great_place_to_workI recently went down to the Bayou, joining 1,100 HR practitioners and leaders in downtown New Orleans for the 11th Annual Great Place to Work Conference.

It made sense that this super event was held in the Super Dome, because, in my opinion at least, China Gorman and her team did a super job putting on an event worth two thumbs up.  I’m pretty sure most other attendees would agree.

My colleague Matt Charney, ever cynical, recently asked me what, exactly, makes an event worth two thumbs up instead of a thumbs down, and that’s a fair enough question.  In fact, it’s one we should be asking at every event we attend – and in this industry, that’s a whole lot of conferences.

After all, our time (and money) are precious – and we’re all under pressure to return from these events with a few goals and objectives to justify us being out of the office and away from home.While getting the chance to connect with and learn from our professional connections, clients and colleagues is great, let’s be honest: the price tag is often too steep to just have a great time without getting some great takeaways that result in ROI and actionable information and quantifiable impact. And no, a sponsored bar doesn’t count.

As you likely know, I’m something of a veteran in the HR event space, having put on quite a few of them myself over the years, and that means I attend every conference with something of a critical eye – call it a professional liability.  Sure, I evaluate events through the most common criteria – the content of agenda and caliber of attendees count – but I realize there’s so much more to an event than meets the eye.

There’s no second chance to make a first impression, so what attendees see when they first arrive is of critical importance in setting the tone: the look, feel and even smell of the venue itself; the registration process; the conference bag, collateral and contents; the printed program; the event staff and volunteers; the amount of traffic and the movement of attendees; the expo hall and the sponsoring companies – the list literally goes on and on.

At the Great Place to Work Event, I was lucky enough to stay more or less behind the scenes courtesy of a press pass, and had the pleasure of conducting some behind the scenes interviews.  What I came away with in conversations with Victoria Mars, Chairman of the Board at Mars (yes, the M&M lady! – more on that to come), Anita Grantham, VP Cultural Development at Infusionsoft and Laurel Smylie, Great Place to Work Consultant, I was reminded that no matter what industry or company you represent, having enthusiasm and passion about your work really does make all the difference.

What Makes Great Place To Work Great

I’m lucky enough to share that same passion, so here’s my quick take on the event:

Speakers & Agenda: A great mix of smart CEOs and leaders who understand that if you take care of your people, your people will take care of the business.  The presentations were all very well received, with on point content by dedicated talent & HR leaders who understand the value of attracting and retaining good people through a transparent and truthful culture.

This should extend throughout the life cycle – Infusionsoft’s Grantham addressed “dignified, respectful off-ramping” when cultural goals and individual goals no longer match – which was a first for me, but shows that the best brands know the importance of employee experience from hire to retire.  Check out the rest of the presentations here:

Sponsors: How can you go wrong with a Mercedes-Benzes sponsored reception at the Super-Dome in New Orleans? Or an “M Café” sponsored by Mars Drinks and it including a full M&M bar? Not to mention the chair and hand massages sponsored by Bright Horizons, and let’s not forget the potpourri bags for us girls. Nice.

Attendees: A great mix of employees there to celebrate their inclusion on this year’s list of 100 Great Place To Work and a lot of top leaders and practitioners from some of the world’s top brands there to learn how to transform their company into the kind of best in class employer from their colleagues who are getting it right (or at least, worthy of the seal of approval from Great Place to Work – no easy feat).  Most attendees came from the C-Suite or the executive ranks, with broad responsibilities and a big bottom line and business impact in their roles as leaders.

Venue: The Hyatt Regency New Orleans was a welcoming, well run venue that was just a “Hop On and Hop Off” shuttle ride away from a cup of chicory coffee at the Café Du Mond – or any other beverage of choice available in the world famous French Quarter – which made the proximity a very good thing for many of us.

Food: It’s New Orleans! I don’t need to say more, except maybe “laissez le bon temps rouler.”

#GPTW Staff: Dedicated and excited, and deservingly – so they put on a great event.

Conference Management Staff: M Factor – consummate professionals who did a great job making Great Places to Work, well, great.

Volunteers: Very helpful, always smiling and easy to find with their red shirts – not to mention extremely knowledgeable and proactive in helping attendees get the most out of their time there.

So, I know you’re probably wondering what, exactly, my ROI was for spending a few days out of the office and in New Orleans.  I had some great conversations with some great talent and business leaders; made several new connections as well as strengthened existing ones – including getting some invaluable 1:1 time with the inimitable Elaine Orler, and learned that what we do every day at RecruitingBlogs is really the same as what it takes for an employee brand to work: putting the right people in the right place with the right expertise.

That’s where the magic happens – no voodoo required.