Is It Time to Say Goodbye to Your Printed Onsite Guide?

Printed programs have long been a staple of association conferences, but with rising costs and a desire to go green and digital, some groups are eliminating them entirely. A look at how to make a case for doing so.

Goodbyes are hard. And when it comes to association conferences, it can be difficult for attendees and meeting organizers to say goodbye to elements that have been staples at events for decades.

Case in point: printed onsite guides.

Traditional conference programs are hefty not only in terms of page count but also when it comes to cost, which includes everything from design and printing to the staff time that’s dedicated to putting it together. But, from the attendee perspective, a program may help them better plan and navigate the meeting, and it’s something tangible they can share with colleagues who couldn’t make it to the conference.

Those are just a few of the reasons why associations often find themselves asking this question: To print or not to print?

A conversation on Collaborate [ASAE member login required] earlier this week dove into this struggle and had association execs sharing how and why their organization moved away from a printed onsite guide.

While some suggested a cold-turkey approach where the guide is eliminated in one year and replaced by a conference app, others urged more research or a multiyear phaseout. Here are three takeaways from the conversation that any association should consider before making a decision:

Get attendee input. You may think you already know what your attendees prefer, but it won’t hurt to ask them. For example, send out a short survey asking if they use the printed program book, what information in it they find most useful, and what they may want instead of printed guide. You could also put together a volunteer committee whose members could provide feedback.

Figure out the financials. While your attendees may enjoy a printed program, they don’t come cheap. The cost savings from eliminating the book will probably be tempting. But if it also brings in advertising revenue, you need to account for that as well. Ultimately, if it turns out you’re in the red, it could make for an easier decision.

Have a long goodbye. While staff may be eager to eliminate the onsite guide, it may take attendees a little longer to get on board. That’s why many associations phase their guide out gradually. For example, one group is transitioning away from their printed program over four years. For year one (this year), attendees were asked during registration if they wanted to receive a program book. Only one-third opted in. In subsequent years, attendees will get a registration discount for opting out, and then they will have to pay an upcharge to receive it, before it is discontinued altogether.

Another interesting idea shared in the Collaborate conversation was to rework the onsite guide into more of a learning tool that goes beyond the traditional pages often set aside for notes in the back. Instead, you could provide a workbook, which could include session descriptions but also questions for attendees to consider or even quizzes or activities that could allow them to engage more deeply.

What process has your association used to determine if a printed conference program still has value? Tell us about it in the comments.

(zoranm/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Samantha Whitehorne

By Samantha Whitehorne

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

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!