1) Remove barriers: Have the presenter mic’ed with a cordless, using a high top table for their notes/tablet instead of speaking behind a podium. If you must have a stage, consider lowering the risers so that speakers don’t appear to be “preaching from the mountain”.
2) Eliminate line-ups: Why have a reg desk where someone behind a table hands out badges? Why couldn’t prepaid participants walk up to a wall and pick up their own badge? And why do buffets have to be linear? What if they were round so people could approach it from any angle?
3) Build in time: too often participants walk away from conferences with packed schedules, feeling like they had little time to absorb material. Allow people to have longer breaks so they can check email and social media, and be fully present during sessions. For the busybodies who hate too much unscheduled time set up post-session discussion groups in the coffee break space.
4) Q&A and audience advocates: people learn better when they can ask questions and discuss material. Make sure you build this into as many sessions as possible, and not just at the end but throughout the session. If you are afraid no one will speak up, pre-identify “audience advocates” — knowledgeable participants who are quick thinkers — and have them ask questions.
5) Surprise: anything you can do to create novelty will give a reason for people to talk and engage. At last year’s Engaging Associations event, one of the most novel features was a flavoured water bar with innovative taste combinations such as strawberry-basil and blueberry-ginger water. The added bonus of this feature was that we were using regular tap water and not bottled water, therefore saving cost.