Monday, April 29, 2013

Creating a Conference That Rocks Your Members and Makes Them Fans

I have recently returned from the Annual Spring Meeting of the association I run and have been asking myself the following question:

What separates our meetings from many other association meetings who are struggling to get members to attend with a level of excitement that engages attendee's emotions?

I began to ask that question throughout the meeting because half our speakers commented from the stage to or members... "they have been around very few association meetings where the bonds were so tight, the atmosphere was so welcoming and level of excitement was so high."  I also had numerous members, presidents of companies, come up to me and say, "Tom, MTI is without a doubt the most exciting organization we belong to."  

That speaks right to a CEO's heart.  It's what we strive for.  

As I've given a lot of thought about our meetings compared to what I hear from many others, I believe the following 5-elements of our meeting drive the bonds, emotions and excitement our members experience that create their desire to want to return.  These are things you may want to think about in your meetings:

As with retail, location makes a huge difference in the attitude of an attendee.  The question here is, do your members see your location as just meeting, or an opportunity to experience a city and resort they might not be able to afford individually.  Having the right "value" at great locations can greatly increase your attendance due to many attendees bringing their spouses.  When the spouses in an association begin to build relationships, they never want to miss a meeting.  Especially when the locations are amazing.  This is an incredible benefit of being a member of an association in that the association can negotiate amazing concessions and room rates at 5-star resorts for members to enjoy a few days away from the office and network in an exciting location.   When you have the right locations, attendees begin to see the meeting as a mini-vacation.  You know you have them hooked when they build their annual calendars around your meetings.  Once you have them hooked, its important you have your meetings booked well in advance so they can get them on their calendar.

Our members have a friendly bond like I've never seen in any other association.  Even our most fiercest competitors hang out together.  I feel the reason is we provide them as much time during the day to hang out and really get to know each other as we do learning in the classroom.  Giving everyone the afternoon off provides a couple of key features:
  1. The brain can only absorb so much.  A full day of learning in my opinion is too much.
  2. It allows attendees to get to know each other on a more human and emotional scale and build bonds.
  3. It gives attendees the time they need to brainstorm the application of the ideas they learned in the classroom.
  4. It provides an opportunity for your attendee to really soak in the great location you have chosen, which gives them a new perspective on their industry and refreshes their personal spirit and passion.
So many cities have an amazing night life with food, music and attractions.  It is imperative that you give them a night to experience it.  If you have chosen a great location and provided them the afternoon to recharge and refresh, they are in the mood to go experience the fun your chosen city has in store for them.  If you have kept them in the classroom until 5 pm, then reception and dinner, most are too worn out to attempt to go see the town.  We started giving members the middle night free a number of years ago and they have loved it.  It allows suppliers to take customers out to dinner and friends in the industry to connect as small groups.  The key is a 1-hour meet-up reception from 5:30 to 6:30 that brings those together with no plans, to connect and make plans with others for the evening.

Every association's board needs to be connected to the membership.  More members than you know have a desire to stay up networking past the end of your nightly functions.  Hosting one common place where they can all hang out together creates an extra bond you can't put a price tag on.  If everyone ends up in small groups all over the place, things are fragmented.  But when they all show up to a common room and can network, laugh and enjoy the night together, the strength you want to see build among members begins to take shape.

Your closing dinner is the last opportunity to showcase why your association is an awesome and exciting place to be.  This is a night to, one last time, engage the attendees' emotions moving towards your next meeting.  You need to figure our what that last exciting moment needs to be at your final dinner to have the thought in your attendee's mind be:  "I can't wait until the next conference!"   For us, we always have a local band who plays great dance music to entertain the last 2-hours of the night.  We balance the room out where people who want to dance can dance and those who want to just keep networking can enjoy that as well.  At the end of the night, everyone feels a "good" drain on their energy because they have expended it in a way they love.

I would encourage you and your meeting team to give some thought to these ideas.  With the new generation being very experiential, it will be imperative you do more than just deliver content.  You need to deliver emotion, memories and an opportunity to bond more closely with the other attendees for network expansion.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Great Leadership is Knowing When to Lead Members vs When to Facilitate Process

In my years of experience, one of the biggest frustrations with executive staff of any association, is knowing when to "lead volunteers" and when to "facilitate the process."  Working within the daily grind of all the association programs, causes an association executive to really develop a sense of, "this is mine" attitude.  You feel like you have been there from the beginning, you were the driving force behind the ideas, or you put forth unbelievable effort into launching and engaging a successful program.  Over time, you begin to feel like the association is, "your business", and you begin to LEAD it as such.  You feel that way because your hands are in it everyday, as opposed to your member, who has their hands in it periodically.  Here is the good news...your board members/leaders, feel the same way about their outside company advisors, bankers, or a board if they have one.

It's not a bad thing to feel.  It's an emotion you simply need to understand, control, and have the right attitude about.  I always say, "You need to run the association as if it were YOUR business, knowing that it is NOT."  This is easier said than done for many.

If you want to sleep easier at night, have less stress in your daily work, and want to leverage the efforts of many to increase your quality of life, you need to realize, "it isn't your association and never will be."

Knowing when to FACILITATE the process to empower your members to do the work of the association, is key to leveraging your leaders in doing the work of the association.

Granted, every association has its own persona regarding this balance of LEAD or FACILITATE.  Most associations break down into one of the following categories:

  • The association is hurting, and your board/leaders give you the keys and say, "FIX IT."
  • The association is hurting, and your board/leaders, along with you, "WORK TOGETHER" to pull it out of the valley.
  • The association is doing well, and you are doing the work that your board/leaders are charged to do, but never seem to get around to it, leaving you to, "SAVE THE DAY."
  • The association is doing well, and your team has a great blend of staff and volunteer engagement to "GET THINGS DONE."

I ask the question of these, when do you "lead the volunteers" and when to you "facilitate the process?"

Remember, it's their association, they have the last say in priorities.  An association executives job is not to determine the priorities or make the final decision, unless requested by your leadership.  It's your job to present all the relevant facts, potential outcomes and consequences of each, and then let your leadership set the priorities and direction for the association and its initiatives.

I believe that knowing when to lead and when to facilitate is a moving target.  Each one of those scenarios above calls for both staff and volunteer engagement in the process.  I find too often, many association staff just accept that, "every action that comes from a board or committee meeting, is staff's responsibility to 'make happen'."  This is not true.

It is critical the association staff understand when the workload is full, so they are able to ask their leaders/volunteers for help in the process.  If there is no help in the process, then the staff needs to ask the board or committee, "what do you want to put to the side, or eliminate, to take on this new project?"  ...Or,"are we prepared to add money to the staff budget to take on more staff to handle the new initiatives?"

When the workload gets larger from board or committee initiatives, there are only a couple of choices:

  1. Current staff just assumes the responsibility
  2. Hire more staff to take on new workload
  3. Volunteers step in to help with the process
  4. Eliminate projects to make room for new ones
Most tend to immediately pick #1.  I believe it should be #3 first...then #2...then #4.   It should never be #1.  An executive should never allow the workload to get so overwhelming for their staff, that they become inefficient, burned out, and ineffective for the members...but it happens everyday. 

Associations should never be staff or volunteer driven.  They must be a perfect blend of human
resources and talent each bring to the table.  Great leaders are able to access the talent they have within their grasp in both staff and volunteers, and orchestrate them in a process with the priorities of the board to maximize their effectiveness for the association.

My encouragement for you today is to take a moment to step back, look at every project your association is working on, and analyze if you are leveraging the right balance of staff and volunteers in the process.  I'm of the belief that having more volunteers involved in the process leads to a more vibrant and engaged association.

...but that would cause you to give up control...try it sometime!