Should You Start Thinking of Conference Attendees as Guests?

A look at the benefits that come with thinking of your meeting-goers as guests, rather than attendees. Also, some things to consider before implementing the strategy.

Earlier this week I was out in Colorado Springs at ASAE’s 2018 Great Ideas Conference. While I learned a lot, talked to members, and heard from tons of smart people inside and outside the association space, one of my favorite things about being there was staying at the lovely Broadmoor resort.

And I really do mean lovely. Besides my beautiful room, delicious food, and wonderful setting, the other thing that stuck out to me was the impeccable customer service.

For example, I didn’t walk past one employee without them saying hello and asking me how I was doing. Someone was always there to open a door, and when I looked “a little lost” (a.k.a. half-asleep) heading to the gym one morning, a staffer insisted on walking me there himself.

By delivering such exceptional service to its guests, the Broadmoor not only stands out and sets the bar for others in the hospitality industry, but I’d guess it also helps them cement guest loyalty.

Now let’s think of customer service in terms of your association’s conference: Could you boost attendee engagement and loyalty by designing your meeting around a guest experience?

I think so.

And so does Michael Cavanaugh, who is CEO of the American Animal Hospital Association.

During a session at Great Ideas, Cavanaugh and his copresenter Sarah Michel, vice president of professional connexity at Velvet Chainsaw Consulting, discussed the work they’ve been doing to reinvent AAHA’s annual conference.

The new experience—called Connexity—is set to launch in September 2018, and part of that reinvention is a policy of no longer referring to meeting-goers as attendees. Rather, Cavanaugh said, they will be called guests.

“I think referring to them as guests really shows that we’re committed to delivering an exceptional experience,” he said. “Sure, it puts some pressure on us to deliver, but it also points to the fact that we’re focused most on how we’re executing each part of the meeting with that guest perspective in mind.”

To help coordinate this effort, AAHA has mapped out different parts of the guest experience—from the time they arrive at the airport, to what it looks like when they first arrive at the conference venue, to what happens once the meeting is done.

Ultimately, Cavanaugh hopes that the efforts help AAHA stand out and that the new experience boosts attendee loyalty and engagement.

“I think it’s going to set the pace and set the standard for continuing education for the profession,” he said.

What Does Such a Strategy Take?

While the new effort is exciting, Cavanaugh was quick to share that it hasn’t been easy. In some ways, transforming attendees into guests requires a new mindset for the association.

To help with this, AAHA has trained staff, board members, and senior leaders in “hostmanship.”

The concept, coined by Jan Gunnarsson—a former hospitality industry exec, author, and speaker—involves “seeing the person we meet not just as a customer, patient, client, student, coworker, or colleague, but as a dear guest.”

To implement a similar guest strategy at your association, you’ll also need to hold customer-service training for both your staff and volunteers who will be expected to deliver on this experience. Such training will cost money and will need to be continuous. Since customer service is probably not second nature to many on your team, you’ll need to regularly train them so that they constantly improve their skills and keep what they previously learned top of mind.

In other words, holding a half-day training once a year is not going prepare them to deliver an exceptional guest experience at your next conference.

How do you think the meeting experience would change for attendees if you started to think of them as guests? Please let us know in the comments.

The American Animal Hospital Association is planning a new experience, called Connexity, this year. (AAHA screenshot)

Samantha Whitehorne

By Samantha Whitehorne

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

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