As the White House Director of Events during the Clinton Administration, IACC keynote speaker Laura Schwartz created events that represented a nation and inspired the world. Today, as a professional speaker, respected television commentator and author of Eat, Drink & Succeed, Laura shares the secrets to building powerful, effective connections within companies, communities and events.
Having created more than 1,000 White House events, including 12 State arrival ceremonies and dinners, America's Millennium Celebration and NATO's 50th Anniversary, Laura knows something about creating an impact. In a recent interview with IACC, she stressed that close cooperation between a venue operator and meeting planner is essential for every successful meeting or event.
“In order to create what I like to call an innovative culture of engagement, there is an essential intersection between the host and venue that creates an experience which allows guests to come in and engage productively,” Laura said.
She said the venue matters as much to an event’s success as careful planning does. “I like seeing the venue and meeting planner working closely because I think you should get the guests excited about the venue as much as the event and its message,” she said.
Seven tips for successful eventsConsider these seven tips for meeting planners, venue operators and guests to ensure your events become exciting opportunities to form connections.
1. Create an atmosphere of engagement.As a host, you want to create an event that is enjoyable as well as productive. How can venue operators and planners ensure that guests are able to enjoy an atmosphere of engagement?
“Create an experience that evokes an emotion, and an opportunity for the guests to get more out of it than just great food and drink,” said Laura. “Everything from the lighting to the stage design and technology to the linens plays a crucial part of the whole because it lends to the engagement with the guests. My mantra is we do not host events, we host guests.”
Make sure everyone in the room can hear the presenter, not just those in the front. Is the temperature right? If someone spends the entire session feeling too cold or wishing they had not checked their coat, will they be engaged and get anything from the presentations? If the music was so loud that they couldn’t start a conversation, have you missed an opportunity to enchant your guests?
What will attendees say about your event or your venue when their colleague asks them about it later? Was it a positive experience and can they quickly convey the important take-away messages of the event or will they say, “I don’t know, I couldn’t hear a thing they said”?
2. Support your guests’ goals.No matter how social an event is, consider that it is also a business opportunity. In her book, Laura instructs people not to miss an opportunity to make a new connection, learn something, or inspire someone else with a new idea. Laura emphasizes that you never know when your next conversation will be the conversation to change your life or that of someone else.
“Whether it’s a cocktail party, a Little League game or a casual conversation on the treadmill at the gym, there are powerful possibilities lurking in social situations everywhere we turn,” she says. But remember, it’s not just about the number of cards you can collect. “It’s about the relationships you can foster and the conversations you can start.”
By setting goals before heading off to an event, attendees can focus their efforts more effectively. “The goals might look different to a Type A personality than a Type B,” said Laura. “For the Type As, it might be to make 10 new connections. For Type Bs, it might be to sit next to someone new and start a conversation, which is just as meaningful.”
Event planners: that means you need to consciously create time in your sessions to allow people—even the type Bs or those who may be more introverted—to make connections or ask questions. For example, you might include a one-on-one opportunity after a presentation to allow attendees to ask the presenter questions (some might not be comfortable doing that with a microphone in front of an audience). Perhaps hold a ‘meet the speaker’ session before or after the talk so attendees have a chance to engage. Or, seat your speakers at tables during one of the meals to allow smaller groups to interact with them.
What other ideas do you have? (Share them with us in the comments below.)
3. Foster a positive networking environment.“The power of professional networking over wine and hors d’oeuvres should not be discounted,” said Laura. “I would never have met most of [my connections] if I had not sacrificed non-billable hours to meet, have drinks with, have dinner with and work with [Association] members on programs. Now I have an incredible professional social network, many of whom I count as my closest friends.”
Creating an environment that is conducive to networking means paying attention to the needs of all of your attendees. Consider how your room layout lends itself to people making new connections. Are there spaces for quiet discussions outside of the room where that wonderful band is playing? Have you created nooks where the next great deal can happen between the coffee breaks? Do you have the right equipment and charging devices available? (So guests don’t have to leave the room to recharge.)
4. Make it easy for guests to come prepared.Laura encourages guests to prepare in advance for any event: to have some understanding of who might be there, to know which companies are sponsors, and to come equipped with a few interesting facts about the venue.
What can venue operators and event planners do to help attendees arrive at an event or meeting well prepared? Here are a few ideas:
- Add information about the venue to the event web page. Does it have an interesting history or design? Is it owned by an important family or company? Does it have a philanthropic history? Have any famous meetings happened there? Does the venue have an interesting sustainability profile or green policy? Maybe it has the world’s largest round table? Make sure the guests know this.
- Include interesting tidbits about the venue or sponsors in the meeting reminders. This will make it fresh in your guests’ minds when they arrive so they may use it as a conversation starter.
- Post information about other attendees on the event website. Who will be there? Give profiles of the speakers and sponsors. If it’s not a very large event, perhaps include a way for attendees to connect their LinkedIn profiles.
5. Help guests build bridges.Many people approach networking at professional and industry association events from the perspective of “what can you do for me/my business.” But you can go beyond building bridges just for yourself and your company and use them as an opportunity to help connect others. Do you know someone who can help the person you just met launch that big idea they have?
Networking should not feel like a task. “Networking is positive and productive and powerful,” says Laura. “I really think that when we can engage and make the most of any small or large conversation, we can leave an event feeling really proud of ourselves.”
For meeting planners and venue hosts, that means setting guests up to succeed. It could mean offering something unexpected to make your event engaging or memorable. Maybe it’s the technology or the colour combinations. And it’s not always just about the technology for the presentations; it could be something as subtle as the lighting.
“Sometimes the lighting creates the ‘seamless subliminal stimuli’ that sets guests on the right footing and allows them to be engaged for an hour or two,” said Laura.
Sometimes something as subtle as the background lighting, which may include having corporate colours, can set the right mood for a productive meeting.
6. Deliver a positive impact on emotional appearance.
Outward ‘emotional’ appearance can make a difference in how successful event attendees are at engaging with others. Laura says, “Your emotional appearance plays an important role in determining your power as a guest because it sets not only your tone but also the tone of the people around you.”In fact, she pointed out that it’s been scientifically proven that “if you are emotionally positive, people who meet you for the first time remember you as smarter and taller than you actually are.” Your emotional attitude can rub off on others as well, so try to project a positive one.
As a venue operator or meeting host, you can help guests get into the right emotional frame of mind by offering the small extras that make people smile and feel at ease as the event is starting. Send a reminder message with a funny or inspirational quote. Have a kiosk or sign that offers an uplifting message, or shows the inspired work of one of the guests or sponsors. Staff your room with servers and support people who are prepared to go to the extra mile (“need a phone charger, no problem, I have one right here.”)
If you see guests arriving late and looking frazzled and unsure where to go, offer to take their coat or hold their briefcase while they get themselves organized. Reassure them they are just in time to hear the most interesting part or make a great connection. Venues operators: educate your staff to handle these situations and you’ll be remembered as the venue that makes sure things always go right so all guests have a great experience.
7. Make it easy to listen.Larry King (on whose show PoliticKING, Laura is a guest host) said this in one of his books, “I never learned anything while I was talking.” That sentiment is so true. “While we listen, we learn. We gather information. We can start to understand how we can help or make a connection,” said Laura.
She added that the trifecta of great networking is to: Be Present. Be Positive. Listen.
For venue operators and hosts, creating an environment that allows guests to succeed in these ways and to experience an innovative culture of engagement is the secret to successful event planning.
Hear Laura SpeakDon’t miss Laura’s upcoming keynote speech at America’s Connect April 18, 2018 in Philadelphia. Register now.
You can get Laura’s book Eat, Drink & Succeed, on Amazon.