Do you host Lunch & Learns or other networking luncheons at your chamber? Have you had problems with attendance lately? Or maybe you’re having difficulties with getting people to attend your breakfast sessions? Whatever the event, if you’ve noticed a dip in attendance, there are a few things you should consider.
The Times Are Changing
People no longer work 9-5 behind a desk with an hour for lunch. Post-COVID, many employers have listened to their employees’ requests for more schedule flexibility and are giving it to them. That means a disproportionate number of Americans are spending their days in the jammies. The likelihood of someone changing out of their sweats (or yoga pants) to come to your chamber lunch is very small. I don’t care who your speaker is. You know what they say. A body at rest…
But it’s not just work-at-homers. Many employees are given the flexibility that they can leave the office when their work is done. So, again, getting them to come to a lunch may be very difficult. After all, if they work through lunch and finish their work, they can go home early. That’s a lot more appealing than listening to your speaker.
If you want people to “attend” you need to meet them where they are–virtually–or consider sunsetting your program if it’s not drawing the group it once did. Additionally, some people simply can’t spare the time away from family or get a sitter to attend in the evenings. That’s why some chambers are moving toward more family-friendly events.
But what if you’re sure that this dip in attendance is not due to people wanting to be at home on the couch? Are there things you can do to turn a failing event into a fantastic one?
Reigniting a Dead Event
If you have an event that is suffering from a dip in attendance but you’re sure it’s still viable and worthwhile, you can put in the effort to reignite it.
Reviving interest in a chamber lunch event requires a strategic approach to re-engage your audience and attract new attendees. Here are some suggestions to kickstart your chamber lunch networking event:
- Survey Your Members
Survey your members to understand the reasons behind the decline in attendance. Gather feedback on interests, preferred timing, and any specific concerns or suggestions. Ask them if attending daytime events is something they’d be interested in. While you’re at it ask about the evening ones too. As a work-from-home introverted freelancer, it takes an act of Congress to get me to leave the house. I don’t care what time it is. But I watch at least one virtual seminar a week and if I can’t make the live airing, I watch the replay. Find out if your members feel the same.
- Refresh the Format
Consider revamping the event format. Introduce interactive elements such as panel discussions, Q&A sessions, or networking activities to make it more engaging and valuable for attendees.
- Diversify Topics
Make sure your event topics are relevant and appealing to a broad audience. Rotate themes, bringing in diverse speakers and addressing current trends or challenges within your community or industry. There are a lot of online resources available to your members these days. See what others are talking about and watching. Noting these may help you come up with topics they’ll love.
- Promote Through Multiple Channels
Use various marketing channels to promote your event, including social media, email newsletters, local newspapers, and community bulletin boards. Create visually appealing promotional materials to grab attention. You cannot advertise it too much. Every touch point is another opportunity to see what the chamber is doing.
- Offer Incentives
Encourage attendance by offering incentives such as early bird discounts (for large events), exclusive access to resources, or special perks for chamber members.
- Member Spotlights
Showcase the achievements and success stories of your chamber members during the events. This not only adds a personal touch but also encourages a sense of community and support among members. Plus, it opens up conversations and introductions for networking later.
- Interactive Technology
Incorporate technology to enhance interaction. Use event apps for networking, polls, and live Q&A sessions. Leverage social media with event-specific hashtags to create buzz and encourage attendees to share their experiences. Have a staff member walk a mic around the crowd so people can give instantaneous feedback, add commentary, or ask questions. Consider your attendees experts too.
- Bring a Friend Day
Implement a bring a friend day to encourage existing members to bring in new people. Offer incentives or recognition for members who bring a guest. Sometimes, chamber events can lose attendees because it’s always the same faces. For someone who wants to network for their business, this can be problematic. New blood = new opportunities.
- Evaluate the Location
We’ve already talked about how timing can be a problem for a non-office-bound workforce but it could be that your location (if it’s always at the same place) is getting tiresome or inconvenient. Consider other location options.
- Quality Speakers
Invest in quality speakers who are not only knowledgeable but also dynamic and engaging. A captivating speaker can significantly boost interest and attendance. Make sure when recruiting for speakers that you tell them you want an interactive presentation and choose speakers who are going to help get the word out about your event.
Okay, those are the obvious things to change but what are your peers doing to enliven their events? Here’s what the chamber pros had to say about what’s been successful for them:
Lunch Isn’t (Necessarily Dead)
First, the Virginia Black Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Haralson Chamber of Commerce, the Englewood Chamber, and the Lincolnton-Lincoln County Chamber of Commerce did away with their Lunch & Learns. They weren’t getting the numbers to make them sustainable but that doesn’t mean your lunch spot is a dead zone.
Know Your Audience
One chamber pro shared that he did away with Lunch & Learns because they weren’t a good fit for his members. He revamped the session from L&L to a biz@noon event that sells out every time. It’s $15 to attend with no speaker. He explained, “Every attendee gets a minute or so to stand up and talk about whatever they want. Every chamber/community is different. My business owners don’t work for others because they think they know best… I guess that’s why they don’t listen to speakers.”
As a tourism-heavy community, the Tarpon Springs Chamber of Commerce found that many of its members couldn’t leave their store/business over the noon hour. President & CEO Jean Hungiville shared that they replaced L&L with an event that had a bigger networking draw. “We changed to a monthly ‘Power Hour’ lunch with a swag swap and 1 min at the mic. Our Ambassadors run this and one of them is the ‘sponsor’ each time with 3 minutes at the mic for them. N/C for members, guests free 1st time, and then $10 after that. Increased membership numbers. Lunch is a buffet paid for by each attendee. We are 3 months into this and it’s grown from 12- 15 to 25-30.”
If you’re going to stick with the Lunch & Learn format, your potential audience needs to be intrigued by your subjects. When you market the networking events, be clear about what’s in it for the attendees. What pain point are you (or your speaker) going to help with? Katey Gunlefinger-Swann shared her experience at the Prescott Valley Chamber of Commerce, “We average between 20-30 at each topic. Lunch & Learns are free for members, and $15 for non-members. In the beginning, we had attendees bring their own lunch but then I got a local bank to become a sponsor. My venue is free — we use a large meeting room in our local library. My cost is $0 and with the help of our sponsor, I don’t have to plan or think about the food.
All my speakers are members. I surveyed all my attendees last year to see what topics they liked and what topics they wanted to hear this year. I have a lunch on Thursday and I have 25 people registered the topic is ‘A Holistic Approach to Health & Wellness’ presented by the owner of a local CrossFit gym. Other topics I have planned this year: Cyber security, BBB presenting on Is the customer always right?, CBD, life insurance, and I have the police department presenting. Last year, my most attended topics were Social Media and Networking.”
Be More Selective
When Deborah Randolph came on board the Central Louisianna Regional Chamber over a decade ago, she realized the events needed some new life to be more successful. She revamped the entire event structure. As she explained, “I suggest hosting fewer luncheons to increase attendance! I inherited a chamber 12 years ago that hosted a luncheon every month no matter what. Sometimes attendance was very, very low. I decided that was not worth our time and effort. Members vote with their feet. I … established new annual events (and beefed up some old ones) that are purposeful and bring in good revenue.
We also shortened our Annual Meeting Luncheon program format and received rave reviews. Now we survey members to assess what subjects they are most interested in for workshops and luncheons. We are very selective and schedule a few really strong speakers on hot topics. We work with the SBDC and other partners to offer valuable workshops. I try not to duplicate anything offered by other orgs…We are doing an upcoming luncheon on the subject of AI, which was indicated in our Member Survey.”
Location, Location, Location
Sometimes people are tired of the location. A Chamber Pro from California shared that while her first location’s Lunch & Learn was steadily attended, it wasn’t until she moved it to a new location that she saw real growth. Her lunch gatherings brought in about 15-20 people consistently at a popular, local location.
But she recognized her members wanted more. She said, “My members were aspirational (read: bougie) and I eventually took them to a Beverly Hills steakhouse with the luncheon hosted in a private room and attendance increased to a consistent 40. We often had speakers but not always. In addition to people loving the location, they also loved the luncheon because it was easy – $30 for members/$40 for future members and tax and tip were included as well as free valet parking. Once they showed up, they didn’t need to pay for anything else, people loved the ease of the event.”
Finally, when it comes to making the “keep it or ditch it” decision about your Lunch & Learns (or any networking event), remember to stay adaptable and open to change based on the evolving needs and interests of your chamber members.