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.

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