Making Attendees the Star of the Show

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Making Attendees the Star of the Show

By Thom Singer, CSP | Feb 11, 2019

We hear it all the time from meeting professionals: “This year we want to try something new at our conference.” Then they build upon the same agenda they had the year before. While they may hire a fighter pilot this year to keynote instead of the Olympic medalist they had last year, the opening session and the rest of the schedule remains pretty much the same every time.

The National Tour Association (NTA) decided to shake up its 2018 Travel Exchange by totally changing the opening morning. Traditionally, the business meeting and opening general session over breakfast included a keynote speaker who shared topics from their latest bestselling book. But NTA staff knows there is so much knowledge inside their association, and they wanted to find a way to make their attendees the star of the show instead of a celebrity speaker.

After many discussions with staff, members and vendors, BIZnet was born, and would take the place of the traditional opening general session.

“It’s networking with a mission. Our members place a high value on conversations with their peers—that’s how they get ideas and solve problems,” says Catherine Prather, NTA executive vice president. “With that, our goal was to set up a session where our members could get to know each other in a deeper way and find connecting points.”

There are lots of layers to BIZnet conversations. In order to introduce meaningful, relevant and timely topics, the NTA staff asked their members what challenges they faced and what keeps them up at night. And then they gathered topics from their Owners Network and similar, ongoing meetings that their supplier and destination members hold. They then took those issues to a larger group to identify four key topics that were the most meaningful to those who owned and operated tour companies.

Shaking up a conference can be scary, as no planner wants to see any part of the conference agenda fail, but NTA was upfront with members in advance of the event and at the start of the BIZnet session that this was about an effort to try new things and tap into the deep brilliance of the event attendees. 

Several factors went into making BIZnet a success. One was finding the right facilitator who could run the program. This needed to be more than just a “birds of a feather” open-table discussion. They needed a master of ceremonies who could set the tone for the whole two-hour session, change topics at the right time and create the right atmosphere for networking and real sharing at tables and out to the greater room. 

Having worked with NTA at past meetings, I understood their audience and offer an interactive presentation style.

“This was a unique experiment, and we asked Thom Singer to collaborate on creating something that would be different,” Prather says. “He was immediately game to try this out and work with us to blend our idea with his experience.”

As participants entered the session room, they were handed cards that had a number on one side and a letter on the other. The idea was to split people up from their friends and attempt to get a mix of buyers and sellers. After two rounds of discussions they would change tables and get a whole new group of people with whom to share their thoughts and ideas. Between rounds several tables were asked to share their best solutions with the whole room.

They piloted the session at a smaller conference in the spring of 2018—their tour operator conference, Contact. This event has a more relaxed pace and is more conducive to long conversations, and they knew the members would be open to being part of a fresh try at a new program format. It worked so well that they carved out the morning of the first day at Travel Exchange for BIZnet.

“It was a huge hit,” Prather says. “Our members are accomplished professionals from all over the world and they represent a wide range of business types. Learning from each other was a powerful way to start the week.”

This facilitated opening session is a great way to launch a conference and get people to make connections. By hosting this program at the start of the four-day conference it allowed attendees to meet many new people and have meaningful business-process-and solution-oriented conversations. For the rest of the event they could easily continue to seek out the people they shared their tables with and continue conversations.

This format can be used again in future years while still being new and different. NTA has already decided to use this style of opening session again at Contact in 2019, and is considering it for Travel Exchange in the future.

“We’re committed to keeping these discussions fresh,” Prather says. “A different mix of members will yield new insights and, of course, we’re in a rapidly changing world with dozens of variables, so tomorrow’s conversation will be different than last year’s. New topics won’t allow it to get stale.”


Thom Singer
Thom Singer, CSP

Thom Singer (MPI Texas Hill Country Chapter) is a keynote speaker and professional master of ceremonies. He is also the host of the popular “Cool Things Entrepreneurs Do” podcast. Learn more and contact him at