What Your Conference Needs to Embrace Now

By / May 23, 2019 The Be Well Lounge at IMEX this year. (Handout photo)

Three conference practices that associations need to put into action now to ensure your attendees feel welcome, happy, and included.

For my final blog post of 2018, I identified three conference elements I didn’t want to see stick around this year. On my list: event technology that lacks purpose, “manels,” and marathon days.

But now that we’re almost five months in to 2019, I wanted to offer up the flipside by highlighting three conference practices I want to see more of now and in the future. Here goes:

Family-Friendly Practices

Last year, a group of scientist mothers published an opinion piece in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, arguing that conferences need to do a better job supporting parent attendees.

“One major challenge is what we call the childcare–conference conundrum: Parent–researchers face a conundrum as they struggle to attend key conferences and further their careers while finding care for the children,” the researchers wrote. “Conferences face a conundrum as they assess how to better accommodate mothers and families.”

The good news is that many associations are already stepping up to the plate to better welcome their parent attendees. Take the American Chemical Society: Camp ACS is available to all attendees free of charge for children ages 2 to 16. The five-day program is open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day, covering almost all hours of the conference, allowing attendees to make the most of their time.

Even associations that don’t have a budget to offer a program like Camp ACS are finding a way to better accommodate parents. The American Physical Society, through its Committee on the Status of Women in Physics, offers childcare grants of up to $400 to attendees who are bringing small children to a meeting or who incur extra expenses in leaving their children at home. Similar opportunities are available to parents attending the Joint Mathematics Meetings and for those heading to the American Historical Association’s Annual Meeting.

At the very least, associations would be smart to offer onsite lactation rooms for nursing moms or family rooms where parents can go spend time with their kids for a few minutes during the day.

Radical Inclusion

One of the 10 principles of Burning Man is “radical inclusion.” The annual event that celebrates art and community defines it as this: “Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.”

Associations need to celebrate and prioritize radical inclusion within their conference communities. The strategy for accomplishing this will encompass a number of things. Among them: Making sure your conference is welcoming and accessible to all attendees, that your speakers are diverse and representative of your community and its members, and that it’s a safe environment that makes attendees feel comfortable and invites them to fully engage.

To broaden the speaker pool, associations would be smart to consider how to change up their selection process to encourage new audiences to submit proposals or to get input from a broader group. For inspiration, consider the Association of Proposal Management Professionals, which incorporated crowdsourcing into its speaker and session-planning strategy.

White Space

In my year-end blog post, I urged associations to reconsider the typical 12-hour-long conference day. That’s why I love hearing and reading about groups that have started to consider their attendees’ well-being and build downtime into their meetings.

For instance, IMEX, which took place this week in Frankfurt, Germany, has emphasized well-being. There was the Be Well Lounge, which offered attendees a place for mediation, a massage, or a few quiet moments to themselves. In addition, IMEX offered a health and well-being content track. Among the sessions offered: a Tibetan singing bowl meditation, guided breathing exercises, and a small-group discussion on techniques to improve “digital balance” (i.e, how to resist the urge to check your work email during off hours).

Attendees won’t retain anything they learned at your meeting if you’re keeping them busy 24/7. Give them time to recharge and relax, and it will pay off in terms of higher engagement.

Another idea to consider: Limit your meeting day to four or five hours, or offer early-bird or night-owl sessions that cater to attendees’ peak performance times.

Now it’s your turn: What conference elements or practices would you love to see associations embrace? Tell us about them in the comments.

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