Back in the '80s, a sleeper hit emerged known as "Cheers." Set in a Boston neighborhood bar, it featured a likeable yet quirky cast of characters who would mix, mingle and debate over a multitude of topics. Conversations at Cheers often tipped in favor of the ridiculous, but sometimes the banter would go deeper....
I caught an episode the other night that made me laugh, but also made me think about what made Cheers so special -- and how we might borrow a little bit of that Cheers magic to create conference spaces that are inviting and where everybody knows your name.
Here's what bubbled up in my head as success drivers for Cheers:
Welcoming & Attentive Hosts
Fictional character Sam "Mayday" Malone, once a relief pitcher for the Red Sox, was now launching an encore career as the owner of Cheers. He was charming, funny and if you pulled up a bar stool, in no time he'd be welcoming you and serving you. Ditto for his fellow bartenders, Coach and Woody.
Applying this to conferences: This one-on-one approach might not be scaleable, but who's welcoming your customers (attendees) as they arrive? Do you have temps and others directing folks to self-serve kiosks? If I walk by staffers wielding walkie-talkies or cell phones, will they even notice me?
Fast Moving Chatter About Common Experiences
As I mentioned, the chats never rose to rocket-science proportions, but nearly every conversation was about something that others could relate to... often entertaining stories that drew other people in.
Applying this to conferences: Are you keeping an eye on the speaker story meter? Even when a keynote presenter delves into a complex topic, if they weave in a few stories that audiences can relate to, you'll see attendees leaning in and paying closer attention. Are you coaching speakers to work in more peer-to-peer chats throughout their presentations? It can be as simple as: "Turn to your neighbor and for the next couple of minutes, share your thoughts about... "
Differing Opinions Yet Respectful Exchanges (for the most part)
If everybody always agreed, people wouldn't linger or return to this neighborhood bar. At Cheers, you could always count on Carla, Cliff or Frasier to challenge something someone said and take the conversation to the next level.
Applying this to conferences: Are you fostering a dynamic environment where attendees are encouraged to ponder, contribute and even challenge assumptions? Do the words "edgy" and "controversial" have a place on your program? If so, do you have speakers/facilitators who can masterfully guide respectful exchanges? Food for thought (and another topic for a future post).
Safe Harbor for Singletons
At Cheers, while there was a constant conversation buzz, there was also an empty bar stool where newcomers could step up, listen in and even join the conversation. And if they didn't, Norm would often invite them in.
Applying this to conferences: If I'm attending your conference and I don't know anyone else, will staff, volunteers and others even notice me? Will they go out of their way to invite me into conversations? Take a closer look at your solo attendees. Are they attending evening receptions or heading back to their hotel rooms and ordering room service? I'll bet there are many who would jump at a personal invitation.
Persistence and Patience to Grow the Community
This speaks more to NBC, the network that brought us Cheers. At the time, NBC was struggling to catch up with CBS and ABC. The Cheers premiere ranked last in the ratings that first week, but NBC stuck with it and soon this program would earn the #1 spot. More importantly, Cheers was pivotal in restoring NBC to the top.
Applying this to conferences: If you launch something new at your conference, but it fails to draw a crowd on the first attempt, do you abandon it? You might have a potential gem right there in front of you. Unfortunately, too many people toss out great ideas prematurely. Some never get the time and attention needed to become blockbuster hits.
Did any of these five make you stop and think? What other ideas can you share to help us nurture conference communities as inviting and thriving as Cheers?
Written by Donna Kastner