Today’s young convention delegate may well become tomorrow’s highly involved senior member, but only if that young professional sees value in attendance today. Understandably, associations are concerned with engaging the young professional, and the task falls in part to the convention planner. Association executives outside of the meetings department may decide on a certain initiative to engage this demographic and the planner will carry it out. Alternatively, the planners may create and implement the strategies. In either case, the challenge is that there are many engagement strategies and many ways to spark the interest of younger members. A good starting point is to define the target demographic.
“Our Rising Risk Professionals are defined as 35 and under,” says Stuart Ruff-Lyon, vice president, events and education with RIMS,The Risk Management Society, an association that has taken many steps over the past few years to engage these professionals. In 2015, RIMS actually created a distinct event for “next generation” professionals.
“The RIMS NextGen Forum offers a younger audience a lower price point to meet, network and learn,” Ruff-Lyon says. “The event attracts more than 100 rising risk professionals and offers immersive education such as tours and improv training.”
Last year, RIMS created a new membership category to target rising risk professionals. “We now offer young associates on the insurance/broker side the ability to join RIMS for a lower price point.”
These kinds of initiatives are certainly cultivating the future leaders of the risk management trade and the future membership of RIMS. However, it can also be fruitful to target an even younger demographic than the “emerging professional.” Engaging students in the field has also been a priority for RIMS. Since 2016, the result has been a 71 percent increase in student participation at the RIMS Annual Conference and Exhibition. One means of attracting the best students to the conference is RIMS’ Anita Benedetti Student Involvement Program (ABSIP), which funds scholars to attend the RIMS Annual Conference and Exhibition.
“I believe that younger generations crave experiences, so at RIMS, we strive to create special experiences and ‘surprise and delight’ moments for our guests. It is not uncommon for us to have special performances and entertainment throughout our show. These moments become social media hits as the audience shares their experiences.”
“RIMS also employs councils and advisory groups to engage the younger generations,” Ruff-Lyon adds. “The Student Advisory Council and the Rising Risk Professionals Advisory Group help to guide [RIMS] in our efforts to engage these key audiences.”
If an association is going to invest to increase convention attendance among students, it’s worthwhile to track the conversion from student attendees to regular early career attendees.
“Very few associations have done this kind of ROI tracking,” says Dave Lutz, managing director of Velvet Chainsaw, in a recent blog post. “When looking at the annual meeting repeat attendance of students into the early years of their career, we usually see conversion rates below 20 percent. I’m thinking an association would want 33 percent or higher.”
However, Lutz also advises limiting the amount of student attendees to 10 percent of the overall attendance, at most. Exhibitors naturally want buyers, not students, to make up the vast majority of visitors to their booth; neither would a high percentage of student attendees be attractive to many mid- and late-career attendees, Lutz adds.
“If a 15-year industry practitioner comes to your conference and doesn’t connect with enough other participants like them, they’re going to walk away believing that the conference is not designed for them,” he says. Moreover, “if the education or scientific program is riddled with low-level student research abstracts (poster or oral), advanced practitioners will opt out of participating in those parts of the program.”
As a relatively small amount of the session content should be geared toward the young professional, conference organizers must take care not to position these sessions as targeted to “beginners.”
“Nobody wants to classify themselves as a beginner; everybody thinks they’re a step above what they are,” says Heather Seasholtz, director, meetings and events with Talley Management Group, Inc. “What I’ve seen work is content that’s driven toward emerging professionals, or people that have been in the industry one to five years.” As an example, this content may include topics surrounding “the future of the profession,” which will tend to spark the interest of young members who will be part of that future.
The length and format of sessions targeting this demographic are also important considerations. Drawn-out “talking head” presentations are best avoided.
“We started offering sessions called ‘Essential Conversations,’” says Beth Faubel, senior manager, meeting services, HIMSS. “While these are one-hour long, the concept is a short, 15-minute presentation with thought-provoking content that leads to 45 minutes of peer-to-peer discussion afterward. It provides a formal, yet informal forum for discussing the latest and hottest topics.”
RIMS also offers shorter education sessions to appeal to the increased number of younger attendees.
“We now offer studio concepts of education. At the RIMS show, participants can wander through education experiences like the Global Studio, Wellness ZENter, Innovation Hub, Career Lab and the Thought Leader Theater,” Ruff-Lyon says. “These special educational opportunities offer quick, 20-minute education presentations and unique learning experiences that attendees crave.”
A tried-and-true means of engaging the young professional is to stage a networking event exclusively for that demographic. One example is the HIMSS Millennials Reception, which the organization started hosting a few years ago.
“It has been a highly attended event,” Faubel says. “We’ve had to find larger and larger venues to be able to accommodate the demand year after year. We advertise the reception not just toward millennials, but to all young professionals looking for an opportunity to connect with their peers.”
A successful event of this kind usually requires more than a rented space and hors d’oeuvres for the participants. Dividing the group by specialty can help to encourage conversation. In addition, a conversation leader can motivate discussion among the unacquainted attendees, especially if they don’t have outgoing personalities.
“Putting an experienced thought leader in that space helps guide the conversation. Or include some of the mentors, because they’ve been down this road already,” Seasholtz recommends.
Mentorship opportunities are attractive to many young professionals and student attendees. One type of mentorship program has “veterans” of the convention meet with newcomers to acclimate them to the event. Seasholtz, a longtime PCMA member, has served in such a role for the association. By meeting with a first-time attendee onsite, “they at least know somebody before they show up at the conference who could introduce them to people, so that way they’re not by themselves right off the bat. That seems to work really well,” she says.
After a preconference exchange with the attendee, Seasholtz would typically meet the individual at the welcome reception and “spend a little time with them the first day, introduce them to some of my colleagues, and then check in with them throughout the conference. They don’t have to be attached at your hip the entire time.”
This type of opportunity can also be tailored to the attendee’s focus area by pairing him or her with a longtime member in that specialty.
Another type of mentorship program provides the young attendee the opportunity to receive personal career development advice at the convention. This format may be a career development workshop before the meeting.
“They can have a mentor sit with them and look at their LinkedIn profile [and discuss] how to get themselves out there, how to network,” says Seasholtz, who has coordinated these types of workshops. Young members will no doubt benefit from the career management insights of someone who has been in the profession for many years, if not decades.
One such robust program is the Hemostasis Thrombosis Research Society’s Trainee Workshop, held over a day and a half prior to the biannual conference. Intended for those who are close to graduating from medical school, the program includes five high-profile faculty members who sit with participants to review their CVs. Faculty also select the participants who will present case studies to the audience and mentor them on giving the talk.
Overall, the Trainee Workshop delivers a lot of value to student members, and admission is competitive, Seasholtz notes. “They have to get their program director to write a recommendation for them.”
Another kind of competition successfully engaging students is RIMS Risk Management Challenge, which the association introduced in 2015 and holds annually.
“This program engages universities with risk management degree programs. Teams from some 20-plus schools compete on a risk management case study,” Ruff-Lyon says. “The top four schools and their students are invited to attend the RIMS Annual Conference and Exhibition to present their risk solutions to a panel of judges. One school is selected as the winner. This program engages students and helps them learn about RIMS and all that we offer. International schools compete as well.”
Session content, networking events, mentorship programs and workshops geared toward early-career attendees are some of the main ways to ensure they find value in the convention and, hopefully, become repeat registrants throughout their professional lives. Other elements tending to attract the younger set include convention volunteer opportunities, community service activities and a tech-enabled experience for the attendee. Of course many older attendees will also appreciate these elements, so the ROI does not only come from engaging the emerging professionals.
Serving as a volunteer at the convention (e.g., moderating sessions, assisting with registration, welcoming and directing attendees) is a great way to get to know other members and become more recognizable within the association. As such, the opportunity can be attractive to members in the early stages of involvement with the organization.
However, Seasholtz has not seen many young members volunteering initially. “The second year [of membership] is where you see that fire ignited of wanting to participate more. I think the first year is always hard,” she says. “But being that you’re an emerging professional for several years, I do see them interested in getting their name out there.”
A case in point is the popularity of HIMSS volunteer Program assistant opportunity among the younger members. The role “includes, but is not limited to, being a door monitor at the education sessions or working in our tote bag areas. In exchange, HIMSS offers complimentary hotel accommodations, daily meals and most importantly, complimentary registration, which provides them access to all of the networking and education sessions offered throughout the week,” Faubel says. “This year, we had over 260 applicants for the 85 positions available. Students and young professionals find a lot of value in being a program assistant. We often have repeat participants, who often turn into mentors for the first-time program assistants.”
The Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) trend is on the rise in the convention industry, with associations offering numerous onsite and offsite opportunities to give back to the host community. And that fits nicely with the social values of many millennials.
“We always offer a CSR activity at our annual conference, and we see a lot of participation from our younger demographics,” Ruff-Lyon says. “We usually pick activities that one can easily do from the Marketplace [exhibit hall], like building kits and stuffing packets or boxes with key items to support the charity.”
RIMS has also “upped its technology game,” according to Ruff-Lyon. This initiative can only make the conference experience more attractive to the always-connected young attendee.
“A few years ago, we didn’t even offer Wi-Fi to our guests,” he says. “Today, we not only offer Wi-Fi, but we also deliver an engaging event app, educational session response technology and social media games. It is not uncommon to find drones and AI in our Marketplace.”
The HIMSS Learning Lounge is a great example of a high-tech venue that allows attendees to consume content as they choose, which is particularly attractive to the young participant. “The room has 10 jumbo screens and comfortable seating. Attendees get a remote control and headphones so they can tune into the session of their choice playing on one of the screens,” Faubel says. “We’re hoping this, along with a food park concept we set outside the room, will provide a unique atmosphere for education and networking simultaneously. As a society, we have grown accustomed to having everything at our fingertips and ‘on demand.’ So our goal is to provide our attendees, including the young professionals, with the opportunity to have additional control of the content they are consuming.”
Engagement must begin preconference if registration numbers are to be optimized. The received wisdom is that millennials dislike “being sold to,” but preconference engagement is not a sales pitch for the event, it’s a way of increasing their enthusiasm and leading them to perceive the value of the event for themselves.
Posting photos from last year’s convention on social media is one such engagement practice, but providing young attendees an environment where they can take and post their own images may ultimately be more impactful to prospective attendees from that demographic. The younger generations are “looking for areas where they can create a memory,” says Seasholtz, such as “creating that Instagram post or that Snapchat pic where others can see how great the event was. I was just at a conference not too long ago where the students said, ‘Hey, there’s no place for us to take any pictures,’ which I thought was interesting. That’s what they were looking for. So I think any place where you can capture what’s happening in that space will appeal to that generation because they’re visual.”
Ruff-Lyon confirms this preference among millennials. “I believe that younger generations crave experiences, so at RIMS, we strive to create special experiences and ‘surprise and delight’ moments for our guests,” he says. “It is not uncommon for us to have special performances and entertainment throughout our show. These moments become social media hits as the audience shares their experiences.”
He has also found it is fairly easy to acquire testimonials from young attendees that can be used to market future installments of the meeting. “Thankfully, the younger generations are not camera shy, so getting their testimonials has been easy for us. We use these in email marketing and in social media plans. I find that the most powerful marketing tool among the younger generations is word-of-mouth. If you can get them talking (texting, tweeting, posting, etc.) about their great RIMS experience to their peers, we have a much greater chance of attracting their peers to our future shows.”
Among that growing number of young attendees are surely some of the future leaders of the risk management field, as well as some of RIMS’ most dynamic future members.