October 12, 2017

3 Mistakes To Avoid When Planning Events (And What To Do Instead)

A lot of hard work goes into planning a conference, trade show or annual meeting. You screen speakers, vet venues, test technology and coordinate caterers. You spend a ton of time making sure all the big pieces fall into place. Yet, it’s the little things that can come back to bite you if you don’t do them right. Other experience designers agree—as evidenced during a tweet chat I participated in recently.

Here are common mistakes event planners make when it comes to experience design, and simple tips to help you avoid making them.


I hate when my cell phone battery dips below 50%. I stop what I’m doing and immediately seek an outlet. Addiction? Perhaps. But I’m not alone.

You can’t have enough electricity at your event. It does more than fuel your guests’ phones, laptops and tablets—it keeps them onsite and engaged. If attendees can’t recharge their electronic devices, they will not be happy. Which means you won’t be happy. Which means everyone is going to have a bad day.


  • Make sure there are ample power outlets. Add surge protectors to traditional wall outlets to expand the number of people who can charge at them. You’ll especially want to make sure there’s power available in session rooms where more folks will be actively using their laptops.
  • Arrange for charging stations throughout your conference. Some of the newer models even offer the ability to keep phones in secure lockers while they charge. It’s amazing. You put your phone in, get a code, walk around the show, come back and unlock your locker to retrieve your phone. Charging stations don’t even have to cost you money—in fact, you might make money on them. Often, a sponsor will pay for it.
  • Make charging areas conducive to networking. Install comfortable seating and provide refreshments. Coordinate simple, yet effective entertainment—cornhole boards, life-size chess sets and other tailgate activities can boost moods and make time fly. Plus, your guests may even get some unintentional business done while they’re waiting around for their battery levels to rise.
  • Get a company like Anker to create a pop-up booth and sell portable chargers. I bet their inventory is sold out before your conference ends. Again, a solution that’s no cost to you.


Have you ever planned or attended an event at a sprawling convention center? It can be exhausting and nerve-wracking getting from session to session on time.

I remember attending an event at the Convention Center of Cleveland years ago. After the first breakout session of the day ended a little late, I tossed my laptop into my canvas messenger bag and made a beeline for the door so I could get to my next session. Unfortunately, I was met by a horde of my fellow attendees waiting anxiously to get into the very room I was trying to exit. I twisted my way through the crowd, got my bearings and hoofed it across the expansive convention center.

By the time I arrived at session two, I was ten minutes late and it was standing room only. I couldn’t see the slides, hear the speaker, sit down or plug in my laptop. Plus, an inconvenient pool of sweat was now dripping down my back. Fail, fail, fail, fail and fail. It wasn’t the venue’s fault. It was the organizers of the event.


  • Build travel time into your program between sessions. This will allow for people to get across the convention center. That should be a no-brainer.

  • Be upfront, clear and firm with speakers that they should end on time or early. I get it—it’s not always easy. Even the most seasoned speakers can get caught up in the moment and lose track of time. But be diligent in telling them punctuality is a priority.

  • Assign a group of people from your team to track time and end each session on schedule. This will ensure rooms are cleared quickly and traffic between sessions is minimized.

  • Do a pre-show site visit. Time yourself getting from point A to the farthest point B. Can you do it without sweating or knocking people over in a mad rush? What if you had to use crutches or a wheelchair? Could you still make it in a reasonable amount of time? If not, make adjustments to the floor plan or session length.


Some of the worst events I’ve been to share one key flaw: They lack a purpose.

When there’s no unique, cohesive thread tying the whole thing together—no big idea, no theme, no mandate for what the conference should accomplish—there’s no life in the room. There’s also nothing special about your event compared to your competition.

Here’s a story of how “lack of purpose” can manifest itself and have negative consequences:

I went to a great marketing conference last year. When I returned, I remember telling a colleague about an amazing session I had seen there. Before I could finish gushing about what I learned, she stopped me and said—oh yeah, I saw that session at a different marketing conference last month. Wait, for real?

While the speaker is brilliant in their respective field, they had reused the same presentation at a competing event! They literally just packed up the same PowerPoint slides and traveled to the next city to peddle their wares. How did this happen? Neither event had designed their experience with enough intention. Neither had insisted that their speakers deliver custom content to their audience, or tie their message into the program for that year. That’s bush league. That’s not the fault of the speaker. It’s the fault of the organizers. My colleague and I felt fleeced.


  • Make sure there’s an overarching theme—an organizing narrative that the inspirational speakers, learning sessions and networking events share. For example, the American Geophysical Union’s theme for their upcoming Fall Meeting is “What will you discover?” Therefore, all of the planning and messaging around the event relates back to this big idea.

  • Insist that your speakers tailor their content to your event theme and narrative. Don’t think you can just book the speaker, throw their session title into your program and expect it to work. It won’t. Your audience is smart and knows better.

  • Create a guiding coalition within your organization to champion the event. This small group (around three to five people) should be tasked with making decisions that ensure the event is aligned across the attendee and exhibitor experiences. Make sure they are analyzing your competitors’ events, too.

Are these mistakes major? Maybe not on paper. And I’ll admit, working at an experience design agency has made me hyper-sensitive to negative cues at conferences and trade shows.

However, I firmly believe that you cannot ignore the nuances of your event experience. Those are the things that people remember and talk about with their colleagues.

Those are the things your attendees may someday blog about.

Check out how we helped clients transform their events.

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