Considering Going Paperless at Your Events? Not So Fast!

Topics: Training

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Whew! I just returned from HSMAI’s Affordable Meetings National in Washington, D.C. and have a few interesting things to share with you.

HSMAI’s Green Meeting

To HSMAI’s credit, they are working to green their Affordable Meetings series of events in many different areas:

  • They used recyclable name badges and lanyards
  • Pushed the Washington Convention Center to have recycling containers on the premises that separated paper, plastic, glass, etc.
  • Went a long way toward “paperless” by eliminating the handbook that contained all the speaker materials (slides, outlines, checklists, etc).

This was quite a change after having the printed handbook since 2002 available for all the attendees at their Mid America (Chicago), West and National (DC) events. Push back was immediately felt from two key groups at the National event last week in DC.

dcroadsignThe challenge that HSMAI faced was whether to release the handouts online before the event or not to registered attendees. The sticking point came when HSMAI decided to not make them available because of the unique, free registration nature of the Affordable Meetings series. They (HSMAI) felt that giving the materials out in advance would prevent registered attendees from coming to the free and relatively “local” event.

No Handouts Affects Speakers

Many were anticipating the usual book of handouts despite being notified by HSMAI that this would not be available. For other speakers, including Vicky Betzig, CMP of Meeting Industry Consulting (and frequent speaker at the Affordable Meetings series, and MPI and PCMA events), the assumption was that if the book was not being done, the materials would be available to the registered attendees before the event for review, download and printing if they so desired. “If handouts are taken away, attendees and speakers expect to have access to them online or be able to print on-site. Not having either option makes it tough,” said Betzig. Secondly, people have different learning styles and some need the materials in front of them to take notes next to. These learners should be given access to view, download and print if they choose to – even if they have to pay for it.”

Now there’s an interesting concept! Give people access to what they want in an ala carte fashion and let them decide what’s right for them.

Another speaker, Philippa Gamse, CMC was frustrated because of the lack of paper handouts for her attendees to follow along and to take notes. Out of respect for her session attendees, Gamse resorted to going to Kinko’s and printing her session handouts at her own expense so that attendees could gain as much education as possible from her session.

Kudos to you Philippa!! Not many speakers would go to this length.

Gamse added, “Not having anything available for the attendee is really bad.”

Change Confuses Attendees

Omnipress sponsored and produced the conference journal, the handouts online and also recorded the educational sessions (where about 75% of speakers agreed to be recorded), so naturally attendees mentioned their frustrations to us.


“Since we provided these services it was natural that attendees talk to us about their feelings. Quite honestly, there was a mixed reaction from the attendees. Most applauded the greening efforts but some mentioned they prefer the handouts in hand to help them learn,” said Bob Hamm, Senior Account Manager at Omnipress.

Hamm also added, “We try to help our customers meet or exceed the objectives of all of their stakeholders, boards, speakers, attendees and exhibitors by providing conference materials that make sense. There are plenty of ways to help planners go green with their meeting materials including the use of recycled papers. It really comes down to what is best for the learning environment – then supply the attendees with that.”

So there you have it. Many things to consider when thinking about changing the way you deliver educational materials at your events.

  • If one of the main objectives of the event is to educate, event organizers need to deliver the materials in a manner that best facilitates on-site learning.
  • If that is in the form of printed handouts or handbooks, start printing.
  • If electronic delivery (online or on CDs, flash drives, etc) with access before the event will work, then go that route.

My advice to event organizers in a world where people increasingly can get what they want, when they want it, where they want it and in what increment (individual sessions, the whole conference, a particular subject area, etc.) is to provide these options to the best of your ability.

Offer at least two options that capture the most of your market. If they have costs associated with them pass them along and let your attendees tell you where the value is with their money.

Communicate Your Strategy

Final learning point, if you are doing any major change to your events, tell people (attendees, speakers, boards, staff, press, etc.) about it often so they know the change is coming. Then have a mechanism in place to measure whether people liked the change or not. Then be willing to change again based on the feedback. As with many things, there isn’t just “one way” to do something.

Be well and keep educating!

Free Download: "Paperless Conference"


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September 16th, 2008Joan Eisenstodt says:

It was frustrating .. as a learner and a facilitator. I brought the exercises we needed in the session on ethics Kelly Bagnall and I facilitated. It tho’ did not allow the participants to have access to the information they needed to guide their discussions. We have to come up with better solutions. And we can look at areas other than handouts to make it more green .. like the exhibits and not having give-aways instead.

Twitter: joaneisenstodt


September 16th, 2008Beth from Avenue Z says:

Perhaps if the transition was not such a surprise for the attendees, the attendees would have been more receptive. I know several groups who have surveyed members beforehand to determine what would sit well with them. I think the solution to paperless vs printed is always to find the balance that fits the audience.

Twitter: AvenueZ


September 17th, 2008Paul Wehking says:

Beth and Joan – I think your comments are spot on! Truly if one of the fundamental missions of the event is to educate, then the tools need to be in place to accomplish that mission. If printed materials do this the best for a particular event so be it. There are great options for greening printed pieces with recycled paper, design considerations, etc.

Eliminating the chachskis (which is the correct spelling by the way)would from the tradeshow floor go a long way toward greening.

Twitter: paulwehking


September 25th, 2008Beth from Avenue Z says:

Ok, I just spent 20 minutes of my life looking up the word “chachskis.” I just had to know if you were telling the truth about the spelling.

And the answer is….

Twitter: AvenueZ


September 30th, 2008Paul Wehking says:

Beth – YES… that is the answer. Find the details of Chachskis at the Urban Dictionary that says the following:

From Yiddish: Knickknacks, collectables, figurines. Small figures and mememtos that can be bought at gas stations, dollar stores, gift shops, tourist destinations, etc. These are usually used to give to friends or to decorate cubicles. Sometimes placed in curio cabinets and so forth.
I bought some lovely chachskis for my cubicle at the Wal-Mart in Destin.

Web address is:

Googling “chachskis” provides a few relevant search results that seem to center around knick-knack type figures, etc in the tradeshow lingo this term has been used for years to decribe any logo’d item that is given out at a tradeshow booth to show attendees. These could be pens, stress balls, tape measures, small figures, chocolates, staplers, etc, etc.

You might also look at a Flickr page located at:
for further reference.

Now Beth, get back to work!!

Twitter: paulwehking


October 6th, 2008Erika says:

Last year, we went paperless for one of our Latin American events. We notified attendees beforehand about the change and their ability to view the presentations. We stated that they may bring a printed copy to the event and printers were not going to be available onsite. At the event, each attendee received the presentations on CD. It was well received by all attendees so we have decided to move forward with a majority of our events. We have even taken it a step forward and started giving our USB drives instead of CDs.


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