Does Career Stage Determine What Attendees Want?

Attendees go to your conferences for a number of reasons, and their career level may help you determine why. Now it’s up to you to deliver on their expectations.

Gaining knowledge. Making contacts. Seeing the latest products and services in action.

Your attendees may be at your conference for one or all of these reasons—or may have a completely different motivation for attending.

But they’re there, and now it’s up to your association to make sure you deliver what they’re looking for. But how can you know what it is that they want?

An article from Harvard Business Review earlier this week may give you some insight. Writer Dorie Clark writes to the potential attendee audience, addressing the idea of how to decide what conferences are worth a person’s time.

“In a world where we’re bombarded with email, it’s disproportionately effective to connect with people face to face,” she wrote. “Conferences, if you choose them wisely, can be one of the best ways to accelerate this process, since you can meet large numbers of people in just a few days.”

Clark then offers up five strategies readers can use to identify not only the best conferences to attend this year but also how to make time for them in their busy schedules. While the entire article is full of food for thought for both meeting professionals and attendees, her first point about career stage jumped out at me.

“When you’re just starting out (in the work world or in a new career), it’s important to overindex on networking and meeting new people,” she wrote. “As you gain seniority, more opportunities will come to you, and you can become more selective about the events you attend. But in the early days you never know which opportunities will pan out, so it’s useful to err on the side of saying yes—to conferences, workshops, and networking events—more often.”

The quick takeaway for association conferences: A top priority for your early-career and new-to-the-industry attendees is to network and meet new people.

So, how can you help with this onsite?

You may want to take a page from the Society for Social Work and Research’s 21st Annual Conference. During this week’s meeting in New Orleans, it offered a “Meet the Scientist” luncheon where early-career scholars and doctoral students had chance to talk and interact with leaders in social work research and SSWR. They could ask the pros questions about career development, challenges in the field, research initiatives, and the future of the industry.

The National Black MBA Association did something along the same lines at its annual conference back in October. During its 75-minute Meet the Expert workshops that included interactive experiences and networking, prominent leaders from large companies like MassMutual and CVS Health discussed, among other topics, strategies attendees could use to position or propel themselves to the next career stage.

A conference buddy program could also be another good idea for early-career attendees. By pairing a conference newbie with a meeting veteran, you’ll not only make the first-timer feel more comfortable onsite, but you’ll also make it easy for them to grow their network.

Now, what about your more-seasoned attendees who likely have more senior roles? What are they looking for?

In her HBR article, Clark writes that “successful professionals must cultivate a mix of what sociologists call ‘bonding capital’ (connections with people like yourself) and ‘bridging capital’ (connections with people who are different).”

For your conference veterans, perhaps find a way to allow them to network with those who are not from their industry or who have a completely different role in their organizations. Prearranged brain dates, where attendees are matched up based on the knowledge they want to share and learn, could be a good option.

But, no matter what you decide to introduce, career stage could be one factor to help you determine what your attendees are looking for.

How does career stage of your attendees play into how you plan and execute events? Please share your thoughts in the comments.


Samantha Whitehorne

By Samantha Whitehorne

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

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