Why “Bleisure” Matters for Leaders

Letting your staffers explore a conference city can be more than just a good time for them. It’s an under-used opportunity to help them better serve your members and attendees.

Great conferences are mostly about happy attendees. Which isn’t easy, because unhappiness stalks attendees’ every turn. People give up their routines, and often vacation time, to spend time at your event; plane travel is a headache, even on a good day; expectations are high that everything from the education to the between-session snack options will be above average.

Mostly about happy attendees, yes, but not entirely. One thing that emerged as I worked on my feature in the new Associations Now on “bleisure” travel—trips blending business and leisure— is that the well-being of staffers who work at the conference matters too, in terms of morale, the bottom line, and their understanding of member needs. And, of course, the association’s leader has a big role to play in managing that.

Those breaks during the conference are more than just breaks.

To that point, Chris Williams, CAE, executive director of the National Child Support Enforcement Association, told me about a few of his lessons learned earlier in his career, when breathing room for staffers working the conference was hard to come by. “You get onsite, and it’s go, go, go,” he says. “You’re here for five days, you’re working 12, 14, 16-hour days, like we all do in nonprofits. And then you pack up and you go home.”

No fun. Of course, staff work at a conference isn’t designed to be fun. But Williams and others have recognized that giving staffers some space is a way to build relationships with them—just as you would with a board member or other stakeholder—and reduce burnout. In addition to making sure that NCSEA staffers have some free time during the conference, Williams also builds in a staff dinner for bonding. “We don’t talk about work—it’s strictly prohibited,” he says. “We’ll do at least one of those at our meetings. It’s not that we don’t love our members. But we also want to make sure that there’s a separation sometime so that we can have personal time together so that we can bond. We can learn more about each other.”

In nonprofits, he adds, “you’re constantly bringing on new people, so you want to make sure that you are able to integrate them into your culture. The best way to do it is to learn more about them by taking them to dinner, getting them a drink and just talking.”

Such get-togethers can be refreshing and morale-boosting, but there are bottom-line benefits too from an HR perspective, especially for younger employees. You don’t have to look far to find a study showing that millennials crave work-life balance and look for jobs that afford them flexibility: According to a 2016 Deloitte study [PDF], work-life balance is the top priority for them outside of salary considerations, and a study from the Global Business Travel Association says that 43 percent of millennials are more likely to build leisure travel into their work trips. That doesn’t mean that they’re disinterested in working hard, just that they want to know they’ll have a chance for a break as well.

The upside to those breaks is that they’re more than just breaks—they’re opportunities for your staff to better understand the city where your attendees will be spending a few days’ time. Williams says he encourages his staffers to hit town at least half a day early to explore, which helps them orient themselves and, by extension, attendees.

Some of that work can be done before everybody on your team checks in for their flights. Association meeting planners have a vision in their minds about what an optimal experience for the attendees is—what they’ll be wowed by, what will make their lives easier, what they’ll want to steer clear of. Communicating that to employees can better prepare them to assist when they arrive at the conference center.

But there’s no substitute for giving your people the opportunity to find those things out for themselves. When it comes to that, Williams says, “I wish I had done it sooner in my nonprofit career because I probably traveled four times as much in my early and mid-twenties than I do now for work. I look back and say, I wish I had taken the time when I was in a place like Saint Louis to drive around a bit, get there that morning and see the sights. Go up in the Arch or places like that when you’re so focused on work you forget to take time out for yourself.”

What do you do to encourage employees working your conference enjoy and explore your host city? Share your experiences in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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