Newbie Navigation: Welcoming the First-Time Attendee

How to help the first-time conference-goer get the most out of the experience.

The Hive is a designated spot for first-time attendees to mix and mingle at the ASAE Annual Meeting.

Lindsay Currie, CAE, executive officer, Council on Undergraduate Research
Lindsay Currie, CAE, executive officer, Council on Undergraduate Research

“I logged into the [meeting] app, and the event dress code said 'cocktail casual.' I don’t even know what that means,” admitted Lindsay Currie, CAE, executive officer for the Council on Undergraduate Research and a co-host at a breakout session on "Using Your Conference as a Year-Long Engagement Tool" held during the ASAE 2019 Annual Meeting earlier this month at the Greater Columbus Convention Center in Ohio. “I Googled it. I still don’t know what I’m wearing.” 

The event she sought sartorial advice about was the ASAE Foundation’s the Classic, the annual fundraising gala held concurrently with the annual meeting, aimed at raising money for association research. This year, the soirée agenda included an intimate performance by the Grammy, Emmy, Tony and Oscar-winning singer/songwriter John Legend within Columbus' Nationwide Arena

The Newcomer Checklist
MemberSuite, an association-management software platform, suggests setting up the following resources before the meeting takes place.

• Create a first-timer event page;

• Email a first-timer tip sheet;

• Publish helpful blog posts (e.g., tips on meeting new people);

• Host a “know before you go” webcast;

• Create a FAQ group for new attendees, and

• Promote pre-event activities and registration.

“It’s a pain point we’ve all felt,” Currie added. “Being a first-time attendee or solo traveler amid a sea of established colleagues -- it’s overwhelming. You don't know who to turn to or where to find the answers. It’s kind of awkward, and it’s something we don’t address enough.”  

“Nearly two-thirds of our annual conference attendees are first-timers,” noted Heather Wakefield, senior manager, education and events, for the Regulatory Affairs Professional Society and the other co-host at the session. “Determining that stat helps us realize the importance of catering to first-timers and supporting a navigable conference experience.”

According to Susan Robertson, CAE, interim president and CEO of ASAE, fully 28 percent of the 5,000-plus people who attended this year’s annual meeting were also first-timers. “Newbies are the most impressionable group on the expo floor,” she notes. “Our goal is to make them feel comfortable and ensure they come back next year.”

ASAE provides a number of resources for those attending their first annual conference. Following are a few of those initiatives, detailed alongside strategies taken by other organizations represented at this year's meeting.

Provide Attendee Ribbons

“You not only want to make first-timers feel at home, but you want them to return when next year's meeting rolls around,” says Samantha Whitehorne, editorial director, ASAE. One annual initiative provided by the association is the Hive, a designated space where first-time attendees can meet and seek guidance from veteran staff members and volunteers.

"New Bee" attendee badge patches and coversation cards from the Hive
"New Bee" attendee badge patches and coversation cards from the Hive

Within the Hive, attendees can charge up their devices, grab a snack or network with others taking a needed break. Visitors also can grab a bumble-bee patch that adheres to their meeting badge. According to the ASAE website, beginners can rest assured they'll be able to spot other first-time attendees via these “new bee” stickers. 

In addition, first-timer ribbons are available throughout the entirety of the meeting via the registration desks. They easily adhere to meeting badges and are hard to miss, printed in a bright gold hue. 

A sampling of the name-badge ribbon options for attendees
A sampling of the name-badge ribbon options for attendees Photo Credit: Name Badge Productions

"Ribbons are the perfect way to allow participants to signal to others who they are. It’s a way to display what differentiates them and, at the same time, which ‘tribe’ they belong to,” says Don Neal, founder and CEO, 360 Live Media. “It’s usually up to attendees to select from a bunch of ribbon categories available to them at any event.”

Indeed, an entire wall of multi-colored ribbons was available to all at ASAE's meeting, with options ranging from the more professional "CMP" and "Public Policy Committee" to the light-hearted "Coffee Addict" and "Trouble Maker." 

Facilitate Conversations

ASAE invites its conference-goers to engage via social media outlets like Twitter. The Hive’s webpage prompts attendees to tweet their meeting questions and promotes introductory hashtags like #ASAE19 and #newbie.

One tweet sent out on Aug. 1 by DelCor, a Maryland-based tech-solutions firm, teased the use of Hive conversation cards and challenged attendees to strike up conversations using probes like, “How do you unwind after a long day at work?” 

Conversation cards were passed out at the beginning of the breakout session referred to at the start of this article, which led attendee to share some of the details they discovered about their cohorts, including one woman who said, “I learned that Chris sitting next to me raises chickens.” 

“The conversation starters are not meant to be daunting or scary,” said Lindsay Currie at the session. “We just want to help introverts like us strike up chatter without the process feeling embarrassed or forced.” 

Michael Baer, membership programs coordinator for the Pennsylvania Municipal Authorities Association and a first-time ASAE attendee, appreciates the small-group approach. “Especially as newcomers, I think we’re all just afraid of being judged, asking questions that come off as naïve or striking up conversations when we don’t know how they’ll be received," he says. "I prefer smaller crowds when it comes to networking.” 

Enlist Volunteers

ASAE Annual Meeting volunteers and staff at the Greater Columbus Convention Center
ASAE Annual Meeting volunteers and staff at the Greater Columbus Convention Center Photo Credit: Instagram, @cbusconventions

“This year’s annual meeting was supported by more than 600 volunteers from various Columbus-based organizations,” says Sal Martino, FASAE, CAE. chair, board of directors, for ASAE. “That’s 600 individuals who were on hand and willing to help.” 

“The volunteer orientation was buzzing with people actually happy to be of assistance” adds Susan Robertson. “It was wonderful to see. Too often, people just come for the free volunteer snacks.”

The volunteer presence at the annual meeting was robust. Around every corner, a smiling individual outfitted in a sky blue Columbus shirt would be holding a sign that read either “Welcome ASAE” or “Ask Us.” Moreover, everyone appeared genuinely happy to lend a hand. 

“The Experience Columbus Certified Tourism Ambassador program did a really good job of getting us volunteers accustomed with the Greater Columbus Convention Center surroundings, and they provided us with some cheat sheets to assist attendees throughout the weekend,” says Meredith Berliner, meeting and sourcing manager, American Express Global Business Travel and ASAE volunteer. “Even outside of the convention center, we had volunteers in the lobby of every convention hotel in the city, and our goal was to just help provide a more comfortable experience for travelers.” 

The team at Wild Apricot, a Toronto-based event-management software company, agrees that successful volunteers are key to satisfied event attendees. "Making the effort to get your volunteers off to a good start is important, since these individuals will become the face of your organization during the event," the company said in a statement. "It's so important that volunteers understand their role and feel part of a team, so that they can bestow that feeling upon the attendee in need."

Create an Ambassador Program

Many organizations seek members to help out as official ambassadors. “As part of our conference registration, we ask veteran staff members and attendees if they would like to become a program ambassador,” says Michele Miller, director, membership and development, for the Industry Asset Management Council. Before a typical IAMC conference, the ambassadors are paired one-on-with with a new attendee.

Among a number of obligations, ambassadors and their first-timers are encouraged to meet 15 minutes before each agenda item, attend the opening ceremony and evening socials together, and network over meal times. “This year, we had 50 individuals willing and able to become ambassadors, and we had only 25 first-time attendees," says Miller. "It’s nice to see a surplus of people willing to accompany the newcomer.” 

The Licensing Executives Society USA and Canada recruits ambassadors to connect with first-time IAMC attendees before the annual meeting to help them better navigate the three-day event. "We match ambassadors and new attendees by their technology area of interest, so that the connections are mutually useful," says Robert Held, president and chairman, LES.

During its meeting, LES hosts a first-time and new-members' event immediately before the opening reception. "After the initial interaction, we hope newcomers will feel safe asking ambassadors whenever they have questions, especially those they met prior to the opening ceremony," says Held.

Set Up Successful Seating

“How many people step into the meeting room and look for an end-of-the-row seat or stack bags and beverages on either side of them to avoid sitting next to a stranger?” Currie asked attendees at the ASAE breakout session. The question was met with a roar of agreeable laughter. “We don’t offer any theater-style seating during our events,” she noted. “Theater seating is so impersonal and really limits conversation to awkward, over-the-shoulder whispers.”

Instead, Currie and her team design the meeting room with a variety of round tables -- four-, six- or eight-seat rounds -- and a few high-tops in the back for attendees on the run (refer to the diagram, left, to get a better sense of the setup). “Acting like a human is challenging when you’re in a room full of strangers," Currie said. "We try to break down challenges by setting up the room with a more inclusive and conversational seating style.”

A planner might also consider the taboo of assigning seats, as
Teamwork Services, a Minneapolis consulting firm, chooses to do. “When attendees arrive, they might grumble about seating assignments, especially those that get ‘stuck’ near the front of the room, when they would have preferred to sit in the back,” allows Tom LaForce, owner of Teamwork Services. Nevertheless, he cites the following reasons for the practice. 

  • It mixes up the normal dynamic so that attendees make new connections.
  • It increases the breadth of perspectives for small group discussions.
  • It balances out the power in the room. When there are people from varying levels, LaForce might choose to mix it up or keep peers together. In either case, a seating plan is handy.
  • It supercharges unique collaborations. When otherwise strangers sit next to each other, LaForce's hope is that they will create some interesting chemistry.

The best part, LaForce says, is that attendees always seem to walk away from the meeting happy that they had the chance to meet and speak with someone they otherwise might not have. 

Maximize the Meeting App

“One of the easiest ways to help newcomers feel more equipped is to provide them with a strong meeting app," says Sara El Saied, manager, business development and industry relations, for the Association of Women's Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses. "We use the Confex app to manage our annual conference information. It allows attendees to create personalized convention schedules, view posters, access floor plans and exhibitor listings, and connect with other attendees.” 

El Saied says she personally appreciates the fact that attendees are able to engage with each other via the platform. “Confex gives me a sort of one-stop-shopping space to connect with others at the AWHONN Conference. There’s a lot of customization within the app, too, which our audience really appreciates. 

“Any app or meeting management system that offers personalization is such a help not only for the planner, but for the attendee,” El Saied continues. “Allowing users the opportunity to add an icon to their app profile, highlighting them as a first-timer or solo traveler, helps create connections with others in the same boat before even meeting on the expo hall floor.”

Customization appears a favored theme. "A tailored event app helps attendees foster relationships, share ideas and get to know one another within the platform, as opposed to striking up a conversation out of thin air," says Elin Warfvinge, marketing manager for MeetApp. "Communicating virtually builds strong relationships, especially since attendees can put a face to the name before the actual event. It makes it easy to share thoughts, ideas and, when meeting personally, mobile apps can even serve as icebreakers."