think Tanks
Why they rock: Facilitated by certified Haute Dokimazo Collaboration Architects, this experience leverages networking, conferences, unconferences, and sometimes live online classes to create a new, soul-poppin' format. By short-cutting the sometimes-awkward networking experience to dive deep into problems that need to be solved and solutions that exist from the knowledge in the room, Spontaneous Think Tanks are outcome-based with an eye toward problem-solving. The authentic and genuine welcome experience puts attendees at ease, and makes them feel like a member of the family. Live, onsite feedback at the end of the experience gives participants the ability to be heard by the organizers and capture feedback and advice for future sessions. Participants of Spontaneous Think Tanks have reported that these experiences have been the most impactful, educational, and rewarding learning and networking experiences they've ever encountered.
Why they don't: Spontaneous Think Tanks are not good for formal training or CEUs because the agenda is created onsite and can't be submitted for CEU approval in advance. (However, sessions can be submitted after the event to accrediting organizations for approval). For groups expecting an extremely formal and highly structured schedule, this format may be too chaotic for their comfort level.
Why they rock: Then there's the wild card events. Every once in a while, a once-in-a-lifetime experience crosses your desk and you need to ask for special budget approval. These might include spectacular destination familiarization (or fam) trips, highly-curated small group roundtable discussions, or (my personal favorite) a new kind of event like the Haute Dokimazo Secret Family Reunion. This event leverages the conference, networking, unconference, Spontaneous Think Tank, workshop and all.the.things to create a memorable, impactful experience like none other. November 2020 will be the first-ever Haute Dokimazo Secret Family Reunion, so I'll leave it to the attendees to report back as to the effectiveness of this one, but the HD team is dedicated to making this new event format revolutionize the way people think about meeting, sharing, and learning.
Why they don't: These types of events may take more time out of the office than normal events, and may pop up outside of the normal budget cycle, requiring more overall investment by the participant in clearing their schedule to go.
How to Choose and How to Plan
When creating your professional development plan for the year, it's important to align your goals and objectives with your budget.
If you are newer in your career, participating in conferences, monthly luncheons and networking events helps you grow your network and expand your knowledge. For all career levels, keep an eye on workshops, webinars and live online classes to brush up on skills or learn something new.
Unconferences and Spontaneous Think Tanks are great for experienced professionals who are always looking to learn, but have just as much to contribute.
Wild Card experiences are generally better for more senior event professionals due to the heavy emphasis on knowledge sharing. In the case of fam trips, organizers want to make sure participants with purchase decision influence are on board. That's not to say that young professionals can't participate, but usually spots are limited.
As for budgeting, if you are on the brand side, you can also look for hosted buyer events to have some or all of your expenses paid in exchange for meeting with suppliers or hotels for your programs. These hosted buyer experiences are good for hearing inspirational speakers and meeting others in the industry. Many industry events also offer scholarships to brand-side participants, so don't be afraid to ask the organizer if scholarships or hosted registrations are available. Most hosted buyer or scholarship opportunities come with a request or requirement to meet with the sponsoring host or exhibitors.
No matter which format you choose, it is vital for you as an event professional to get outside of your normal work environment and learn from others — it's how you stay fresh.
Republished from LinkedIn with author's permission.