I have had the privilege of developing and participating in countless retreats, conferences, ministry events, camps, and seminars over the last few years. Though there are lots of little things that need to be in place, here are four things I give attention to:
No matter what else happens (good or bad) people remember the food. Of course, food alone won’t carry an event or conference – there has to be quality structure and content. However, I have learned that food alone, if not tended to in a large group, can wreck any great structure or content you have planned.
Food is a connector, an experience and a memory maker. There have been many times when I have been talking to a group of our leaders about a past event. I’ll give them details to jog their memories. Often it goes something like this:
“Remember that weekend in Chicago?”
“No.” they will respond.
“You know, all those people were there and we spoke?” I’ll add.
“Yeah, you remember, that guy cooked a steak and potato dinner for us.”
“Oh yeah – that’s right!”
I probably error on the side of micromanaging this one area at events – the flow of food lines, quality and quantity and the timing of it – but it’s because I’ve experienced the importance of it. Well timed and professional refreshments can practically change the course of an otherwise basic seminar into a great one.
I always try to publicly and graciously thank those who help prepare and serve food during any event.
The flow of the schedule is another determining factor of success for any event. Here are some examples of what I think about:
– The first event of a conference or seminar should put everyone on the same page. It should help those who don’t know anyone, feel just as connected as those who may have attended ten times. This is especially true for summer camp weeks. That’s why sitting through a collective start – no matter how short, is a great way to go. Having something for people to do when they arrive also helps.
– Printing schedules helps people have a mind toward the end goal.
– Whatever morning you pack up or check out of your room, your event is mentally over. This is especially true for retreats. If you want to have an impact on Saturday night, plan to stay through Sunday morning.
– It’s always good to end with the gift of 10 minutes. Ending five or ten minutes early really leaves people with a good attitude. If you keep them a minute over they don’t leave with that great feeling.
– Free time is good when you have something to look forward to on the schedule. Three hours of free time on Saturday afternoon for a weekend conference works best if you are anticipating a great meal and programming aspect for the evening. Lunch followed by three hours of free time before heading home doesn’t have the same effect. People would just as soon head on home.
– “Staying on schedule does not equal good scheduling” You don’t have to stay on schedule to have a good flow – in fact, you probably will have to tweak to some degree depending the nature of the event and what is working.
– Leave people wanting more. Just because the crowd wants to continue in one certain aspect, doesn’t mean they dictate the schedule. Don’t run something great into the ground.
– Do you have movement and tapestry to your schedule? Are people able to get a new view, a refreshing break? A movement to another location? Is there time for relationship building and networking? Is the afternoon too heavy compared to the morning? Do you know your goal for the event?
The schedule is also an important piece in planning. Many times, I will write out the schedule of the event beforehand and allow that to be my mental planning tool for the people who are going to be involved in each section.
As I check through the schedule, I mentally make a note of who is taking a role during each part. Have I talked with them? Do they know what is going on? The more your leadership team is in the loop, has ownership, and is able to help you accomplish the goal of the event, the better everyone’s experience will be. Your team for the weekend is critical in serving the people who are there.
Connections and Outcome
Connections with people are most critical. I want to look people in the eye and welcome them. I want to find out how they like it and if they are getting anything from it. I find it enjoyable to get to know them, where they came from and how they got here? I want them to know that we are glad they are here. Depending on the length of the event (one day seminar vs summer camp week) there are lots of ways that connections happen.
Sometimes, we will do evaluation sheets at our events, but more often than not, I rely on hearing it personally from people (either my conversations or through the conversations of our leadership teams). I’m not totally against evaluation sheets, but I can basically predict what will be noted. By the end of the event the leadership team has mentally evaluated and have probably already talked about what needs to be changed. And the conversations with a few people usually help solidify those thoughts.
I also wonder if evaluations confirm the negative for people. I find that inviting them to email (or do an online response) about any thoughts they have is much more effective in offering an outlet for people to respond. If you do an evaluation, it needs to be tailored to help people process – what did they learn, what did they experience, what will they do with it?
As far as outcomes go, I basically want transformation. I want people to learn, grow and experience something new through their presence at this event. And I want to walk along with them during and after. As I finish an event, I want to stay in touch with people – hear stories and know what kinds of outcomes came from our time together. Some of this happens through being connected on social media, email lists and otherwise after the event. It’s not the end goal – you can’t keep up with everyone. So, you stay connected as much as possible and pray for fruit from the event. As many times as we can remember to do so, our leadership teams always prays at the event of the event, most of the time when everyone else is already gone – we stand in a circle, give thanks and pray for fruit.