Conferences Need More Than Speakers: Leveraging Tools to Take Events from Good to GreatTheresa Anderson | Business Analyst, University of Minnesota
Conferences and events have always been a hallmark of college and university offerings. Whether online or in-person, these events bring folks together, provide unique insight into professional development and support collective growth. But a successful conference takes more than a great lineup of speakers and a creative awards lunch menu. Planning, launching and managing conferences and events take a huge amount of time, energy and effort.
To serve this need, Destiny Solutions®+OmniUpdate® developed the Conference Manager event management software that streamlines conference creation, registration and management so staff can easily set up and manage engaging events—both in-person and online.
In this interview, Theresa Anderson reflects on how the University of Minnesota leverages the Conference Manager tool to put on great events and shares her thoughts on the importance of focusing both on the event’s content as well as its management.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are some of the most common mistakes that you see organizers making when hosting conferences and events in the university setting?
Theresa Anderson (TA): One thing we sometimes struggle with is when people don’t use the branding functionality available to them. Branding is incredibly important, and the University has some strict standards regarding how things need to look online. Unfortunately, it is something that gets missed.
Another issue that we struggle with is when units set up events that use the multi-person registration function paired with the LMS integration. With the way we have our Canvas integration set up, that can create some accessibility issues for our learners. We use Shibboleth to generate an Internet ID for each user. If someone is registering someone else for an event, that process gets skipped, and as a result, the integration between Destiny and our LMS system goes haywire.
A final issue is the inaccurate sharing of information on registration pages. For example, sometimes they list the phone number for my team, which provides administrative system support, rather than the people actually planning and hosting the event. Additionally, some staff think of Destiny One Conference Manager as only a registration system. Therefore, they don’t wind up using some of the advanced features, like the reporting, checking in, or grading functions available to them.
Evo: Why is branding consistency so important when it comes to managing conferences and events?
TA: The university has a set of strict branding standards, and a poorly branded public website is not only terrible but confusing for anyone registering for any University of Minnesota events.
Our learners are accustomed to seeing the U of M branding on every university webpage. If they find themselves on a site that hasn’t been branded appropriately (or at all), it can unfortunately lead to suspicion regarding the event.
The registration experience sets the tone for the entire event. It’s crucial that the same level of detail that goes into planning the actual event is also spent on setting up the registration site.
Evo: What are some of the most significant conference and event management challenges that Conference Manager helps to address?
TA: The Conference Manager allows for a really significant level of customization, so that people can use the Conference Manager for non-conference events.
We had a situation a few years ago where a completely different software system–not even remotely related to Conference Manager–was used by our admissions department. At the time, it went through a total overhaul, and a very important feature was unavailable at the time of launch. That completely prevented the unit from collecting freshmen confirmation fees.
They came to us with the hope that we could help, because they needed to start collecting money. In just a few minutes, we built them a conference, took all mention of the word conference out of it using the branding functionality, and the incoming freshmen (who had never been to the university) had no idea they were experiencing anything different. They were technically registering for a conference, but they didn’t realize it. They were simply paying their confirmation fee. You can do some really creative things with this module.
Additionally, the Conference Manager greatly simplifies the process of registering multiple people. It allows an administrator to register other people from their office for conferences or events, which is a major functionality people expect. In fact, most of our conference registrations are processed that way, which is a great selling point for our units on campus.
Evo: In creating a customer experience for employers, providing a seamlessness for conference registration, how important is that customer-centric experience to the University’s reputation in the eyes of these prospective partners?
TA: A couple of days ago, I was working with one of our staff users in our College of Education and Human Development, and she was partnering with an organization to develop self-study modules for which they could register their employees. The organization wanted to get people registered, and they wanted to pay for it right then and there.
We were able to get a test set up quickly, then tweak the site so it accomplished what the partner organization wanted in a few hours. By the end of the day, we were able to share the link with the organization who then promptly registered their staff.
These modules support on-the-job training, and they turned to the University of Minnesota to provide them with the framework they needed to organize it. In one week, it went from an idea to a reality with over 40 registrants. This speaks to the experience and relationships we’re able to develop with employers.
If we can quickly put something together that is going to allow employers to get their staff registered, that in turn is going to solidify that company’s trust in the university as a community partner who can further everyone’s training.
Evo: How does operational management allow conference organizers to expand and improve their offerings?
TA: The tool is so simple and easy to learn. Because of that, it allows our staff to get creative and think of other opportunities for the system. We’ve heard from our users, especially during what we call our onboarding and demo processes that oftentimes they come to us with a specific event need. But during the course of the demo, they think of several other uses for the system.
We’ve repeatedly heard from units that they had no way to collect revenue as part of their formal registration process and were using things like Google Forms to do so. This software can get the job done, but it’s obviously not ideal. Now that they can use Conference Manager, these units are able to accept revenue. That naturally leads to the possibility of expanding their offerings.
Evo: How has Conference Manager helped UMN grow its conferences and events?
TA: The simplicity of the tool is what makes it user-friendly. If this were hard to use, people wouldn’t want to use it, and they’d find ways not to. It’s always easy to go back to the way things used to be if the change is perceived to be too hard.
Since it’s so easy to use, people are willing to spend their time on learning it, which naturally leads to them creatively thinking up other opportunities and ways to use the system to help expand their range of registration opportunities.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Author Perspective: Analyst