Reflecting on the past few years and looking to the future, change is the only constant.
Industry leaders like Facebook, Apple and Amazon have altered how we consume information, communicate and move through the purchase process. Those are just a few companies that have revised the landscape when it comes to how we engage on a daily basis. Those changes have ushered in a new era of customer service expectations, too.
These dynamics are also occurring in the meetings and events that we attend.
The sunsetting of mature events and the development of entirely new events has been a trend for the last few years. However, the association world has been slower to jump on this than the for-profit sector.
When events are performing well, there is less motivation and sense of urgency to change. But many organizations are seeing a drop in the performance of their meetings and events.
Of course, this differs based on the various industries organizations serve, but overall, organizations are seeing either a plateau or a decline in their meeting attendance.
Members have a wide variety of options for professional development. Many times, these options are in direct competition with offerings from their professional or trade organizations. And that is why it is critical to understand your members’ needs and identify what differentiates your organizations’ meetings and events from competitors.
After reviewing organizations that have successfully implemented changes to meetings and events, a constant theme was a move toward meetings that help connect customers emotionally, physically and intellectually.
Before you can provide an immersive, compelling experience, you need to understand member needs.
The first step is to engage member stakeholders in an idea generation session where they can illustrate their expectations. Keep in mind, it is important to be sure the committees involved are representative of the members you currently serve and those you want to attract.
Also, allow non-committee members to provide input. Their engagement with your organization will look different than someone who is at the committee level. Options to explore are having members assist in the proposal evaluation process, or engage those that have attended in the past or already registered, through crowdsourcing to help co-create content that is relevant to them. Providing members options for engagement, whether during the creation of the event, onsite or post event, is critical to establish participation, transparency and buy-in.
So what does providing an immersive environment mean? It can be as simple as changing the setup of your meeting and keynote session rooms by moving the placement of the stage to the middle of the room for a theater-in-the-round affect, or by utilizing a mix of comfortable lounge seating and traditional table and chairs.
Both the stage location and the seating provide attendees a different sense of engagement and involvement. It also allows people to pick the type of seating that best suits them.
When changing room sets and even show format, be sure to confirm your content and speakers work well in the environment you design.
Many planners are moving toward facilities that provide comfortable networking spaces complete with casual furniture throughout the venue to avoid the additional expense of furnishing these areas.
Such space allows attendees to stay where the meeting is taking place and to not seek alternative locations to have conversations or small meetups.
Immersive experiences can also be delivered through hands-on activities either at the meeting venue or at offsite locations in the destination where the meeting is being held.
The chance to extend the radius of your event beyond a convention center or hotel to other unique spaces in the destination creates the feeling of a campus-type of event. This approach also helps in delivering special offerings and opportunities that make your organization stand apart from the competition.
This is becoming more and more popular, and destinations are working with organizations to help connect groups with local businesses and organizations that can deliver unique value for attendees.
While the idea of mindfulness is not new, members of our organizations are incorporating mindfulness into their lives, so it makes sense that event designers should look to incorporate similar elements into meetings and events.
Mindfulness helps deliver on both the physical and emotional aspects of a meeting. The focus of mindfulness is thinking about the overall schedule and the amount of time for breaks (downtime), opportunity and space for casual conversations to continue after a session, which includes serving healthy food options to energize attendees.
The use of natural light and the incorporation of the outdoors/nature when available or appropriate is another mindfulness element that can be advantageous. Other options to consider when thinking about mindfulness can include adding a guided stretch during a planned break, pre-conference activities that encourage attendees to engage with each other or even a chair massage to help everyone stay loose.
Mindfulness might not be as up-front and visible as content and the number of continuing education units your members will receive; however, it will convey that you want your attendees to maximize the benefit of being at your event. It also reinforces your organization genuinely cares about the overall meeting experience.
The ASAE Foundation study, ForesightWorks, identified 46 key drivers of change (out of a total of more than 300) that are particularly relevant at this time to the challenges association leaders will face in the future. These trends are looking 10 to 15 years out, but many of them are applicable now. The following two trends are specific to meetings and content at association events.
Content creators are faced with an increasingly challenging and shifting environment.
Audiences are multigenerational, fragmented and distracted, and many times they expect to be entertained and informed for free. Delivery channels are also shifting rapidly for both economic and technological reasons. Meeting planners need to consider how the content is curated, formatted and in what environment it is delivered.
Microlearning, a relatively new trend, provides small, specific bursts of information to drive job performance, that is available on demand. This method addresses the need for continuing education in a world where consumers are moving away from traditional multi-day conferences. Certification requirements will need to evolve to allow micro-learning modules to be assembled in innovative combinations for new forms of certification.
Using the mix of elements discussed will produce a diverse collection of educational programs that allow members to create their own learning experience. This will not only help you retain attendees year-to-year, but it will also attract new audiences who found previous events did not meet their needs.
These trends may not seem revolutionary and perhaps you have heard of them before. But the real question is, are you implementing these key elements into your meetings, and if not, why?
Take the opportunity in 2019 to stop talking about these as trends and start implementing even just one of them into your meetings. If you aren’t among the trendsetters, your competition will be.
For more information see: “Drivers of Change: Summaries and Forecasts,” a resource providing information on 46 key trends identified by ASAE ForesightWorks. https://foundation.asaecenter.org/research AC&F
John H. Graham IV, FASAE, CAE has been president and CEO of ASAE since 2003. ASAE is more than 21,000 association executives and industry partners representing 10,000 organizations. He serves on the Association Committee of 100, U.S. Chamber of Commerce; Chairman of the Better Business Bureau Mobile Giving Foundation Board of Directors; and the boards of directors of Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity and the National Capital Area Boy Scouts of America.