Creating a Stellar First-Time Attendee Experience

What’s the true purpose of bringing people together into the same space to exchange ideas and resources? The definition of the verb “to convene” means to come or bring together for a meeting or activity; assemble. We at Conveners.org would like to think that it’s something more; a sense of community, of safety, of belonging. And we’d like to think that sense extends to both newcomers and veteran participants. But how do we as intentional conveners create that sense for new attendees? During our Member Call this month, we focused on ideas and approaches that ensure new participants are brought into the fold in a way that creates instant value and lasting engagement. 
 
THE WELCOME WAGON
The first opportunity to identify and welcome newcomers to your convening comes long before they walk through the door of your venue – it starts with your registration process. This can be an important tool to gather information about your new participants and the ways in which you can support them to get the most value out of attending your convening. Different messaging can then be crafted to send to them in the months leading up to your convening to make sure they feel welcomed and prepared. This can include:

  • Open orientation calls – these intro/question and answer sessions for are open to whoever wants to join and should ideally include a mix of both “veteran” and newcomer participants so they can put faces to names and start to feel like part of the convening community. Sorenson Impact holds several such calls before their Winter Innovation Summit each year, prepping moderators, speakers and attendees for the summit experience.
  • Email welcome packet  – while not everyone will have the time to review everything before the convening, “quick start guides”  can serve as a useful crash course for newcomers when it comes to learning the basics – what to wear, what to bring, finding their way around your venue, and how to connect with other participants. Also worth considering a low-production-value video here (you can pack a lot into 90 seconds talking to a camera). The Aspen Institute prints key community information, norms and expectations on signage around the venue as well as on the backs of participant name badges.
  • Trained guides – it can be daunting to enter into a completely new community for the first time.. Especially if your community is tight-knit (which can read as clique-ish to newcomers) or has a particularly strong culture (ie: we don’t use business cards, this is a pitch-free zone, most of the action happens after 11pm, etc.)  having guides who can connect with first-time attendees before, during, and after the convening helps newbies feel a sense of belonging and get more from their interactions.
  • Barrier busters – With their concerted efforts to include participants with lived experience of food insecurity in their convenings, Feeding America has uncovered a multitude of barriers that may be keeping valuable would-be first-time attendees from attending your convening as well. Consider the impact that travel costs, childcare, and time away from jobs have on potential attendees, as well as the potential cognitive and emotional impacts that (often international) travel, luxurious accommodations, and the culture of your convening may have on those for whom it is not a regular part of life. 

IN-PERSON INTERACTIONS
Once it’s time for your convening to take place, it’s important to keep your first-time attendees at the forefront of everything from registration, signage, communication, and staff training. It can be really bewildering for newcomers to enter into a completely new space and find their way around on their own. Here are a few ways to make sure first-time attendees feel like they are in the right place:

  • Designate welcome staff – these are the members of your staff (or volunteers) who can be connected with new attendees right when they step up to get their name badge. Have them give a quick tour of the venue and make sure to answer any questions new attendees have.
  • Get your veterans involved – veteran participants have institutional knowledge of the best ways to get the most out of your convening, and how to navigate everything from the agenda to meeting new people. If you have some passionate veterans pair them with your newbies to act as “connectors.” 
  • Engage the whole convening community – in certain communities (like spaces where introduction to a topic or community of practice is a central goal) it can be useful to designate first-time attendees with a name-badge marker,  like a sticker dot, icon, or different colored badge. This way, attendees that have already been through the conference cycle a few times can be on the look-out to answer questions and help connect first-timers to other participants. At the Impact & Sustainable Finance Faculty Consortium convening each year, they’ve started keeping a running vocabulary list on the whiteboard in each session, defining terms and acronyms as they come up. After the conference, the full list is compiled and sent out to participants. 

KNOWING THE CULTURE OF YOUR CONVENING
Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, being able to welcome and integrate newcomers into your convening community starts way before they even register for your convening – it starts with you, the convener. The first step in recognizing how you can be more inclusive and acculturate first-timers into your convening (and attract them to register in the first place) is knowing the foundation of your own convening. What is the culture that you want to cultivate in your community? What are its values and norms? What is the tone and behavior you wish to set/see from your participants? We’ve come up with a list of 20 Questions to Understand Your Convening Culture that can help you analyze and realize what makes your convening special and attractive to first-timers – and are there areas where your convening could improve to attract new voices and perspectives?
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