Event Planning Tips: Getting Attendees Back From Smoke Breaks

Smoke BreakWith more destinations banning indoor smoking, conference attendees and training participants at receptions, galas, weddings and banquets guests are popping outside to smoke. Even in the winter, smokers huddle outside in the cold. Getting people back from breaks or in a timely matter so that dinner service can proceed can be a challenge. Heather McMahon, an Ontario-based event planner, recently started a discussion on LinkedIn requesting tips for getting guests back after smoke breaks. It sparked a lot of interest so I thought I would share some of the strategies I've found to be effective over the years.

All Events

  • Door prizes
    Just about everyone likes prizes. Use door prizes that are of value. Draw for a door prize of value after every break. Stipulate that to win, you must be present.
  • Queue Music
    Use music to signal that break is almost over. It doesn't matter if you play music or turn it off. The key is to brief the group an be consistent. You can even select a piece of music to play at the end of every break.

Receptions, Dinners & Banquets

  • Buddy System
    Have a designated smoking area. Assign one of the smokers on your event team to hang out with smokers, bond with them and let them know when the break is almost over.
  • Flexible Service Standards
    If strategies to get people back from breaks are ineffective, minimize the impact on service. Enlist the cooperation of the event venue in serving the next course even if people are missing from the table. (Some venues will not agree to compromise service standards.)

Conference and Professional Development

  • Chimes, Train Whistles or Toys
    SignalAll some groups needs is a signal. Some facilitators, like Dave Meier from the Center for Accelerated Learning, blow train whistles. Others strike gongs. I have used chimes that I picked up in Asia. (I once found a toy pager that I still use it with great results.)

    For outdoor events, a signal that is used in polo 30 seconds before a chukka ends and then again at the end of the chukka works well. It can be a car horn or the Super Sound signal horn.

Some of the most creative strategies come from participants:

  • Bike Horns
    During a 4-day workshop, a group of new supervisors came up with a unique idea. At each break, a different person took my old-fashioned bicycle horn with them, monitored the time and sounded it 5 minutes before break ended. No one was ever late from breaks.
  • After Break Entertainment
    If the group is open to it, I often use a reggae energizer during one of the early breaks. Participants in one of my workshops in Malaysia suggested that I play reggae music whenever there was 3 minutes left in the break. Anyone who was back late would entertain the group by competing in a reggae dance-off for a gag prize. Whenever the music started participants would come running. It was great fun. It worked because the suggestion came from the group.

Every group is different. Asking participants to suggest the best way to get everyone back on time from smoke breaks is likely the most effective strategy of all. I often bring a range of signals, ask the group to suggest their own ideas and put it to a vote. When a group has had input there is likely to be buy-in and cooperation in returning from breaks.

Photo Credit: quinn.anya, Falcon

For more tips for using smoke-free event venues, also consult 7 Event Planning Tips for Smoke-Free Event Venues.

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