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Thoughts about entertainment at meetings

by Adrian Segar

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For many years I put a lot of effort into arranging entertainment at conferences. My conferences have included: dinner cruises, a trip to a casino, a winery tour, dinner theater, a hula dancing demonstration, a magic show with audience participation, and a close-to-X-rated game of Pictionary™ between two teams of conferees. These events were a lot of fun, though not everyone participated. But nowadays I am much less invested in the need for entertainment at a conference.

Why? I’ve come to realize a successful conference doesn’t need entertainment. In fact, entertainment can break the “conference trance.” I’ve found that most people are happy to immerse themselves in a set of conference topics that are dear to their hearts. A prolonged break, when their attention is dragged elsewhere, can make it difficult for them to return to the intense experience they were having before the interruption.

These days, entertainment is practically ubiquitous; available to us at any time everywhere. When we can be entertained in any way we want, when we want, why do we believe we need to include it in our events? I don’t decide to go to a conference because I’ll be entertained there. Do you? Do your attendees?

There are negatives too. Filling conference white space with entertainment drowns connecting, thinking, and conversation. Aren’t these core activities for successful events? Shouldn’t we make as much space for them as we can during the all-too-short time that participants are together? Yes, entertainment is a pleasant distraction but it rarely changes anything, while a conversation with another person at a conference could change your life.

At least, if you’re going to provide entertainment don’t make it obligatory. For example, don’t force your attendees to experience entertainment during a meal that they have paid for. Provide alternative options for those who would rather spend time with their peers or just quietly unwind.

All that said, I’m not opposed to supplying conference entertainment, and if there is an obvious opportunity to relax (e.g., a nearby beautiful or unique locale or a well-known show) by all means explore the possibility of incorporating it into your conference. But don’t feel that you need to provide entertainment for your attendees regardless of circumstances, and then hunt high and low for something that might fit the bill. Do a good job on the conference content and process, and your group will entertain itself!

[This post is an adapted and expanded version of a section on entertainment first published in Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love.]

Photo attribution: Flickr user crossettlibrary

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  • Sue Pelletier

    What about entertainment that builds on the learning, like having improv actors pick up on key insights and do a skit about them? Or if the audience gets to collectively write and perform a song about what they’ve learned? Or just make the learning process itself more entertaining? And sometimes, people really do need a break from the intensity, but I agree that formal entertainment that doesn’t relate to the rest of what’s going on is more of a distraction than anything.

    • http://www.conferencesthatwork.com/ Adrian Segar

      Great ideas Sue! You’re right, entertainment that’s built on and/or extends the learning that a conference provides is a great way to integrate fun into the event, and I’m all for it. But how often do we see this done?

      • Sue Pelletier

        Actually, I’ve seen both of these ideas in action (and it was awesome). But not often enough. Maybe it’s not so much entertainment as playing with learning, which for me really helps both break up the content and help cement what I’m learning into my long-term memory. We need to do this more!

        • http://www.conferencesthatwork.com/ Adrian Segar

          I agree!

  • James Buchanan

    Could attendees vote on what form of entertainment is at the event? Making the whole event more interactive.

    • http://www.conferencesthatwork.com/ Adrian Segar

      Do you mean beforehand or during the event James? How would that work?

      • James Buchanan

        Hi, beforehand. People could vote from a list of entertainment. For some events it might work.

        • http://www.conferencesthatwork.com/ Adrian Segar

          I’m not sure that voting for entertainment before the event makes the event itself more interactive. But if entertainment is expected, giving registrants some choices could be a plus.

  • Anne Rendle

    At the ASAE Annual Conference in Nashville several years ago, I attended the morning general session and expected to be semi-interested. They began with a country band on stage, and I figured it was going to be a nod to the town. Well, it turned out to be soooo funny — they took famous country songs and had rewritten them for attendees. So “Stand by Your Man” becomes “Strategic Plan” etc. It set the place laughing and added energy before they began their business, and I thought it was a great way to inject fun and interest. That said, sometimes I’ve been at conferences where they stopped the learning to bring us acrobats. What? So I think you are right on about not interrupting learning for entertainment, but also would caution to keep the fun, especially early in the morning.

    • http://www.conferencesthatwork.com/ Adrian Segar

      Anne, what a great example! Integrating entertainment with the learning outcomes of the conference is a fantastic idea and we should all look for similar opportunities.

  • http://www.quicktapsurvey.com/ QuickTapSurvey

    Some good food for thought here, Adrian! I like the idea about integrating learning with entertainment, but I think that it depends on the event. Sometimes it’s nice to take a break and get back to learning with a fresh mind. I think the best practice for entertainment is to give an option for networking in a side room and entertainment in the main room.

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