The Grant Professionals Association uses a new strategy to ease first-time attendee anxiety.
The Grant Professionals Association always had a first-timers’ breakfast at its annual conference, but it was outdated, and attendees didn’t seem to be getting much out of it.
Knowing it was time for something new, Barb Boggs, GPA’s events and volunteer relations manager, heard from a few of her chapter leaders who were raving about a conference mentoring program they had participated in. That was just the idea she needed. In 2016, GPA launched its Conference Navigators program, which pairs newbies up with seasoned attendees.
From the start, GPA has had good participation numbers: About 100 first-timers and 75 navigators take part each year. “Several of our navigators like to have multiple first-timers assigned to them so that everyone is making even more connections,” Boggs says.
To get the program up and running each year, GPA emails registered first-timers about three months in advance and asks if they’d like a navigator. At the same time, they reach out to veteran attendees to volunteer.
Then, six weeks before the meeting, navigators get their newbie’s contact info, and GPA asks that they email them. “We have a few talking points for the navigators, but it’s really about introducing themselves and giving a few tips that the first-timer can then respond to,” Boggs says.
In addition to that introductory email, navigators are asked to have at least one pre-conference conversation with their newbie, meet up with them at least once during the conference, and have at least one post-conference conversation.
The program has benefited all those involved. “Most of our attendees are self-proclaimed introverts, so this has helped them connect better than they would have otherwise,” Boggs says. “First-timers who have participated have said that this program made them more comfortable with attending our meeting and that they made connections much faster.”
Another sign of success: Several first-timers from the early years of the program now serve as navigators themselves.
But it’s not only first-timers who are happy with the program. According to Boggs, navigators love giving back to the industry and learning from their newbies as well.
For associations considering something similar, Boggs offers some advice. “Try it,” she says. “Start small and see how it works for you. And don’t be afraid to adapt and tweak along the way.”