April 8, 2019
Picture this. You’re on a shuttle bus, sitting by yourself, on the way to the opening party at your association’s annual conference—this is your first time attending. You’re excited about the next few days and hope to meet fellow membership directors. Overhearing snippets of conversation, you realize some people on the bus spent the day together. Already, you feel like you missed out because you didn’t know better—that doesn’t help your confidence level.
You walk into the crowded venue and see people hugging, chatting, and laughing. Everyone seems to know each other, and you don’t know a single soul. Room service sounds good right about now.
Chances are many of your first-time attendees experience this anxiety. Some people have no problem strolling into a room full of strangers and making the most of your event. But others aren’t that extroverted or seasoned. These first-time attendees aren’t likely to come back next time unless you make them feel welcome and help them get the most out of their event experience.
Get first-time attendees ready for your event long before they arrive on site.
#1. First-timer event page. Gather all your first-time attendee resources in one place on your website. Even returning attendees will find this page useful.
#2. First-timer tip sheet. Don’t assume everyone knows the basics of conference survival or event networking. Gather tips from regular attendees about everything from session selection and sleep to networking and note-taking. Email the tip sheet to first-time attendees, and post it on your event website and social platforms.
#3. Blog posts. Use your blog to go deeper into first-timer tips. For example, share advice for meeting new people or for capturing and acting upon great ideas.
#4. “Know before you go” webinar. People have different preferences for receiving information. Some will read your blog posts, but others will prefer video. Host a live webinar that introduces first-time attendees to event basics. Use a platform that offers a chat feature so viewers can ask questions or talk among themselves. Post the recording on your first-timer page.
#5. Online community. Create a discussion group in your online community for first-time attendees. Ask staff or volunteers to moderate the discussion and answer questions.
#6. Promote pre-event activities. Encourage first-time attendees to register for pre-event programs so they can meet a small group of people before the main event. Consider offering city tours, outdoor activities, community service projects, or volunteering opportunities the day before sessions start.
#7. Event buddies. During registration, ask returning attendees if they would be interested in serving as an event buddy for first-timers, and ask first-timers if they would like an event buddy. Make matches based on career stage, age, specialty/interests, and/or position. Ask the buddy to reach out to their first-timer before the event to arrange a meet-up for the first day.
First impressions are often lasting impressions. Don’t let event newbies stand alone. Make sure they feel welcomed from the start.
#8. Name badge. Display “first-timer” or “new member” badges in a colored transparent badge holder, or attach a distinctive ribbon to badges.
#9. Welcome gift. Surprise and delight first-timers. Give them a gift card for a café in or near the venue. Or, ask them to pick up an association-branded gift on their way home.
#10. Ambassadors. Ask veteran members to act as ambassadors for first-time members. Instruct them to look for event newbies in the registration area, welcome them, and show them around, making introductions along the way. If it’s a multiple-day event, ask ambassadors to check in with first-timers again on the second day.
#11. First-timers breakfast. Host an exclusive (and sponsored) breakfast for first-timers on the first morning of the event where they can meet other attendees, ambassadors, event buddies, volunteers, and staff before all the excitement begins.
#12. First-timers reception. Or, host a reception for first-timers (and the same list of other guests) before the event’s opening reception or party. Newbies can meet each other and not have to walk into a big party alone.
#13. Newbie lounge. Set aside a special (and sponsored) gathering spot, like The Hive at ASAE’s Annual Meeting, where first-time attendees can get to know each other, enjoy snacks and beverages, and gather for event orientation tours.
#14. VIP seating. If space permits, save some VIP seats for first-timers in the front rows at keynotes or at a table with board members or ambassadors during breakfast or lunch.
#15. Structured networking. Instead of only scheduling “open networking time,” association consultant Amanda Kaiser recommends scheduling some structured networking time too—guided discussions with a purpose. She says open networking can be “awkward for potential and new members. Friends gravitate to friends leaving new members feeling like they are the only one in the room who doesn’t know anyone.”
#16. Post-event email or call. A few days after the event, get in touch with first-time attendees to learn about their experience and suggest future engagement possibilities based on what you know about their needs and interests.
#17. Event buddy follow-up. Ask event buddies to contact their “charges” too. Suggest different questions for them, although their conversation will naturally be more personal since they’ve spent time with each other.
If you make an effort to create a welcoming and helpful experience for first-time attendees, you’re more likely to see them at your next event. Now, how about your event experience? Download our Events Module Info Sheet to learn how MemberSuite has all the tools you need to help you plan the ultimate conference or trade show.