Thoughts about entertainment at meetings

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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