Meetings

7 Ways to Make Your Next Conference Great

By Samantha Whitehorne / May 17, 2013 (iStockphoto/Thinkstock)

Are your meetings feeling a bit dull and drab? Here are seven things to think about as you dive into the conference planning process.

Conferences are about people, not organizations.

Meeting planners may think the worst thing they could hear from their attendees is something along the lines of this: “Worst. Conference. Ever. I got nothing out of it.” But something like, “It was just as good as the last two conferences,” could be as discouraging.

The reason: It shows that organizations are not upping the ante and creating those “wow” moments that will leave attendees wanting more. And in times where associations are competing for their members’ time and money (and also dealing with shrinking travel budgets), associations must think about how to deliver these a-ha moments throughout the  conference planning process.

According to Edith Bullard, senior vice president, marketing communications, for PCI, association meeting planners face three common challenges when it comes to their conferences: Getting people to attend, creating engaging programming, and turning them into something of value to their members.

Bullard, along with her colleagues Scott Lindley and Hal Schild, discussed how associations can tackle these challenges head-on by creating these “wow” moments during their session “Taking your Conferences from Good to Great” at yesterday’s 2013 Springtime Expo. (Full disclosure: PCI produces the general sessions at ASAE’s Annual Meeting & Exposition.)

Here are seven things to think about or try as you begin your conference planning:

1. Ask yourself what your conference’s objective is. Sounds pretty easy and straightforward, but Bullard says most planners don’t think about it enough. “Have an overall goal for your conference,” she said. “Is it about professional development? Is it about advocacy? Once that’s determined, it will dictate everything else you plan and execute.” Also important early on is to identify your meeting’s so-called “sacred cows” and consider if and how they can be eliminated.

2. Give up some control. The meeting should be about your attendees, so consider crowdsourcing part of the meeting to them. For instance, ask for their input on speaker suggestions or design elements. Doing so is a good way to build community, generate goodwill, and build true member-focused programming.

A few months back I blogged about one group that used social media to pick a location for its November 2013 meeting. That’s probably out of the question for most associations, but consider something similar to what the American Historical Association did. When it asked members for session topics and speaker ideas, AHA received 550 recommendations to help develop its programming.

3. Shake up your conference environment. “If you make even the smallest of changes, it sends a different signal to your attendees that they can expect something different,” Bullard said. She suggested hosting small events in nontraditional hotel spaces, such as the lobby or a lounge, and creating collaboration spaces where people can talk and engage. “You want to get people moving,” she said.

4. Humanize your conference and your people. “Conferences are about people, not organizations,” Bullard said. “You want to humanize your execs—the CEO, the board chair. Your members want to know the real people and know that they have a sense of humor and can take a joke.” Another suggestion was to incorporate attendees into your larger sessions and let them tell the story of how their work helps move your industry forward. One additional piece of advice from Bullard: “Get somewhere between humor and cheesy; cheesy doesn’t work.”

5. Maximize all of your show elements. Bullard says that a lot of conferences have a really great opening, but not as much attention is given to the rest. “Build a-ha moments in throughout,” she said. “You want members thinking and excited about what’s going to come next.” She says stage sets are one way to create a mood and that music can go a long way.

6. Make rehearsal a requirement. Nothing comes off worse than an unpolished speaker who doesn’t address your organization’s audience and its needs. One way to combat this is to require all speakers to attend a formal rehearsal before the conference. “They need to be rehearsed. It’s not an option,” said Bullard.

7. Find unique ways to present education sessions. You don’t want your attendees always walking into rooms with the same setup: speaker in the front with rows of tables not conducive to conversation or interaction. “You need to engage members around programming, or the content won’t be remembered,” said Bullard.

She shared an example from the Association of College and Research Libraries. During its Battle Decks event, which some refer to as “PowerPoint karaoke,” speakers go up on stage and present PowerPoint presentations they have never seen before.

What is your association doing to create those “wow” moments throughout your conference? Please share in the comments.

Samantha Whitehorne

Samantha Whitehorne is deputy editor of Associations Now. More »

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