6 Ways to Create a Must-Attend Conference

Meetings and conferences are a large percentage of nondues revenue for most associations. So you better create one that can’t be missed, right? Here’s how to get started.

Here are five words that all meeting planners would love to hear come out of attendees’ mouths when referring to their conference: “I could never miss it.”

If your meeting is fun, you want your messaging to reflect that.

But just how do you create a must-attend conference? What elements are required?

At the 2014 ASAE Annual Meeting & Exposition earlier this week, Sarah Holliman, VP of marketing for SIG, along with its Manager of Operations Kim Parisi, shared more than two dozen ideas in their Learning Lab, “Business of Meetings: 25 Tips for Making Your Conference a Must-Attend Event.”

Listening in on the session, I thought they provided a good mix of practical and strategic ideas that serve as reminders that small things can add up to a powerful experience for attendees. Here are some that stood out to me:

Communicate the unexpected. When sending emails to your potential or registered attendees, make sure they’re clever and informative. “You want to tell them a little about your organization’s and meeting’s culture through your communications,” said Holliman. “If your meeting is fun, you want your messaging to reflect that.” She suggested using subject lines that pop, adding that one of SIG’s emails with the highest open rate had this subject line: Tuesday at 8 a.m.

Eliminate the guesswork. Attendees, especially first-timers, might not know what to expect at the conference, which can cause a bit of anxiety on their part. To alleviate that, the presenters suggested sending out a detailed logistical email before the conference. For example, remind attendees how much walking they will be doing, so comfortable shoes are a must-pack, as are extra layers for the often-frigid convention center. Other details you may want to pass along include what meals will be provided, so attendees will know what meals will be at their own expense.

Create and cultivate champions for your event. Often the best way to convince those on the fence about attending is to let them hear from others about how great the conference has been in the past. Use testimonial videos, but also get in touch with your most ardent supporters and ask if they’d be willing to spread the word through social media and other tools.

Another good group to tap as champions? Your speakers. Suggest that they tweet and post on Facebook about their sessions, so that they can tap into their audiences and networks. No matter which champions you ask, however, make sure it’s easy for them to get the word out.

Form a partnership with a hotel chain. Having a long-term relationship with a hotel benefits both your association and your attendees. The benefits could include discounts, upgrades, and flexibility, said Parisi, and you’ll cultivate relationships with individuals at the company who get to know the culture and brand of your meeting and the profile of your attendees. Even better is that the hotels could also win in this partnership. If satisfied with their stay, your meeting attendees may be willing to give business to these hotels again in the future.

Allow attendees to pre-register. Musicians, bands, and venues do this a lot: They offer a ticket presale to their most engaged fans and frequent venue attendees. Associations could do the same by allowing VIP attendees (those who have attended in the past) to register early at a discounted rate. Or if you don’t want to discount registration pricing, maybe attendees pay the same rate but are guaranteed housing at the hotel closest to your main meeting venue.

Provide ample networking opportunities. We all know that next to the learning, the other main reason people attend conferences is to get to know their colleagues. Holliman and Parisi said your organization must give attendees a number of chances to do just that. Some ideas: a pre-event registration reception, speed networking, and executive roundtables. Providing these opportunities for first-time attendees is particularly important (and something I’ve noted in the past). The presenters suggested reaching out to them in advance and identifying them onsite with special badge stickers.

If you’re interested in more ideas from Holliman and Parisi, check out the handout from their session [PDF]. But before you do, what other ideas do you have for creating a must-attend conference? Share them in the comments below.  


Samantha Whitehorne

By Samantha Whitehorne

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

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