Attendance by invitation-only events sound very exclusive. However, when the event is expected to deliver concrete results on particular topics, there is most definitely a case for either inviting specific participants only, or for selecting the participants from among those who register an interest as opposed to an open registration event where anybody and everybody can register and receive a confirmation immediatelyThis type of event is most often found in research or scientific topics, but may also be useful for policy or strategy discussions.
These events are generally well-attended and an invitation is considered to be an honour, because participants are being recognised for their contribution to the field. Invitation-only events usually involve real discussion generating high-level but tangible results, so they can be immensely valuable. They do, however, have some practical implications that will need managing.
- There are a number of initial decisions to make about the type of event
Invitation-only events can be either free to attend, or there may be a fee. It is therefore important to decide this early on, and communicate it clearly to potential participants, whether you are inviting people directly, or asking for volunteers. You also need to be clear about whether you are issuing invitations, or whether you will selecting participants from among those who express an interest in attending. Finally, you need to decide on the ideal number of attendees, which is usually between 100 and 200, but could be considerably less for a very small and focused area of discussion.
- The invitation list needs to be carefully designed and organised in batches, by priority order
The invitation list takes a considerable amount of work. You are expecting your participants to contribute, so you need to consider the nature of their contribution, and ensure some balance across the board. For example, if you felt you needed a certain number of people with expertise in a particular subject, you would want a shortlist of that number, followed by a back-up batch to be used if your first-choice participants declined. Beware of inviting too many from each group initially, because it is much easier to balance up your list later if you have plenty of space.
- The participants must be balanced as far as possible
The list of both invitees and attendees needs to be balanced in terms of demographics, geography, job types, etc, as well as expertise. You will therefore need to spend time looking at the balance during the invitation and acceptance process, and your back-up invitations will vary depending on who has turned you down. You also need to consider whether particular participants are likely to know each other, because this will affect the dynamics at the event. A group that all know each other will not necessarily be better or worse, but it will be different, and this needs some consideration.
- If you are asking people to express an interest, you need to prioritise possible participants
As expressions of interest come in, you should review them and put them in three groups: accepted, waiting list, and declined. This process again needs to consider the balance of attendees, so the initial decisions may need to be reviewed as more expressions of interest arrive. It is therefore worth waiting a while before starting to issue acceptances—although of course there may be certain people that you want to accept immediately because of their expertise and experience.
- The participants should be carefully allocated to parallel sessions
Your topic, themes and sessions will, of course, already have been decided long before you started to invite people or ask them to express an interest. Once you have a list of participants, you can therefore allocate them to the parallel sessions, again ensuring that there is a good balance of job types, geographical locations and other demographic information in each group.
- Each parallel session will need a good moderator or facilitator
These parallel sessions will be very interactive, and are designed to produce tangible results. However, the sessions will also need a very good moderator or facilitator to lead the discussion from point to point, and to draw out the conclusions. It may even be helpful to have both a subject matter expert and a trained facilitator involved, so that both process and content are addressed during the event.
- The sessions also need good rapporteurs
A rapporteur is needed to turn the discussions in each session into written materials that can be used for white papers or reports showing advances in the chosen topics. These materials can then be used for further dissemination and communication. It may be helpful to ask moderators to comment on the report of their session.