Keeping conferences fresh and unexpected is increasingly essential ” and increasingly challenging. No matter the conference purpose (networking, team building, B2B, B2C, education), you’re always looking for new ways to spark interest and give attendees good reasons to return year after year.
We’ve got 29 engaging ideas for you to explore. Consider them grab-and-go options, or get creative and adapt them to match the style of your conference, client, or company.
Weave a unique theme throughout your conference to reinvent the status quo:
Themes bring a sense of cohesion to conferences, and are an excellent opportunity to get creative. Often they’ll align with the conference itself (such as a book club theme for a self-publishing conference), but don’t be afraid to go off-topic just for fun (think of adding a cupcake theme to an interior design conference).
1. Health and wellness.
A natural fit for a health industry conference, but there are benefits to a focus on health across industries. Offer a seminar about improving physical and mental health during a busy workweek. Serve healthy snacks, include mini-meditation and mindfulness exercises, and hold fitness sessions at appropriate times. (Offer alternatives for attendees with disabilities to ensure your event is accessible.)
2. Arts and crafts.
Build your theme on creative expression. This works well when conferences are heavy on the lectures or screen time. Offer painting sessions, clay making workshops, or provide tables with adult coloring books and markers where participants can relax, chat, and share their artistic side.
3. A space odyssey.
Who isn’t inspired by the moon landing or the thought of heading out to explore Mars? This works well at a science conference, but it’s also a fun theme for any group. Show a classic space film, such as Star Wars or Star Trek. Rent a star projector and create a planetarium room. To pull the theme together, include decorations like moons, rockets, and stars on your pamphlets, signage, and event decor.
4. Destination theme.
You chose a spectacular place for the conference; highlight why it’s so great within your event. A few examples:
- Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Use plenty of green, gold, and purple in your decor. Offer strings of beads to each participant. And serve beignets for breakfast or breaks.
- Nashville country theme. It’s the music city, after all. Set up listening stations for attendees to sample the music of Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, or Tammy Wynette. Host a karaoke competition. Pass out the cowboy/cowgirl hats.
5. Solve the mystery.
Present as an individual activity or a team event. Introduce a mystery to solve at the start of the conference. Provide puzzles”ideally, relevant to the conference”attendees can solve in exchange for clues. Supply small notebooks where participants can track their progress and write down clues, answers, and guesses. Reveal the mystery at the end of the conference and award a small prize to the winner.
Add interactive experiences to energize your conference:
You’ve probably heard that Millennials are interested in experiences over things. Take a page from their book and focus on memorable experiences over swag. Attendees of every generation will appreciate the twist on the usual conference take-aways.
6. Ice-breaker networking activities.
People do a lot of sitting and listening during conferences. Change up the routine by offering fun ice-breaker activities between more formal sessions. These are excellent opportunities to bring people together and foster new relationships. Choose activities that inspire collaboration, such as solving a puzzle together within an allotted time, and include time for attendees to chat afterward.
7. Take it outside.
Depending on your venue (and the weather) head out in groups for breakout sessions outdoors. A breath of fresh air and a burst of sunshine can jump-start creativity and improve attention.
8. Create an experience.
Take a break from the conference to rejuvenate and clear the mind. Research shows work breaks give your prefrontal cortex a much-needed rest, which in turn contributes to improved creativity and productivity. Your attendees will also take home positive memories of the conference when you incorporate enjoyable and relaxing interludes.
- Bust out the yoga mats, bring in a teacher, and enjoy a morning warm-up.
- Take the gang to a local museum for an hour-long private tour.
- Bring in a projector and popcorn and show an afternoon flick (pick a feel-good classic everyone appreciates like The Wizard of Oz or The Princess Bride).
9. Host a PechaKucha segment.
Created in 2003 by two architects in Tokyo, PechaKucha has become a hot idea for conferences and meetings all over the world. During PechaKucha talks a speaker shows 20 slides on a topic related to the conference, and has 20 seconds to discuss each slide. When things move along so quickly, the audience has no choice but to stay engaged.
10. Silent meetings.
Several speakers present different topics simultaneously. Wearing headphones, attendees choose who they want to listen to by shifting between channels. This allows people to listen to an entire address, or snippets of multiple addresses. Encourage everyone to embrace the ˜silent’ theme with minimal discussion and silent clapping.
11. Fireside chats.
Instead of listening to a speaker for 30 minutes to an hour, offer a fireside chat setting where moderator and guest speaker have a conversation. Fireside chats are informal interviews that illuminate the guest’s expertise without requiring them to write a formal keynote address. Enhance the relaxed spirit of the event by adding comfy chairs or couches to the stage.
Switch up your conference location and venue:
There’s a reason conference centers and large hotels host the lion’s share of conferences”they have event space, food, and overnight accommodations to spare. Avoid that ˜here we go again’ feeling among conference attendees by thinking a little outside the box.
12. Move to a different location.
It’s difficult to imagine SXSW anywhere besides Austin. But smaller conferences not tied to a specific site can benefit from a new locale. The location shift gives people an incentive to attend so they can explore regional attractions and enjoy the local cuisine.
13. Head out of the big city.
People are busy and conferences typically add to their hectic schedules. Take people out of the hustle and bustle with a meeting in a small or mid-sized city, such as Rochester, Minnesota or Highlands Ranch, Colorado. The key is choosing a location that is within an hour’s drive of an airport and that provides adequate convention space.
14. Pick a unique venue.
Explore venue platforms, such as the Cvent supplier network, search a city”and scroll past the top returns to look for something different. You can also select filters that focus your search to unusual event sites, including aquariums, bars, and educational facilities.
- Most museums have large auditoriums and seminar rooms to accommodate different elements of a conference while offering attendees a unique experience.
- A large theater opens up a world of possibilities, complete with comfy seating and a stage or screen for presentations and clear sightlines for all.
- Transform a warehouse into a cool and unique event space, or choose a venue with an open floor plan, exposed beams, and a retro-industrial feel.
Mix and match conference room layouts:
This is particularly important for large-scale conferences occurring over several days. Room after room with the same seating design is uninspiring and can contribute to a wasn’t I just here? feeling, even in new spaces. Below are some standard event layout options; simply choose between them for different events throughout the conference.
15. Auditorium style.
Works best for addressing a large group of people who don’t need to take notes or interact with each other. Perfect for sessions where speakers present their topics and take questions at the end.
16. Banquet tables.
You’ll typically use this setup for meals and refreshment breaks. But this is a good setup for networking sessions, allowing people to mingle among the tables.
17. Classroom style.
The table in front of participants allows note-taking and project creation. A great conference room setup idea for speakers who rely on audience participation and interaction between participants.
Great for intimate sessions where presenters take turns in the center section to speak to attendees on a personal level. This set up allows participants to take notes and interact with each other and the speaker as needed.
19. Custom design.
Use event planning layout tools to create a unique floor plan based on your needs and the parameters of each room you are designing.
Creative conference F&B makes a big impact with little effort:
Food and beverage play an essential role in events by creating a welcoming environment from start to finish. Here are some F&B offerings that won’t feel like an afterthought:
20. Gourmet coffee bars.
Regular and decaf with powdered creamer aren’t good enough anymore. Offer a variety of teas and hot cocoa for those who don’t like coffee. Include regular and sugar-free options for sweetener. Provide creamer, flavored creamer, and almond milk for the dairy-free crowd. And make sure the coffee bar is stocked and fresh throughout the entire event.
21. Hydration stations.
Don’t make your attendees hunt for the vending machines. Provide plenty of water options placed around the venue for convenient self-service. Large water dispensers filled with mint leaves, cucumber slices, or fresh fruit are a refreshing option. You can also provide branded water bottles during check-in and water-filling stations for refills.
22. Theme-based F&B.
Customize menus to match the industry you’re serving. Whip up an assortment of healthy smoothies at a nursing conference. Offer apple-themed desserts at a teacher’s conference. Serve apps and drinks in Petri dishes and beakers at a science conference.
23. Local favorites.
Of course, you’ll consider regional favorites like Philly cheesesteak, Chicago deep-dish, or Carolina BBQ. But if there’s a dynamic bakery, artisan ice cream shop, or local pizza joint serving world-class fare nearby, bring them in for a taste of the unexpected.
24. Instagram-worthy F&B.
Excite social sharing about your conference with outstanding F&B that adds a fun element or makes attendees feel pampered. Some ideas to get you started:
- Offer international fare if the business has an affiliate office in another market. For example, France (quiche) Japan (such) or Canada (Poutine).
- Book a food truck for your event (or two), offering a chance to get outside and enjoy the fresh air among classic dishes like tacos, burgers, or even Thai.
- Go retro with throw-back, comfort food dishes like mac & cheese cups, fried chicken, or wedge salads with blue cheese dressing and bacon.
- Check out even more conference event catering ideas here.
Incorporate the trends that matter to people into your conference:
Stay on top of current trends to get attendees on board with your mission, and to give them something unique to remember.
25. Create a mobile app for your event.
Attendees enjoy access to event agendas right on their smartphones, and you can make announcements and send alerts with ease.
26. Reduce your carbon footprint.
Promote green values and bring people together over an important topic. It’s easy to go paperless with apps, email, and digital agendas. Choose biodegradable table products. And engage with sustainable venues and suppliers who support your green mission.
27. Use tech badges.
Reduce lines and confusion by producing tech badges for all attendees. Whether you choose tags, wearables, NFC or RFID technologies, or standard plastic badges, event badges create a personal experience.
28. Offer a way to give back.
Donate a portion of your proceeds to a local charity, build a sponsorship with one, or encourage people to donate with a matching program. Everyone will leave the conference feeling like they made a difference in the world.
29. Get social.
Social media is a great way to build buzz and get people excited about the conference. Create an event in a Facebook group to build connections and reiterate important information after the conference is over.
Now you’re ready to put these ideas in motion and reinvent your conference!
Put a twist on the tried-and-true and stay ahead of the conference trends with these ideas. They’ll steer you clear of planning ruts and ensure your events stand out from the crowd.
Need more help in keeping up with the demands of conference planning? Here are foolproof conference planning tips to level up your events.
Need more conference ideas?
An unrelenting focus on the audience is the best approach to making a conference interesting. Enable them to get involved by asking questions, interacting in small groups, networking freely, and having fun!
Choose a compelling theme and a team of experts to bring it to life. Submit RFPs to a few different types of venues (conference centers, universities, hotels, etc), and book the one that fits your needs. Arrange your vendors, get some speakers, build out a schedule full of interesting sessions, and start gathering attendees!
Conferences can be academic, athletic, literary, hobby/interest-based, trade-based, hosted by a single company to promote their products, and more. A conference is a gathering of people related to a singular topic.