Association Events Can Learn from Amazon’s Disruption Model

Association events are poised for change. Are we able to head off the competition (even outsiders) before they catch us off guard?

By Beth Surmont, CAE, CMP

Amazon owns over 40 businesses, ranging from an online superstore to a robotics company to a film and TV studio to a grocery store to cloud infrastructure services. Who knows what business they will disrupt next? I recently had the opportunity to learn about Amazon’s disruption model. When exploring a market to enter, nine questions are asked to determine if that industry is ripe for disruption. As I listened to the speaker, I couldn’t help but think about association events. Every question Amazon asks seems to apply directly to our events:

1. Is supply separated from consumer demand? Let’s be honest—no one is clamoring for association conferences. Sure, there are many great events that people like attending, but how many of us sell out our registration on the first day? In most cases, people are going because they have to. They need to publish, they need to show face, they need to network. But we are oversupplied with events competing for our attention. You need to think about how to increase demand for your event specifically.

2. Is there a transparent pricing model? I’ve been in situations where using the break-even formula (fixed costs/number of attendees + variable costs) would price us out of the market. I’ve worked with groups where the pricing is set because it just “feels” like $500. When you pay for a conference registration, you have an idea of what you’re getting: a seat, some content, some food. But are your attendees really understanding the value of what is being provided and seeing the pricing as reflecting this?

3. Are there gatekeepers controlling the market? Whether it is the government, your board of directors, your leadership, or a competing organization, associations have a lot of gatekeepers to contend with. Look at who your gatekeepers are and how much control they have over your events.

4. Can the provisioning or ownership model be changed? Sure, you “own” your association event, the Annual Meeting of So-and-So. But there is nothing stopping a for-profit company from creating their own version of it. It’s happening all the time: SXSW, Web Summit, C2, the list goes on and on. Companies with money are investing to create fun events because they’re a good revenue stream. And while you may have the needed continuing education or publishing credentials, that only means the attendees come to you when they have to. When they have a choice, they’ll end up spending their money elsewhere if there is a more attractive option.

5. Are there important external trends creating opportunity? There are so many articles about trends in and affecting events (including ours). I’m not going to waste your time with it here. Just know the answer to this question is “yes.”

6. Can the experience be integrated across channels? By design, associations tend to be very siloed organizations that do not do a good job of integrating their products. And there is so much opportunity left on the table. When our content teams and our events teams and our membership teams are not working hand in hand, sharing information and ideas, it leaves large gaps. And those large gaps are just waiting to be filled by someone who figures out how to align all of the information in a meaningful and simple way.

7. Is it a large market that is inefficient? As much as I love association events, I’m not sure if there is anything more inefficient. The registration processes are typically long and cumbersome. The calls for papers and agenda-setting are complex. The onsite days are typically very long and overflowing with information. It’s good to take a step back and look at all the steps we are making our attendees and partners go through. Every step should be simplified as much as possible.

8. Are margins oversized and subject to price competition? Events are a weird industry for margins to begin with. Pricing fluctuates dramatically depending on the city and the venue. And we never really recover all of the time for the work that goes into a program. This is a place to watch for where tools and technology can help to increase efficiency and lower overhead.

9. Can the customer experience be dramatically improved? This is my favorite of all of the questions, because it is the focus of my career. I think association events not only can be improved, but I think we have a responsibility as planners to create events that bring people together in ways that inspire them to world-changing action.

It feels clear to me that association events are poised for disruption. We certainly meet all of Amazon’s qualifications. The question is: are we able to fix this before some outsider comes in and catches us off guard?

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Beth Surmont, the Director of Experience Design for 360 Live Media, has nearly 20 years of professional planning experience. A Certified Meeting Planner (CMP) since 2008 and Certified Association Executive (CAE) since 2016, Beth has worked in both the corporate and nonprofit sectors and has a wide range of knowledge, with experience in almost every aspect of meeting planning, from registration, to logistics, to program management and production.

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