Jennifer Ragan-Fore is the chief events officer for the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). With overall responsibility for the content and logistics of ISTE’s annual conference and expo, Ragan-Fore oversees a production that attracts between 15,000 and 18,000 conference attendees each year plus another one to two thousand exhibitors. She and her team are responsible for all aspects of strategy and execution for this highly successful event.
Over the years, Regan-Fore has held may roles for ISTE from membership to conference planning. She says her success in the organization has come through flexibility and taking a balanced approach to the teams she has been involved with. “I look for the missing ingredients and fill those roles,” she explains.
Regan-Fore says that another key to her success is her background as a theater major in college. “I was involved in the roles of producer and director rather than acting,” she explains. In those roles, it was necessary to understand the audience experience.
Successful theatrical productions find ways to engage the audience. She claims that a successful planner needs to take this same approach when they plan an event. Ragan-Fore says that one of the keys to her successful events is that she is willing to try new things that fit with the profile of the event attendees. ISTE conference attendees are forward-looking and open to change, so she is continually mindful of that as she seeks ways to draw them in.
“We always try to keep in mind the entire event as we plan. From the arrival to the end of the conference, it is necessary to keep asking what experience the attendees are having throughout the event,” she says.
Regan-Fore recommends that planners try to think outside the box when they organize an event. In her presentation at a recent meeting to the Pacific Northwest Chapter of the Professional Convention Management Association, titled “Re-imaging your General Session,” she gave an excellent example of this out-of-the-box thinking.
Rather than the typical general session that consists of one or more speakers delivering a presentation from the podium, they wanted a new way to present the information. She explained that information was presented through videos and offered in the form of small bite-size interviews. The planning team felt that this format increased the attendees’ engagement and, at the same time, kept them entertained.
She recommends that planners, “Find the delight factor. Endeavor to create experiences that delight the audience.” The attendees may not remember everything that occurred at a conference but it is important to build in moments that stand out.
Another suggestion she has for planners is to bring in strategic partners to help you accomplish your goals. This is especially important for large conferences, but even for small events, the right partners can be a great help. You should determine what you want to do and then find partners that can help accomplish your goals.
Looking to the future, she feels the conference and event industry will continue to be strong. “As we communicate more and more through technology, making human connections becomes more precious. People crave human contact,” she explains. Shared experience is important. People still want to talk and discuss in person. We can leverage technology in the right way as we use it to communicate and collaborate, but we must also offer opportunities for personal interaction.