Switch it up: Create Experiences Not Events

by:  Holly Duckworth, CAE, CMP

Are events currently among your association’s highest revenue generators?  Are you experiencing a decline in that revenue and attendance?  Association executives today are at a crossroad knowing it is time to “re-imagine” the future of association meetings and events, but don’t know where or how to begin.   

At the end of the day, boring meetings suck.  There has been a fundamental shift in people’s thoughts and actions around going to meetings. They simply don’t want to go sit in another meeting.  Association participants today desire authentic connection and powerful dialogue.  They are too busy to take two to four hours away from their office just to see old friends.   Your longer-term members desire the nostalgia of old blended with a high caliber face to face conversation that is expanded through technology access.  Younger members are looking for education, mentors and a fun way to connect with peers with technology enhancements.

In other words, you need to go beyond planning member events to creating experiences.

What is the difference, you ask?  An event is an occurrence where something happens. It’s impersonal and not necessarily positive. City planning meetings, hurricanes and going out of business sales are all events, but people don’t typically look forward to them.

An experience, on the other hand, is something that you participate in. It’s personal. And both the participant and the planner can influence how positive it is. If the experience is positive enough, it creates an emotion the participant will long remember.  

So how can you transform your event planning into experience planning?

It starts with the mindset of the meeting professional or association committee planning the event.  Are they looking to simply recreate an event that has taken place for the last countless number of years or are they willing to truly start with a blank slate and re-imagine what the event can look like, feel like and sound like?

If the people involved are ready to proceed down a new path, here are three keys for creating powerful member experiences.

1. Ask the right questions: 

  1. What are the goals, objectives and results that are desired from the event?  Look at this from two points of view: the association’s and the participant‘s.
  2. What feelings does this event experience create in the mind and heart of the participant?  What does the event look like, feel like, sound like, smell like, taste like?
  3. What must the organization embrace in order to create this new event?
  4. What must the organization give up in order to create this new event?
  5. What other elements will make the event exceed the desired outcomes? 

2. Co-create with your audience. 

The associations of the future are asking the participants to help determine education topics and formats.  They create collaborative environments where an authority figure (speaker) creates dialogue (not merely a lecture) with the audience, drawing out the expertise in the room.

3. Have a clear strategy for engagement before, during and after the event. 

Take your own AENC Annual Meeting.  The Annual Meeting team worked with sponsors to make sure we felt welcomed by the convention bureau before we even arrived on site, they posted great live Facebook and Twitter questions during the event to increase engagement of both the onsite and virtual audience, and afterward they posted more than 400 images of the event.  This was a brilliant use of technology—onsite participants wanted to go see if they were in the images, and those who couldn’t attend could see all the education and fun they were missing.

In order to be the association of the future, you need to create the events of the future. Which means creating experiences. 

In today’s competitive environment, your members no longer have the interest to come to a luncheon with a talking head for 60 minutes every 4 weeks.  It’s time to be creative in every way from seating arrangement, food and beverage, signage to speaker selection and post-event activities.

Are you willing to let go of the traditional meeting layout and format? Can you embrace the idea of going in totally new directions? Is it possible you could work with your attendees to co-create the meeting content and structure? Associations that have answered “yes” to these questions are having the greatest success in terms of increased participation and revenues.

As association executives we know the economic conditions are changing and that our members are voting with their dollars and their feet as they choose to attend or not attend our events.  What should you do to compete? Ask yourself these powerful questions, release the old controlling event templates of dates and times, and re-imagine your events as experiences instead.  Delete your old event model and create something better.  I know by doing these things you are on your way to elevating meetings to experiences that drive association ROI.

Holly Duckworth, CAE, CMP is an entrepreneur, author, speaker and thought leader, on association leadership and the meetings industry. She serves as President of the National Speakers Association Oregon, and Immediate Past Chair for the American Society of Association Executives Component Relations Section Council.  Look for her book CTRL+ALT+Delete: Reboot your Association for Success.  Follow her on twitter @hduckworth or visit her web page http://www.leadershipsolutionsintl.com for more on building positive change through leadership in your organization.