Annual meetings or conferences continue to provide enormous value and opportunities for associations. By their very nature, associations exist for the education, stimulation and intercommunication of their members. Big live events are an obvious vehicle to dole out these benefits in spades.
And let’s not forget one big reason why these gatherings are not going away anytime soon: many associations rely on them as a main plank in their fundraising model. The budget moves from black to red at the annual meeting.
At the same time, however, there are pressures. For one thing, there is increasing competition; members have more meeting options, more ways to learn and network than ever before. There’s also the challenge of catering to multi-generational audiences that have very diverse tastes when it comes to what they think a big event should offer them.
All these factors are driving the continual reinvention of big meetings. Here are some of the big trends you should be aware of:
- Extending Meeting Life
Why put all of your eggs in the basket of the big event that lasts for just a few days of the year? There is now a concerted effort by association event organizers to extend the impact of the event by designing it to be a catalyst for an ongoing conversation.
This is not a new idea at all, but it has been an under-implemented idea. Especially when you consider that we now have the technology available to make this easier than ever before. Mobile apps, webcasts and social media have given us the ability to create a community that starts before the event kicks off, and continues well after it’s over — and then builds toward the next event. The goal is continuous engagement, supported and invigorated by occasional live events.
The hurdle to making this a reality is not any lack of tools, it is the challenge of the time and planning required to manage the community. The potential benefits, however, surely warrant making this a priority and staffing for it.
- Welcoming & Orienting New Attendees
Once you’ve attended a few of your association’s meetings, it’s easy to forget how daunting it can feel to be a newcomer. There’s the overwhelming feeling of not knowing anyone, or how things work, or what sessions will be most beneficial.
Wise meeting planners are strategizing better ways to roll out the red carpet for their new attendees. It often begins with hosting a special first-timers’ reception immediately before the big event convenes. Don’t leave this until later in the schedule, because first impressions can set the tone for your guest’s entire meeting experience. It’s great if you can have board members or executives at the reception, and recruit some volunteers who are willing to connect with a newcomer and help personally navigate them.
Then there are all kinds of special welcome gifts and helps that you might consider providing. And finally, be sure to follow-up at the end of the event with a feedback survey; it shows your ongoing interest, and helps you to keep improving your orientation strategies. If you can, it’s worth putting together a small team of people to focus exclusively on the newcomer challenge.
- Providing an Experience
Our culture is being shaped by the media and entertainment industries, and they target the senses and emotions with their messages. As a result, your attendees are not just looking for an education but an experience.
The big trend in this regard is toward event personalization. It’s about creating a platform for the attendee to do this for themselves by making choices — accommodation options (both onsite and off), sessions to attend and key issues to focus on, networking opportunities, dining preferences, and the ongoing conversations they will participate in longer term.
The most valuable conference someone could attend is one they have had input in shaping for themselves.
- Increasing Engagement
A critical part of creating powerful experiences is to move beyond mere one-way presentations; to engage attendees through personal involvement with the content. We are seeing a continuing trend toward interactive groups, collaboration and networking.
Some are calling this approach “flipped learning”. The Flipped Learning Network (flippedlearning.org), founded in 2012, is just one group providing resources to create learning environments “where the educator guides students as they apply concepts and engage creatively in the subject matter.” One increasingly popular methodology is to provide content ahead of time in formats that participants can access at their convenience. Then time at the live event can be more powerfully utilized in group response, discussion and hands-on problem-solving activities.
You might consider including role-playing exercises to get attendees immersed in important issues. Create an imagined (though realistically possible) problem scenario, and then divide the audience into small groups charged with finding a solution and reporting back.
- Tracking Attendee Behavior
This is one of the latest big tech trends, and you can expect to see the use of BLE technology (bluetooth low energy) and iBeacons being deployed at more and more large events. They can be set up so that attendees receive a personalized welcome message when they enter the venue, and push notifications throughout the event. This makes a great impression and can be very helpful, but it is also a two-way flow of data; attendee movements can be tracked to provide you with information about the popularity of sessions, crowd flow throughout the facility, and so on. With such instant feedback, it will be increasingly possible to respond with real-time program adjustments.
- Integrating Social Media
Social media is now so ubiquitous that incorporating it into your association event is not likely to make you stand out as innovative. In fact, you’ll raise more eyebrows by NOT having a social strategy; and worse, you’ll be missing a significant opportunity.
Static image posts on Twitter and Facebook are the tip of the iceberg. Video gets far more attention now, through the rise of platforms like Vine, Periscope and Snapchat. Spend some time choosing a simple, unique and memorable hashtag that you can promote heavily everywhere at your event. Run some contests with prizes that get attendees uploading images and video clips, and posting and tweeting (and retweeting) content quotes. As you do, it’s another way of both creating engagement and extending the reach of your event.
- Considering Families
Time is at more of a premium today than ever before, and it takes a toll on family life. Your annual meeting may provide outstanding value, but for many of your members the deciding factor about whether to attend may be that it simply represents another sacrifice of being away from home. For this reason, many associations are finding ways to make their events attractive for members to bring their families along.
The biggest factors that will influence family attendance are location and timing. Consider holding your event in a venue close to tourist attractions, and on dates that are as family-friendly as possible. Then think about what you can offer to spouses and children. T-shirts for the kids? Theme nights? Group excursions?
- Being Intentional About Diversity & Inclusion
Your association core values probably include a statement on diversity, but is your commitment to it confirmed or undermined by the lineup of people who appear on the stage at your conference? Today, an all-white, all-male, or all-one-age lineup is likely to draw criticisms that can become a PR nightmare across social media.
Being intentional about this begins with an understanding of the demographics of your membership. You may discover that a subgroup is not well represented in the general attendance at your events, so you need to find out why. For example, are you unwittingly excluding a section of people because your chosen venue is not well-designed for those with disabilities? (Tip: Have your venue professionally evaluated; promotional materials that say “wheelchair accessible” can mean very little.) Are travel or economic factors a barrier for underrepresented groups, and if so, how can you help?
The goal should not be merely an appearance of D & I, but a culture of respect and of celebrating the enrichment that every perspective brings to your association.
- Going Greener & Healthier
For a socially conscious generation that is trying every day to live better for their own health, and the well-being of our environment, the thought of attending a conference can be discouraging. It can seem almost inevitable that it will be 3 to 4 days of “falling off the wagon”. The traditional big meeting format meant lots of time sitting motionless, punctuated by fast-food meal breaks, while collecting bags full of redundant paper to be thrown in the hotel room trash can.
As Dylan sang, “the times, they are a changin’” — and so are your members’ expectations.
Today you need to consider how your event can promote holistic wellness. That means thinking through a number of issues:
- The food choices that are readily available.
- Lighting and airflow in all meeting rooms.
- The length of sessions in which the audience is sitting.
- Alternating the schedule to incorporate regular physical movement.
Event mobile apps have made it easy to go completely paperless. That’s not only better for our planet, but it’s so much more convenient for attendees and it has the added benefit of promoting post-event engagement (see point #1 above!)
- Evaluating for Improvement
Ernest Hemingway gave the all-time single most quoted piece of advice for good writing: “Kill your darlings”. He was talking about editing out things that you may personally love in order to improve what you finally publish. This is advice that should be adapted for meeting organizers too.
Thorough post-event evaluation is critical for ongoing improvement. You need to be brutally honest about what worked and what did not, about what continues to be effective and what is getting “tired”. Kill your darlings. Even newer ideas may need to be ejected — just because it’s cool or trendy doesn’t mean that it’s effective. If it’s not adding value to your audience, don’t keep doing it.
The big annual meeting is not going away any time soon, but it is rapidly evolving and will continue to do so as our cultural tastes change and as technology advances. Associations that embrace innovation and invest in building large events as an asset for their membership are going to continue to reap great rewards.
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