Creating a Sense of Community in Large Events

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Q&A with Natalie Sorkin of the American Public Health Association

As Assistant Director of Conventions for the American Public Health Association, Natalie Sorkin has spent eight years making more than 12,000 attendees feel right at home during APHA’s Annual Meeting & Expo. She recently shared her perspective on making tech, branding, and logistics work together to instill a sense of personalization.

Q: Hi Natalie! To start, can you tell us, what is your favorite part of this event?

NS: There’s so much to choose from! I love seeing all the people coming together. You work so hard all year to prepare, and once it happens, it’s like a dream come true. We also did a lot of work this year to create a cohesive brand and look throughout the venue. You can tell the audiences feel very comfortable because of this. We have a saying about APHA: You're coming home to the public health meeting.

It’s nice to have a personal feeling, that sense of community, even when more than 12,000 public health professionals attend. They come from more than 100 countries in all disciplines — from nursing to epidemiology, from hospital administration to a local healthcare department. But here we’re one family.

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Q: Beyond branding and logistics, what else have you done to foster that sense of community?

NS: One important feature was to go beyond the walls of the Colorado Convention Center. Many members could not attend due to financial, professional, or personal reasons. Many need this event for straight or continued education, or for research purposes. So this year we offered APHA Live, a streaming service that provided real-time transcriptions during sessions. Also, all sessions are available for streaming after the event ends. We wanted to allow people that couldn’t be here to still access the relevant educational content that took place, and of course be part of the experience. 

Q: What about within the walls of the conference? What did you do to make the event more personal?

NS: We did things like make sure attendee name badges were big and easy to read. We added informal lounges for networking, resting, and socializing. We also wanted to make sure everyone had the chance to have fun. This initiative came in the form of the Mix and Mingle Lounge and the APHA Choreographed Dance. Additionally, attendees could participate in wellness activities like walking, yoga, or stretching. We are in the public health business, after all.

Q: How did technology play into your brand vision, specifically in making the event more intimate?

NS: It really helped! For example, this year we placed a social media wall in the Mix and Mingle Lounge. This included large screens that broadcast APHA and attendee social media posts, as well as information on our walking challenge leaderboard and other real-time meeting news. Our participation in non-education activities went up!

Also, participants could use touchscreens to access our new digital quiz game: a suite of fun quizzes educating attendees on different facets of APHA. Our audience was both better informed and engaged this year, I feel.

Q: It seems you went all in on event technology this year.

NS: Yes, but we wanted to keep an imaginative balance to all the tech, so we also created a chalkboard wall where attendees could write messages and share their thoughts on a different public health question each day. Something old, something new, as they say.

Q: Anything else you’d like to say about the event?

NS: It’s amazing how quickly stress can turn into excitement as soon as you see the looks on the faces of those attending your event. There’s no better feeling. 


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