Pictured: attendees at RIMS 2019. Young employees look forward to gathering information and networking amongst themselves to discuss their career challenges and successes.
Those who develop programming for association meetings in most cases tend to be senior-level professionals. As such, they naturally relate to the needs and preferences of attendees within that demographic. But in devising engagement strategies for convention attendees, the younger contingent shouldn’t be overlooked insofar as it is typically growing within an association’s membership and represents the future leaders of the association and its field. That contingent is typically divided into two generations: Millennials (born between 1981-1996) and Generation Z (born between 1997-2012). The oldest members of the latter generation are college age or perhaps just out of college.
“Both of these segments have increased at our meetings and within our membership,” observes Amy Ledoux, CAE, CMP, chief learning & meetings officer with ASAE. Similar to other associations, ASAE’s discounted registration for those with a Young Professionals Membership has contributed to these members’ increased participation in the annual meeting. Other factors driving the participation include ASAE’s introduction of an organizational membership more than two years ago and the Xperience Design Project (XDP) in recent years. “We now have over 2,000 organizational members. Having an organization engaged with ASAE helps engage members at all levels of the organization,” Ledoux explains. “The XDP has also increased participation of millennials and Gen Z attendee segments. It’s format is experiential, unique each year, co-created by and engages attendees throughout the event.” ASAE has also tailored more of its educational offerings and networking opportunities to budding association professionals.
Thus, programming geared toward millennials and Gen Z is not merely a response to the growth of those attendee segments, but it also drives that growth by enhancing the value proposition for those members. In turn, the association has more to market in specifically promoting the meeting to the younger contingent.
The Society of Architectural Historians (SAH), for example, shows how appealing to this demographic calls for a multipronged approach to programming. “We continue to provide hands-on education experiences, career-growth workshops and networking opportunities that we hope offer lifelong mentoring connections,” says Christopher Kirbabas, director of programs.
Taking these initiatives a step further, the Oracle Applications & Technology Users Group (OATUG), an association for Oracle users that is independent from Oracle Corporation, has created an Emerging Leaders division that is focused on the needs of younger members. Over the past four years, James Hobbs, senior director, global programs for Meeting Expectations, has worked with OATUG to launch and develop Emerging Leaders, including its offerings at COLLABORATE, OATUG’s annual conference. It began with “the realization that our leadership was getting older and starting to retire, and we really needed to focus on bringing up this new organization of members into our leadership ranks. That was how we developed the program,” explains Hobbs, who also reports seeing “year-over-year increases” in OATUG’s younger demographic.
Hobbs notes that building Emerging Leaders has connected OATUG’s present leaders to “the grassroots of how the user groups were built 25 years ago,” given the introductory-level content the program offers. As far as outreach to Gen Z, Hobbs has developed a Collegiate Forum aimed at preparing college students for their tech careers. The key to reaching the students with the relevant professional interests, he says, is “having great sources that can help you get into the right departments,” namely, those that teach Oracle applications. “I partner with a group at Oracle and they help us get introductions. And, then, we start working directly with the college on the day’s content. We have Oracle speakers, and we have volunteers from different companies, whether hiring managers or professional development managers, that can help them prepare for that next level of their professional careers.”
RIMS uses various learning formats to reflect the preferences of younger attendees. Generally, younger generations prefer the ability to consume educational content in the manner that suits them
The most fundamental route to professional advancement is education, and a convention cannot engage younger members without at least some early-career educational offerings. Both The Risk Management Society (RIMS) and SAH have their fingers on the pulse of the content needs of their early-career attendees, most of whom represent the younger generations. “RIMS continues to build our portfolio of risk management ‘101’ content,” says Stuart Ruff-Lyon, CMP, DES, vice president of events and exhibitions at RIMS. “Our knowledge and learning department is consistently actively engaged in developing online and in-person opportunities to engage the rising risk professionals with education that will help them to advance their careers. At RIMS 2020, we will offer an expanded Career Lab for this group. In the Career Lab, you can get resume and LinkedIn advice, take a new professional headshot, and engage in soft skill-development learning opportunities.” Similarly, SAH’s early career members are “looking for hands on, practical education experiences,” Kirbabas says. “We are hosting this year a workshop on how to write an effective book proposal. How can they perhaps turn their dissertation into a book proposal so they can get published, so they can be hired for a university position that could lead them to a tenured position?”
Learning formats should also reflect the preferences of younger attendees. In general, the younger generations like the option to customize their products and services and, in this case, they would prefer the ability to consume educational content in the manner that suits them.
“Offering varied content for different levels of understanding and in different formats is critical to attracting and retaining millennials, Gen Z attendees and other attendee groups as well,” Ledoux says. “It allows attendees to create a unique user experience.” With that in mind, ASAE presents “a variety of learning formats and experiences for learning based on interest, level of understanding of the topic, length of time you want to spend and more. We even have a program format called ‘Open Space’ to allow for onsite informational dialogues. Other delivery formats that appeal are our Express Talks, which are 20-minute, bite-sized sessions. If you need a more in-depth topic exploration, we have our ‘Deep Dive’ sessions that will give you a good topic overview. If you like to be entertained, we have ‘Edutainment’ sessions that have a message, but are delivered in a much more relaxed and fun format.”
OATUG is also offering new, 20-minute session formats, as well as roundtable areas where attendees can engage in a Q&A with speakers after the session. One of the most valuable types of interactive educational experiences for younger delegates is the mentoring session.
“We take some of the more senior leaders in our membership and organization and pair them with young professionals to help them carve their path through their professional careers and become leaders themselves,” Hobbs says.
It’s commonly assumed that younger attendees prefer more technologically enabled meetings, but attendees of all ages these days are looking for a conference app, more digital materials, a social media presence, etc. And they all can appreciate cutting-edge technologies such as virtual reality. What is especially true of millennial and Gen Z attendees is that they expect virtual meeting options and on-demand content from the face-to-face meeting. After all, many of the younger millennials, and particularly Gen Z, have grown up with Skype and FaceTime, as well as instant access to information via the internet. Again, this expectation is not exclusive to these generations, but it is more pronounced among them. RIMS is one of many associations that are sensitive to this trend.
“In recent years, we have really beefed up our online content,” Ruff-Lyon says. “We offer numerous online classes and blended learning, and recently launched a podcast series known as RIMS Riskcast. We try to be sensitive to the changing needs of the upcoming generations, but are doing so in ways that are cost-effective for us.”
When it comes to marketing the upcoming convention, it is well known that a robust social media presence is essential to targeting younger members. Indeed, this effort will often snowball to positive effect as the members themselves start social media conversations about the event. Accordingly, Kirbabas says, “We have a very active presence on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram.” Meanwhile, Ruff-Lyon notes that RIMS is “actively engaged in ramping our ‘Insta-cred’ with building out new things on Instagram” and is “more focused than ever on videos rather than on heavy text.”
RIMS’ marketing initiatives are in line with the younger generations’ penchant for visual imagery that constantly captures their day-to-day experiences. And conferences, after all, are experiences whose appeal is often best expressed visually.
“At RIMS, we believe that our events are not really conferences, rather they are experiences. We try to market the RIMS Annual Conference & Exhibition as a true, holistic experience that offers networking and learning, combined with a bit of local flavor from the community,” Ruff-Lyon adds.
Thus, e-marketing to millennial and Gen Z members should ideally incorporate images, links to videos and so on, complementing the textual message as to the value the convention brings to those members.
“We send very targeted emails outlining all of the programs that will help them advance their careers and make the meaningful connections that will help them in their career growth,” Kirbabas says.
As the old adage goes, “Birds of a feather flock together.” One of the things young attendees look forward to is gathering and networking amongst themselves and discussing their career challenges and successes.
“They build their networks through social media. What we try to impress upon them is to meet people, get face to face with them,” Hobbs says. “These are going to be the people that you’ll find yourself working with for the next 30 years in some capacity, whether it be at the same company or at different companies.” OATUG stages an informal gathering for its Emerging Leaders at the start of COLLABORATE, allowing them to establish connections and commence a shared experience.
A distinctive venue always helps as a conversation starter, and OATUG’s Emerging Leaders will have one this year in Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino’s Shark Reef Aquarium. “We have rented out the whole area for our general attendee welcome reception, but they have a beautiful ballroom within the exhibition that we’ve set aside for the Emerging Leaders,” Hobbs explains. “So they get a beautiful environment to hang out in and engage with the other users” of their age.
Of course, as Ledoux notes, “young professionals want to not only connect with their peers but also to interact with speakers and leadership in a meaningful way. They want to be able to ask questions, participate in a conversation and give input. They are interested in networking through co-creation of content instead of an event being outlined for them and formulaic.” The roundtable Q&As with speakers that OATUG stages are an example of providing this opportunity. SAH paves the way to connections with leadership with a “one-hour early evening reception for our early career members to meet and mingle with our Board of Directors and our keynote,” Kirbabas says. “We want to provide them access to those who have been in the profession for a longer period of time so they see where their career path can lead them and see what steps they can take to get them on that career path.”
While it may be a cliché, clichés do tend to have some grounding in truth: Millennials and Gen Z typically prefer localized, “authentic” experiences when it comes to diversion at a convention. Many of them are regularly globe-trotting in search of such experiences. Thus, it makes sense to emphasize the meeting’s destination when it comes to entertainment choices. “We strive to give our attendees local experiences by hiring local opening general session entertainment, registration area entertainment, and through all of our parties and F&B experiences,” Ruff-Lyon says. “We know that millennials and Gen Z crave authentic and local flavors, so we do our best to provide them with these things. At RIMS 2020, our entire opening party is an experiential play on the neighborhoods of Denver from an art perspective. It will offer attendees social media opportunities and ‘real’ Denver art and icons.”
Going to the Source
There is no shortage of advice on marketing to and engaging with the younger generations in the meetings and conventions field, and in other industries. But instead of relying exclusively on these albeit useful generalizations, it is important to also use one’s own younger members as a touchstone. The input from a young professionals advisory group, for example, is invaluable in designing relevant programming. “We encourage young professionals to be part of advisory groups at ASAE, as well as participate in session development and review for our face-to-face meetings,” Ledoux says. “It is an open process, and involvement is promoted by committees like the Young Professionals Advisory Group.” Ruff-Lyon also notes the effectiveness of such a group: “The best thing that we have done is to create a Rising Risk Professional Advisory Group comprised of millennial members and nonmembers to help guide the organization,” he says. And, for guidance on how to engage its Gen Z members in particular, RIMS partners with fraternal organizations, such as Gamma Iota Sigma.
There are a variety of means by which input can be solicited from these groups. “Post-event surveys, conference calls, face-to-face meetings or bringing them to our planning meetings in the summer are all ways of having them play an active role in the development of the Emerging Leaders program,” Hobbs says. Surveys are traditionally the way to gather feedback from the younger contingent of the membership that lies outside of advisory groups. “We not only have our evaluations for each engagement that attendees have with ASAE to help guide us to needs and wants, but we also have our yearly membership survey which we can segment and understand various membership groups needs,” Ledoux explains.
It is only through these channels that planners and association executives can discover the particular types of convention elements and experiences that are likely to drive engagement for their millennial and Gen Z attendees. Platitudes such as “Millennials prefer informal, interactive education” or “Gen Z look for Instagrammable moments at events” are helpful starting points, but should always remain open to revision in light of feedback from the young professionals that matter to one’s association. | AC&F |