Do you organize events? Do you like your attendees alive?
Conference organizers like their attendees to be energetic, enthusiastic, and preferably, alive. However, I see a lot of conference organizers who are doing the opposite: degrading the health of their attendees.
Joe Reilly organized 50 events a year while serving as President of the Family Office Association. “Conferences are the unnatural situation par excellence, almost like a casino. You are in a recirculated-air, climate-controlled and often windowless room for eight, ten or twelve hours, sitting in a stiff chair designed not for your back but for easy storage; fed pastry and sausage you would never order on your own; and made to feel guilty if you ‘duck out’ to run on the treadmill. All of this, while absorbing more content and meeting more people than a 19th century person probably did in a lifetime. It is no wonder that people often take the day off after a conference to “recover.”
I enjoy attending conferences and speak at quite a few of them. I plead guilty: I’m also one of those people who is part of the “food movement”, and more generally a little obsessive about fitness. I can loosely define the food movement as, “paying attention to what you put in your mouth.” A huge driver of the food movement is obesity, which kills more Americans each year than AIDS, cancer and all home accidents combined. 1/3 of all Americans are obese. Health experts are particularly concerned about sugar, which some argue is a toxic chemical. The food movement is one of the reasons for the rapid growth of Plated, a ff Venture Capital portfolio company which makes it easy and fast to prepare home-cooked meals.
So let me summarize my experience as a frequent conference speaker. The typical conference I go to is full of professionals, typically interested in fitness. Particularly in the finance and tech industry, many follow a paleo or Tim Ferriss diet. However, they’re also busy and, like all of us, have limited self-control (they have “bounded rationality”, to use the lovely euphemism of economics).
At the typical conference or other event:
- The conference offers snacks all day long, and as a result people eat all day long. This is a historic anomaly; for most of human history, humans ate 1-3 meals a day, not all day. The data is clear that the more food that is served, the more food people will eat.
- Every single meal includes a “dessert”, even though normally people only rarely eat dessert.
- The typical breakfast offering consists of 50% sugar: cereals (all with added sugar); pastries (all with added sugar); possibly yogurt (all with added sugar); and if we’re lucky, some fruit.
- Much of the food is fried and highly processed. In almost all cases, it’s impossible to tell where the food came from. The only bread offered is white and highly-processed.
- There is no designated exercise time. Anyone who exercises feels guilty that they’re taking time away from attending the event.
- The chairs are painfully non-ergonomic, and you sit for much of the day. Sitting kills.
Some attendees have good self-control when it comes to food; others have less. However, in all cases, I’d argue putting unhealthy food in front of your audience is putting a stumbling block in front of a blind person. If you ask your friends, “Would you like me to offer you sweets and pastries at every single meal?”, most of your friends have the self-control to say, “No”. But, if you offer those temptations in front of people, a very significant percentage will say, “Yes”.
The irony is that by offering health-conscious food, a conference organizer can not only lower their costs, but also market themselves in an innovative way. Why not include a line in your conference advertising like: “We will be serving exclusively tasty, minimally-processed food. In response to feedback from past conference attendees who are committed to healthy lifestyles, we will refrain from offering pastries and sweets, as many attendees have said they find it hard to resist.”
Here are some ideas to make your conference more health-conscious, most of which cost zero or only a small amount:
- Survey participants and ask them if they’d pay more for healthier food. I would gladly pay $20/day more for higher-quality, organic, minimally processed food at a conference which meets my requirements.
- Offer healthy snacks, e.g., any vegetables (avocados, baby carrots, cherry tomatoes, edamame, sugar snap peas); any fruits; hard-boiled eggs (inexpensive and filling); nuts; whole grain snacks with low salt; bean dips; hummus; cottage cheese/ yogurt without sugar; rice cakes.
- Include space on registration forms to indicate food allergies or dietary restrictions.
- Label all food with its vendor label/ingredients, to help address attendees with specific food issues (allergies, religious restrictions).
- Provide pitchers of ice water at meetings. If you want more flavor, consider offering seltzer, coconut milk, beer, or wine. Fresh-squeezed fruit juices are delicious and healthy, albeit expensive. Canned/packaged fruit juices are perceived as healthy, but are really sugar delivery packages.
- Place mirrors by the food stations. Some research has found that looking at mirrors influences people to choose more fruits and vegetables.
- Research how to provide healthy food at a reasonable price. The founders of ffVC portfolio company Parse.ly lived by the Startup Diet when they were stretching their seed funding, and fed themselves quite healthily at $4/person/day. You can eat in a health-conscious way and still keep your budget under control. Joe Reilly observed, “Food is usually given almost no thought in conference planning – a preset menu of pastry and prime rib is chosen quickly so you can get to back to panel wrangling. I’ve found if you take the effort, venues can be very thoughtful in providing alternative menus and options beyond kosher and vegetarian, and the attendees definitely notice and are grateful.”
- Ban sugary sodas. I expect within 20 years, we’ll look at conferences distributing sugary soda the same way that we would view a 1950s conference for distributing complimentary cigarettes.
- Put pastries, sweets, and all other junk food in a separate area in a corner, under opaque covers. This is precisely one of the strategies that Google uses in their cafeteria to promote healthier employees.
- Offer exercise balls as an option instead of regular chairs. They’re cheaper, more fun, and healthier. Many of us use them in the ff Venture Capital “Fitness Office.” John Durant, author of The Paleo Manifesto, suggests, “Instead of viewing ‘standing room only’ as bug, think of it as a feature. Some people may enjoy having the option to stand during presentations.” Ideally, offer some lecterns in the room for people who want to lean/take notes. To prevent the balls from rolling around, use a yoga ball base.
- Offer a designated exercise/networking slot, e.g., an optional morning jog, nature walk, golf outing, or dance class, exclusively for conference attendees.
Danielle Strachman, Program Director for the Thiel Fellowship, said, “We provide gluten-free/paleo choices at our events since many of us in the Thiel Fellowship follow this way of life, and we’d like to introduce it to as many people as possible in a subtle way. Since we’re also working with young people, we believe that influencing healthy choices is important, when they’re young enough to consider diverse choices. Additionally, most of our conferences have a breakout session format so there is a lot of time for moment, mingling, or just doing whatever you need to do (nothing is mandatory).”
Many people in the tech and finance industry are libertarian and wary of other people trying to force them to behave in a certain way. I am too. My goal here is not to force your attendees to do anything, but rather nudge them to choose the option that’s in their (and your) long-run interests…just as Google is doing in its cafeteria.
By implementing some of these ideas, you’ll increase the longevity of your attendees, which in turn will increase the longevity of your business. And many people will be more likely to attend, enjoy and engage with your conference.
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