Friday, June 27, 2014

Keys to Your Conference Experience Transforming Your Association

It's that time again... FSAE and ASAE conference fever is reaching epic proportions for many.  Many are looking at the conference schedule, shopping for things to wear for the theme nights, getting ready to see their industry friends, and just looking forward to getting away from the office.

For many however, the thought of appearing on the scene at a conference where there are hundreds and even thousands of attendees, with so many choices for sessions, and a schedule that runs from 8 am to 2 am with hospitality and networking...CAN BE A BIT OVERWHELMING.

The question do you plan ahead to maximize your ROI at the conference?

I've been going to the FSAE and ASAE conferences since 2006 and in that time frame, our association has grown over 1,000% in net worth with only a 13% gain in membership.  Yes, I said over 1,000%.  A big reason for this is me, as the association executive, having a plan to extract the best ideas, from the best minds, on the latest ideas and trends, that meet our needs.  By the way, our non-dues revenue is up 133% annually from where it was in 2006.  I share these numbers with you because I don't believe we would have achieved those types of numbers had I skipped conferences, or had no plan to maximize my conference experience.  Many of the ideas and changes that my association has made, have come directly from information gained at sessions, and in networking with other attendees.

I wanted to address why I feel that people don't think they received a good return on investment when they attend a conference.  There are 2 main reasons you will never receive, even at a good conference, a great return on investment:

FIRST:  You don't have a plan to gain what you need because you haven't identified what you are looking for.  Every association has issues that are stifling their growth...some you aren't even aware of yet.  Over the last 8 years, before every conference I attend, I identify the following before ever leaving:

  1. Two current challenges our association needs to solve in the next 12 months,
  2. One future challenge I see on our radar screen that we need to be thinking of solving, 
  3. What technology shifts do we need to be making in the next 12 months?
Knowing those three things on a piece of paper, before I leave for conference, allows me to identify the potential solutions.  I don't need to solve every problem because I'll be back there again in 12-months with a couple of other new challenges.  Knowing this allows me to focus on the big picture items.

You see, the problem at most any conference is that we are so caught up in writing down or tweeting every profound statement a speaker or colleague says, that we forget to write down the idea that connects the statement to one of your association needs.  We are just collecting the dots, not connecting the dots to actions that can transform our associations.  I've always told my staff, I would rather you come back from conference with the two ideas that can change our world, than 10 pages of notes of what you learned.  

Yes, you must obtain knowledge at conference, but more importantly, you must connect ideas to action for maximizing your conference ROI.  My rule of thumb at conference is simple...I have my notepad app open on my iPhone, and during each day of the conference, I'm writing down three things relative to the three items mentioned above:

1) One NEW IDEA I learned that I can implement for a specific need for my association,
2) What are we going to DO DIFFERENTLY ON MONDAY when I return to the office,
3) One NEW CONTACT I made who can help me make the change.

With that one piece of paper, and only 3 things to look for each day, you will find what you are looking for. I know, because our association has grown over 1,000% partially because of strategically attacking every conference I attend.

I hang around the "best of the best" at ASAE, and I can tell you that if I didn't attend ONE session, I would always walk away with those three questions answered, and am able to make great change, based on what I've learned, after each conference. Most of my new knowledge is gained just walking down the hall in conversation with a colleague, or networking after hours with friends...discussing what went on in the classroom. Learning is NOT all about what happens in the's about the application that takes place outside of the classroom.

SECONDLY... if you are not getting a great return on investment, you are hanging around with the wrong crowd. You only learn as much as the attendees around you can conceive. If you hang out with people who aren't great innovators in their associations, and they aren't looking to learn, then your return is going to be little-to-none.  If you are hanging around the BEST MINDS, then your return is going to be huge!  So, if your crowd isn't providing a great return on ideas at conference...find a new crowd!

A few other key tips for maximizing conference success:
  • Study the schedule of social events and network online with other attendees to find out where those "creative minds" are going to be networking at, the BE THERE and meet them!
  • Bring lots of business cards and make sure you come back with none.  NETWORKING is key!
  • Study the sessions and choose the ones that speak specifically to the challenges and opportunities your association is facing in the next 12 to 24 months.
  • It's OK to HAVE FUN at a conference.  Conference is a time to REFRESH, REFUEL, REENERGIZE, AND REVITALIZE your perspective on your industry, as well as, your life.  Take advantage of the out of class activities, the city/resort you are in, and after hours networking.  It's what makes the event so much more than just a conference, creating a lifetime of friends and memories.
Bottom line...YOU are in control of your conference experience.  Define what you are looking for..make a plan before you arrive...connect with creative people...write down the key things that you can implement for change...and execute them when you return. 

Watch TRANSFORMATION happen in your association!