My parents are in the retail business, so I grew up watching them attend countless trade shows and conferences. Most of these events transpired at pretty bland convention centers, and the schedule always included corny motivational keynote speakers. My mental image of conferences until now has been that they're outdated events don’t really target a younger demographic. That is why, as a younger entrepreneur, I never invested the time or money to attend one.
Until last month, that is. I served on a media panel for The Lady Project. This women's networking group (though I do hate to use that word) is active in Boston, New Haven, Conn., and Providence, R.I., and its recent annual Providence event for members and nonmembers, The Summit, represented the first conference I attended that drew a younger crowd.
It changed my thinking about conferences entirely. Living up to its mission of aiming “to connect, inspire and showcase awesome women doing amazing things through events, membership and community engagement,” the summit proved to me that if an entrepreneur picks the right event, it can be rewarding.
Planning a conference? Here are some tips I gleaned from this experience about how to modernize an event and draw a younger crowd:
Make it local. These days artisanal goods and DIY projects are having their moment, and the organizers of the summit tried to incorporate this sensibility as well as involve local vendors. “Providence is where The Lady Project started and flourished," said Sierra Barter, the organization's co-founder. One of the conference goals, she added, was "to make Providence the city for a woman to start a business."
While the summit captured its fair share of national sponsors, such as Uber, Squarespace and Hint Water, numerous Providence area stores, salons and restaurants had a visible presence: Providence purveyor Ellie’s Bakery supplied macaroons, goodie bags included a gift card to Newport, R.I.-based accessory company Lemon and Line, and Dave’s Coffee of Charlestown, R.I., supplied the morning caffeine fix.
Not only did these touches make the event more inviting for attendees, the websites of these hip companies became a built-in set of social media cheerleaders for this event.
Give the attendees a choice. The Lady Summit did incorporate hints of a traditional conference with keynote speakers such as figure skater Michelle Kwan, Meredith Walker from Amy Poehler’s web talk-show series Smart Girls and Tammy Tibbetts, founder of She’s The First, a nonprofit that grants funds to young women who are the first in their family to attend college. And like other conferences, the summit had smaller breakout sessions; workshop topics included negotiating pay, hiring a first employee and how to not sabotage one's financial future.
“All of our members and attendees come with different objectives and end goals," said Sierra, noting thta attendees ranged from business owners and nonprofit staffers to stay-at-home moms.
"We also wanted to keep the day fun and different," she added.
To this end, the organizers infuse elements of levity by setting up a special spa station, another spot where photographers took attendees' head shots and an Etsy-style store with members’ crafts.
And at the end of the day, lightening-round flash sessions brought 15 minutes of quick fun on topics such as "Beyond Caesar" (how to make one's own salad dressing), "Be Your Best Bey" (learning a Beyoncé dance) and "Fresh Face in Five" (an appearance tweak).
Then came the afterparty, replete with a retro 1920s flappers theme.
Make the prices affordable. One of the most outdated aspects of many conferences and trade shows is their steep price. It's hard for young entrepreneurs to justify spending thousands of dollars on a single event that might not end up being useful to them.
Those interested in drawing in fresh, young faces to a conference should hold the lid on prices. The summit cost about $100 to attend the entire day, including admission to the keynote addresses and workshops and three meals -- with no add-on charges.
Attracting diverse age groups can help make sure an annual event doesn't become stale by merely recruiting those who've been in the business for decades.
The great thing about drawing in young attendees is their social media prowess. In Providence, most of those gathered shared their experience in real time; this word-of-mouth marketing is priceless.
For me, attending the conference has already paid off: the negotiating tips I gained from a workshop enabled me to raise my clients' rates!