We've shared ideas to help you get the most out of attending trade shows . . . but what about putting on a corporate event of your own? There's a lot that goes into planning a B2B event - as SOLV's creative designer Matt McLaughlin says, "it feels like this giant beast of a thing because there's so many moving parts!"
The way we plan and run Connections has changed a LOT over the years. We’re heading into the 8th year running the event, and it just keeps getting better. A lot of that is due to the creative thinking and dedicated follow-through of the SOLV team. In this post we’ll share some behind-the-scenes details, secrets of our success (and lessons from those not-so-successful moments!) and insider tips to putting on a great B2B event.
Way, way back in the beginning, nearly all of the planning & execution for our annual event was done by our CEO, Tressa McLaughlin, and (at the time) admin assistant, Karri Schock. And even though we’ve come around full circle, handling most of the planning & execution within our 3-person Marketing team, it's painful to think about Tressa and Karri pulling those early shows off all on their own.
But not as painful as thinking about the intervening years, when the planning & decisions were broken out into committees: customer/prospect list, marketing, vendor list & invitations, staff uniforms, onsite promotion (signage & direction), raffle & door prizes, registration table, customer swag giveaways, order forms, lunch presentation, various tables showcasing SOLV product & service capabilities, product samples table, food service/hosting, and hall setup for vendors.
Everyone in the company was on multiple committees to help plan the event.
Every event starts somewhere, and the basics are necessary. You don’t want to keep reinventing the wheel. On the other hand, if you only do what’s been done before, you could be missing out on all kinds of creativity, growth, and fun! Sure, if you need to pull a wagon, following a “wheel” template is going to help. But what if you could have taken a helicopter instead?
Read on for everything we’ve learned about how you put on a creative, in-demand corporate event, plus a few sneak previews of what you'll see at Connections!
What’s the event’s purpose? With an annual event, it’s tempting to assume you already have the purpose down pat & don’t need to think about it every year.
Squash that temptation like a mosquito! The purpose may be mostly the same year after year, but it’s worth revisiting because a) the business landscape is always changing, b) priorities may have shifted, and c) you may have different people involved.
When everyone on your team is clear and aligned on the purpose for the event, you’re all going in the same direction. Decisions are easier, and you can evaluate the success of the event based on the same criteria because you’re all agreed on what you're trying to achieve.
Helping professionals strengthen their business relationships through gifts and sincere gratitude. Connecting our community with expert culture training, hands-on gift ideas, and takeaways that inspire them to express appreciation for customers and employees in meaningful, impactful ways.
100-150 attendees – business owners & leaders, marketing & HR professionals who recognize that appreciation is a powerful force for attracting and keeping strong relationships with customers and employees, and who are always on the lookout for new ideas they can implement. (Is this you? Let's talk!)
At least 15 exhibitors who will bring creative new products & ideas for our attendees to interact with and be inspired by. (We blew this one out of the water & had to swizzle our venue space! More on that below!)
An engaging keynote speaker who will bring a uniquely valuable perspective in line with our theme of "saying thanks” and how it improves workplace experiences and results. (Nailed it! Our marketing team had a "getting to know you” with Kate Mewes of Saalt last week and we were beyond impressed!)
We plan our event budgets in November/December, based on what we’ve spent on the event in the past. This has turned around to bite us on a couple of occasions in the last year or two, leading to these hard-won lessons:
This is where it starts to get fun! Based on your purpose & goals, how do you want to tie it all together? What will make people want to show up? What will you do to engage them & make them feel the way you want them to feel about the event?
“We want to get people there, but it's not exciting to just say, hey, come look at some stuff. Online shopping is a thing, people can source whatever. How do you make it something that's impactful and meaningful to a businessperson so that they're going to want to go? So, I try to think about what's the purpose, and how can we tie together the products that we're showing you with something that's going on right now in the world. Gratitude and appreciation are so important right now. . .”Matt McLaughlin
You’ll also need to decide whether your event’s purpose will work best as an in-person, virtual, or hybrid event. We’ve tested Connections as a hybrid event with virtual tickets as an option, but the full impact is so much better in-person. We’ll livestream the keynote address again this year for those who aren’t local, and we’ll post the recording for everyone afterward, but (for now) we’re putting the majority of our energy into driving the in-person experience.
“Maybe in the future we’ll be able to provide a more powerful virtual experience that encompasses what’s so special about the event. I think if you’re going to do that you need someone on site who’s fully dedicated to creating content for the virtual attendees: broadcasting live conversations with attendees & staff, showing them cool demonstrations with the vendors, really taking them deeper into the in-person experience.
I’d love to expand our resources to be able to do more of that at future events! And, we’re not there this year. You just have to start where you are and keep adding things that make sense over time.”Tracy Lay
Going back to your purpose & goals, choose a venue that has the capacity and add-ons you need, book it early, and get the initial contract signed. Reserve your venue with a signed contract at least 6 months in advance - a year is better - and keep in frequent communication with your contact at the venue, or you could find your date booked over and have to scramble for another location. (Don’t ask.)
For Connections, we’re looking at details like: room size to accommodate all our exhibitor tables; food & drinks – breakfast & lunch for our speaker, exhibitors & staff, lunch for our attendees; “extras” like the stage, screen, and equipment for our keynote presentation; load-in and load-out times; and on-site support. Depending on your venue and what you have planned, you might also need to consider things like parking, wi-fi, etc.
Expect that your contract details will shift - as you get closer to the date, you'll have a firmer head count. We’ve had to expand our reservation at the Galaxy Event Center this year because we landed so many great exhibitors, we couldn’t fit everything into the original space we booked. (We love “problems” like too much of a good thing, and we appreciate the way the Galaxy is willing to flex with us!)
Again, this goes back to knowing the purpose of the event. Everyone is welcome at our events, but having a specific focus helps us build it around the people who will get the most out of it. Narrow your focus: who’s the ideal attendee profile? What’s happening in the world, and how does it impact their work?
Make your promotion plan. Ours centers around these pillars:
Once again, this all ties back to the purpose of the event. Who’s going to deliver on your purpose? We’ve had some wonderful speakers at our events, and it's due to being intentional about the theme and what our people want to get out of attending.
And, just like the venue, you need to line up your speakers as early as possible. Schedules get filled months in advance, so reach out early and keep following up! It’s best to have one person on your team designated as “speaker wrangler” so there's a single point of contact who’s in charge of finalizing the lineup. (Another lesson we learned the hard way this year.)
Here’s a bonus tip: if you’re having trouble getting in front of a speaker you want to invite, do some LinkedIn sleuthing to find connections near them. Send gifts. Put together a cool personalized document all about who will be at the event, what you’ll do for them while they’re there, what they can expect, what past attendees have said about it, and why you think they’re an amazing fit.
It's the same story lining up exhibitors and sponsors. We started the conversation about what exhibitors to invite in January. We put up a simple registration form for our favorite print & promo vendors – details, date, venue, room block options, fees. Then we set about emailing our cherry-picked list to work on getting them to commit.
A few registrations trickled in. It was painfully slow. Karri organized the invited / registered vendors in a spreadsheet so we could keep track. We plan a lot of our attendee gifts around which exhibitors will be attending, and the stress of waiting was getting to us.
We kept after it, emailing again and again, but – as much as it pains all of us to say it – the thing that worked the best was picking up the phone. We figured out who on our list had said yes but not registered, plus our top picks that hadn’t responded yet. Then we split up the list, set aside a block of time to make the calls, and let our vendors know we needed them registered by the end of the month so we could finalize our table layout.
It felt pretty uncomfortable at first. We left a few awkward voicemails. But it got better, and it got results. That’s why you’ll see some of this cool stuff at the show:
Order your swag at least 8 weeks prior to the event date. AT LEAST.
“If you don't order the swag items on time, you're not gonna get 'em here and you'll be scrambling or having to pay expedited shipping.”Karri Schock
Most promotional swag and branded apparel items take some lead time to produce. We can’t possibly stress this enough - you've got to plan ahead to have everything ready for your event! Two weeks before the event date is NOT the time to remember, oh, yeah, I wanted to give away some hats, and what about a swag bag at the registration table?
Start the giveaway search as soon as you have your theme nailed down and you’ll have a lot more options available – you can find super creative, quality, on-trend goods, and have plenty of time to kit them all together into a package that wows. (With help from your friendly neighborhood promo experts, right?)
We LOVE to give great gifts to our attendees, and at Connections we source our giveaways from the exhibitors who will be at the show. That way you not only get hands-on experience with many of their products, but you also have a real-world application to take with you & inspire even more ideas.
Planning a B2B event like Connections is a complex beast with a lot of moving parts. Communication is EVERYTHING. These are a few of the most impactful communication strategies we’ve put into place:
“I think every year we get better and more creative. Especially with Matt helping us step outside the box. We are getting different vendors in, not all the same vendors. We're doing more creative booths rather than just, you know, the same old boring stuff. Being a little bit more creative & having our attendees be more interactive makes it more exciting. Of course, I love finding all the fun swag and prizes, and I think having a keynote speaker has really improved the experience.”Karri Schock
No matter how well you plan ahead, there are always changes. You’ll have a bunch of people register at the last minute. You’ll have people get sick or have to drop out for some other reason. You’ll have too much food (which is better than not enough). You’ll run out of that one cool sticker that everyone wanted. Deal with what you can, let the rest go.
On the day of the event, remind yourself and your team that your job is to be present with the people who are there. Breathe. You can think about things you wish you had done better tomorrow.
Say Thanks with SOLV – Get inspired by what other people are doing, see what’s new, and transform your approach to employee engagement and retention! Discover the secrets of employee engagement, score unique gift-ification ideas, and make lasting business connections. It’s 100% free, and you’ll improve your appreciation game in just a couple of hours!