Innovation: Key to Boosting Meeting Attendance

Sequestration effects. Reduced travel budgets. Both of these—and plenty of other reasons—could be to blame for lagging attendance at your upcoming meetings. What can be done to generate buzz and increase meeting attendance?

It’s been a particularly rough few weeks for association meetings. As of two weeks ago, the National Defense Industrial Association already had six cancelled events listed on its events webpage, all the result of sequestration and increased scrutiny on government spending around meetings. And around that same time, the Association of the United States Army notified the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau it would not hold an upcoming symposium there. The reason, according to Retired U.S. General Gordon R. Sullivan, AUSA’s President and CEO: “[We] are unable to consider [Raleigh] while the sequestration and other extreme financial pressures on the Army are ongoing.” Instead, they group will try to find a venue closer to where its attendees and speakers are located.

The onsite conference market and the new generation that an association like ours is trying to reach are not connecting.

But sequestration’s not the only reason groups are postponing or cancelling their meetings. Take the Western Publishing Association. Earlier this week, it announced it would postpone its 2013 Publishing Conference scheduled for later this month in Los Angeles.

“This was an extremely difficult decision to make because our mission is education, but the WPA has a responsibility to its sponsors to deliver attendance worthy of their expectations and dollars spent, and to our speakers to deliver an audience worthy of the time and effort spent in preparing their presentations,” said Ron Epstein, WPA president, on its website.

Over the past few weeks, the organization had contacted members and former attendees to see why they weren’t registering. Scheduling conflicts, budget concerns, and the inability to give up the time necessary were the top reasons given. In an article that appeared on Tuesday, WPA Executive Director Jane Silbering said that despite changing the conference format this year based on industry research and survey data, potential registrants were unresponsive. “The onsite conference market and the new generation that an association like ours is trying to reach are not connecting,” she said. However, she says she’s still hopeful the meeting will be rescheduled for later this year.

But even with sequestration effects and rising travel costs for attendees, associations can’t give up on meetings and events. In fact, like I wrote a few week back, now may be the time for a massive rethinking of meetings and events to show people the value of in-person events and grow attendance numbers. The National Apartment Association is a prime example of an organization doing just that.

Late last week NAA announced its Grow the Show competition, which is looking to increase paid attendee registration at the 2015 NAA Education Conference & Exposition by 100 percent or more over the 2013 final paid attendee registration numbers.

Here’s how it works: Marketing firms or individuals can submit proposals to explain how they will at least double attendance in two years. A judging panel will then review all of them, and one will be chosen. What’s in it for the winner? $1 million! (Yes, you read right, NAA is going to give $1 million to the chosen proposal if it succeeds.)

NAA President and CEO Doug Culkin said he was inspired to do something innovative after he saw the impact of the original 2004 X-Prize for sub-orbital space flight, according to a press release. “I can see how a grand challenge spurs real movement in the market,” Culkin said. “By leading innovation, we exponentially increase the amount of money poured in. I want to spark that kind of creativity. There is no reason we can’t harness the best marketers out there and reward them with $1 million for real growth in our show.”

Lucky for NAA—and unlike MPA—the industry it represents is not struggling. In fact, according to a post by Seth Kahan on, “The rental housing industry is surging. In 2011 rentals and residents contributed in excess of $1 trillion to the economy. Circumstances are ripe for an intrepid move.”

And while representing a growing industry definitely makes it easier (as does having the ability to offer $1 million as incentive) to grow attendance, it doesn’t mean associations with more limited budgets can’t do something equally innovative on a smaller scale. Sure, the industry has some hurdles to overcome right now, but I’m confident that if associations think outside the box about their meetings and events, they can come out better, stronger, and more financially successful in the end.

What new tactics is your association trying or considering to grow attendance?


Samantha Whitehorne

By Samantha Whitehorne

Samantha Whitehorne is editor-in-chief of Associations Now. MORE

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