I’ve been working in the events and tradeshow industry in some capacity or another throughout my entire career. I’ve been a product spokesperson, exhibits manager, project manager, and now product manager for a2z. When clients come to me with a challenge, I can honestly say “I’m with you. I’ve been there. I feel your pain.”
Ironically, my experience attending events strictly as an attendee is not similarly extensive. Most of the events I have attended in the recent past have been tradeshow industry or client-related, so I have a good understanding of what to expect when I walk onsite.
A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending the Charleston Wine + Food Festival with a few friends, so I decided to (as much as possible) throw out what I already know about being an attendee and then document my day to see what lessons I could learn, or what might resurface. I walked away from the experience with several learnings and new ideas. In this first article in a two-part series, I will first cover what lessons I learned, or re-learned. In the second one, I will discuss how event managers can apply these learnings to their own events.
Lesson 1: Attendees Need Guidance
As industry pros, most of us know what to expect when we arrive at an event, even if we’re winging it a little. By the time they arrive on location, most show managers know the venue and event flow like the back of their hand.
For many attendees, it might be their first time to this event or location. It’s important to have some sort of planning utility available to participants, either on your website or event app. Unfortunately, I could not find an app for this event, but my group only visited one part of the festival (trust me, it was enough to fill the day), so this wasn’t as big of a challenge as I first thought. However, it would have been nice to have a central place for things like checking transportation options and making sure we visited all of the areas we wanted to experience.
Despite everything being in a central location, it wasn’t until the end of the day when we were chatting with other attendees who managed to snag an event map that we discovered an area of the festival that we had entirely overlooked.
Lesson 2: Attendees Are Innovative
While standing in line at a few of the sample stations, we crossed paths with newbies and old pros alike. We saw several folks walking around with wine necklaces, but those are pretty common at most wine festivals. I was giving a mental thumbs up to show management for ensuring that the sample dishes fit on top of the wine glasses (a small but important detail) when something else caught my eye.
An attendee was holding a plate with a spot cut out for his wine glass and room to rest his sample dish. I’ve seen party plates like it before, but thought “what a great giveaway for a wine and food fest!”. I asked him who was giving out the plates and he told me that he made it himself. Clearly, not his first rodeo!
Attendees often come up with adroit innovations to improve their participation experience.
Lesson 3: Returning Attendees Make Great Advocates and Tour Guides
Nothing brings out the social side of people like good food and drinks, so it wasn’t a surprise that folks were eager to chat about what was going on at a particular station or where to find the best cocktails.
The people most willing to give out tips were the returning attendees. As festival experts, they seemed excited to point the group in the right direction and make sure we made our way to the best spots.
The guy with the custom party plate? He went out of his way to come back to the group to call out a particularly good dish his wife had just tried.
At the end of the day, everyone in the group agreed that it was one of the best dishes we had sampled, but we probably wouldn’t have stood in line for it if not for the friendly suggestion.
Lesson 4: Attendees Need Breaks
As invigorating as it can be to go to an event that celebrates your personal or professional interests, the days do get long.
The Culinary Village provided several stations that rotated through different guest restaurants and chefs, so we ended up circulating through the park several times over the course of the five hours during which the event was open.
It was a fun, laid-back day, but not surprisingly, by the fourth hour, we collectively hit a wall.
Luckily, there was an espresso station with ample seating to take a moment and regroup. Everyone ordered up their preferred caffeinated beverage and recharged while we planned the final hour of the day.