Rethinking Your Event’s Sacred Cows

by | Jan 9, 2015

By Shawna Suckow, CPM and Interface 2014 Presenter

Shawna Suckow

A funny thing happened on the way to our annual conference. I’ve spent years studying and speaking on the topic of audience engagement, but it was my own conference that recently schooled me on the subject first-hand. In my role as chairwoman of SPIN, the largest association of senior-level meeting & event planners, I’m responsible for the annual conference that brings these great minds together (talk about intimidating – imagine planning a conference for the foremost experts in conference planning). At our most recent conference, a wonderful mistake happened that will forever change the way we run our events.

Our event was to begin at 2pm, but the event just prior to ours ran long, preventing us from gaining access to our General Session room for setup. We couldn’t keep the crowd any longer, so without the General Session room, we flipped the agenda, and instead of opening with the General Session, we went straight to a networking break led by a teambuilding expert.

This exercise immediately turned the crowd from attendees to active participants with crazy games and activities that had them laughing hysterically and connecting with each other – energizing them in a way that the General Session could never have.

This reminded me that sometimes you just have to rethink your event’s “sacred cows,” in this case the formula for how a conference is supposed to run. By the time our attendees got to the General Session they were engaged, connected and energized in a way that continued for the entire three day conference and well beyond.

Since the #1 reason people come to events is to network, here are two things you can do to help them:

1. Have at least some guided networking activities – don’t leave it to chance – because it can be intimidating for introverts and first-time attendees. For this conference we used the team from

2. Stretch those 15-minute breaks to 30, 45 or even 60 minutes. It’s OK to give people time outside of the meeting room – they crave networking, their brains need time to process what they’ve learned, and they need time to check email, or they’ll do it during your sessions.

Shawna Suckow, CMP, has spoken on five continents on the topics of customer and audience engagement. In her spare time, she’s an excellent parallel parker and a world-class napper. She’d love to hear from you at You can also visit her site here.