I'm just back from 2.5 days at the Ford Motor Company's Forward with Ford media event. It was a great time in Dearborn. The Ford folks know how to put on an event. Here are a few best-practice take-aways you can use no matter what size event (or budget) you're working on:
1. Give enough time.
Too many event planners try to pack as many sessions as possible in a day. That puts pressure on speakers to present material fast, and attendees to process it even faster. At the end of the day it's often hard to know what you've learned even if you were taking notes. And you certainly don't get to form many connections to speakers or the content. Ford gave us only three sessions on the main day. And they were long, so presenters could make substantive presentations and still have time for questions. There was also plenty of time for live demos and casual conversations with experts and others built into each session.
2. Provide a range of views.
One thing that really stood out at this event was the mix of Ford and "outside" experts. Malcolm Gladwell, Paul Hochman and Carol Orsborn, among others, provided information on trends that effect us all, not just the auto industry. They always went first, and then Ford folks (some on staff, some business partners like Pandora chief Tim Westergren) showed how these trends were being factored into the Ford products. The blend of internal and external, macro and micro was not only informative, but it kept the event from feeling like a big old Ford promotion, even though, of course, that's exactly what it was.
3. Make experts available.
At every meal, there was at least one Ford person (internal or a partner) at each table, and they weren't just there to sell. They answered questions, solved problems and even set up special tours or interviews. And the subject matter experts easily accessible both for gaggles and short individual interviews throughout the entire event. This made it easy for media folks to get great content on demand. And with good wireless available at most of the venues, it was easy to file on the fly, too. Green activist Ed Begley Jr. was on site for two days, talking about green living and posing for photos. Sheryl Connelly, Ford's manager of global trends and futuring, was with us all day every day -- which not only made her easy to chat with and interview, but sent a strong message that this event was important to Ford management.
4. Stay on schedule.
Another benefit of fewer but longer sessions was flow. Because we had plenty of time at each session, we were more willing to move on when invited to. And it did feel like an invitation. I never once felt herded, which is amazing at an event of this size full of reporters. For people who live and die by the deadline, we don't like to stay on them at events. Yet the trains ran on time every day.
Ford smartly ended the event with a day at the test track, giving attendees a hands-on day of driving their vehicles and seeing all the trends we'd been discussing in action. They even had ride-alongs with professional drivers on the "wet course", a thrill ride nobody will soon forget. And they closed the event with a great keynote speaker (Joel Garreau). Now, not every company has access to great vehicles and a state-of-the-art test track, but the lesson here is end with something that drives your conference theme home and is inspirational or fun -- or both.
Keep these tips in mind when you're planning your next event and it's sure to be even more successful!
For another recap, check out Lyn's great photo collage.