To Theme or Not to Theme?

Associations often theme their conferences to provide direction to those submitting session proposals. But one group recently announced it will drop its theme in 2020 to create a more inclusive event. How do you determine the right approach?

Last month, the American Historical Association announced that its 2020 annual meeting will not a have a theme—for the first time since 2003.

John R. McNeill, AHA’s president-elect and a history professor at Georgetown University, wrote in his announcement that there will be no theme “partly because so many good themes have been taken,” but also because he wonders “what good it does to have a theme.”

He said that serving on the meeting’s program committee in previous years led him to think that people submit session proposals “under the false impression that their chances of acceptance rise if they twist their proposal” to make it appear to fit the theme.

“Next year, no one will be tempted to engage in misguided and pointless gymnastics to make a panel appear to fit a theme,” he wrote. “I hope that a themeless AHA will prove to be a maximally inclusive AHA.”

In comments to Inside Higher Ed, McNeill added that he hopes this strategy results in sessions that “represent a fuller array of all the approaches, methodologies, topics, and, yes, themes that historians nowadays find compelling.”

While AHA may be choosing to say goodbye to a themed annual meeting come 2020, plenty of associations are sticking with the theme approach.

For instance, the American Public Health Association’s 2018 Annual Meeting, taking place next week in San Diego, features the theme “Health Equity Now.” And “No Illusions, No Exclusions” was the theme for last month’s 2018 American Folklore Society Annual Meeting. These groups say that having a theme helps better guide sessions and other meeting elements.

So, what should you consider as you determine whether to theme an upcoming conference?

One factor could be meeting size. If you’re trying to attract a large audience, where attendees range in age, experience, and job roles, going without a theme lets you cover a variety of topics and ensures you have something for everyone. On the other hand, if you’re looking to limit your audience to, say, a group of 100 mid-level managers, picking a theme that they can identify with or that is relevant to them in their day-to-day work could be the better approach.

Another factor to consider is whether your conference is new to the market. If it’s your first go-round, a compelling and relevant conference theme can create buzz for your event and make people eager to register—and to tell others about it.

“If you take the time to select something with mass appeal to your constituency, one that resonates with them, they will help you with the marketing of the event,” wrote Christina Green on Event Manager Blog. “The excitement will build with each piece of shared content and their posts may elicit questions from others who see [them] in their streams.”

How do you decide if a conference you’re hosting should be themed or not? Let us know in the comments below.

Is it better to treat your meeting as a blank slate? (Michael Burrell/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Samantha Whitehorne

By Samantha Whitehorne

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

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