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Associations Now

Organizing a Summit, Step by Step

ASSOCIATIONS NOW, October 2009, Feature

By: Jennifer L. Baker, CAE, and Marsha Rhea, CAE

Summary: Summits can be powerful events, but bringing all the right people together, in the right place and in the right way, sure isn't easy. These successful summit organizers would like to share their secrets with you. (Titled, "Summit Solution" in print version.)

Declare purpose and bold aspirations. Convene 100 or more influential leaders and stakeholders. Invite provocative ideas. Facilitate dialogue. Encourage breakthrough thinking. Celebrate shared vision for new opportunities. Watch change happen.

If only a real-life summit could be this easy—if you could just open a box and out would pop the operating instructions for a remarkable event that gets the results you need.

The Word From the Mountaintop

"Searching for Summits" was the subject of an email call we sent within the ASAE & The Center community. From the response, it's clear that many organizations are conceiving, organizing, and executing summits. Here are some insights and lessons learned from our colleagues:

  • It's important to recognize and account for the fact that there are limits to what people from inside and outside of a profession or industry are willing to talk about together because of legal, political, or competitive concerns/issues.
  • Gathering people with common backgrounds, interest, or challenges can be tremendously productive in terms of relationship building and bridging gaps. New or improved working relationships are a valid outcome of a summit.

—Amy Miller, senior director, research, training, and quality, American College of Rheumatology

  • It's critical to ensure the comfort level of participants and take steps to ensure everyone understands that every voice matters.
  • There are myriad ways to present and receive information. Research options and design summit agendas to account for, tap into, and capitalize on different learning styles.
  • Powerful stories, when used well, can help build community.
  • Attention must be paid to how to keep the momentum going after the event itself is over.

—Marci Moore, ACC, president and chief innergy officer, and Pam Williams, ACC, vice president and chief innergy officer, Innergized!

  • Staff involvement as full participants in summit conversations (versus just as managers of the event) is essential to ensuring the longevity of summit outcomes. Such participation engenders a sense of ownership of results by the association staff, which ensures usage of outcomes to inform members, guide new product and program development, identifying new partners, and other post-summit decision-making.
  • A crisis can positively affect the success of a summit. Samuel Johnson once said, "Nothing so much gives a man clarity of purpose as a hangman's noose." Do not succumb to the temptation to "chocolate-coat the onion" by making the challenge less threatening than it really is.
  • As associations seek to remain relevant in the 21st century, they should start looking at how they can manage conversations and resources across sectors versus managing conversation and resources internally. Summits are an opportunity to do this by engaging participants beyond current leadership and other usual suspects for new perspectives and insights.

—Rick O'Sullivan, principal, Change Management Solutions

  • The summit concept allows associations to look across an issue and find synergies with other organizations that they might otherwise compete with.
  • Consider engaging participants by encouraging them to text and Twitter their thoughts on what they are hearing during keynotes, panels, and so forth to designated accounts and sharing that information real time with everyone in attendance. The League used this technique during a recent summit, and it was very well received.
  • Having a good onsite data-management strategy is essential so that participants can leave with a tangible takeaway.
  • It's very important, especially when more than one association is involved in putting on a summit, to have a good process in place to manage logistics and consensus on who is responsible and the primary contact for vendors, hotel staff, and so forth.

—Tracy Petrillo, CAE, director of education and conferences, League of California Cities

  • Meet with speakers and moderators to clarify their roles and the perspectives they are expected to contribute to the summit. Coach international speakers on preferred presentation style and translate if their English is difficult to understand; otherwise their ideas may not affect the dialogue.
  • Outside objective facilitators can keep discussion groups on task and get better results. Pair them with a member moderator to provide organizational presence and expertise.
  • Summits should have staying power. We have used them to shape strategic priorities, strategic issues research, and conference themes.

—Allian Pratt, director, strategic issues, American Society of Mechanical Engineers

  • Get the right people in the room. It is considered a plum to be invited. You have to communicate that you are choosing "first among equals" to get the right people and knowledge into this dialogue.
  • Summits help you create common ground on amorphous issues and champions for new approaches. They bridge the gap between sectors within and beyond your membership.

—Barbara Sido, executive director, National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation

Even in today's virtually networked world, face-to-face summits are holding their own as a way to engage association members and stakeholders. Such events are a proven way to focus and synthesize the best thinking about your world and future. But it's no simple task to build an event that provides attendees all the tools they need to create a vision for change.

We started fantasizing about creating a "summit in a box" while collaborating on the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA)'s 2009 PT & Society Summit, a summit designed to envision how physical therapists could address current, evolving, and future societal healthcare needs. In the absence of such a resource, we agreed it would be useful to organize what we and others are learning about the art and logistics of summits.

No doubt you already have some of the knowledge and experience you need to plan and execute a summit, just like we did. While there are too many nuances to create a true summit-in-a-box resource, we can promise this description of the common elements, key questions, and lessons learned will lower your stress and boost your chances for success when undertaking these high-stakes events. We hope others will add to this learning until we are all good at making summits work for us.

Not Just Any Meeting

A summit is a strategic conversation that brings different perspectives within a system together to talk about the big picture and big questions. You are traveling with a group of mission-critical people to the summit for a mountaintop experience that in time will change your profession, industry, or cause in significant ways.

The best time to convene a summit is when you need to discuss high-stakes and complex issues or perceive major changes ahead. To help you "learn forward" as fast as you can, you want to convene the leaders of your profession, industry, or cause as well as internal and external stakeholders who offer provocative and multidisciplinary perspectives.

While summits create a shared sense of the opportunities for leadership and change, they are more likely to open up issues than resolve them. A good summit generates new thinking and many next steps. A successful one can produce a range of outcomes:

  • Creating a shared vision and recommendations about a future direction;
  • Discovering the imperatives for change;
  • Establishing principles to guide future actions;
  • Fostering new or improved relationships with key stakeholders that can facilitate change and future action;
  • Identifying course corrections.

You are more likely to get these results if participants commit to learning and open dialogue and suspend the need to end with tidy answers and a set of to-dos. Summits disrupt old ways of thinking. Once people come down from the mountain, it takes time to work through all the implications of what transpired and turn this newfound wisdom into smart strategy and executable next steps.

Are You Prepared?

Summits are signature initiatives, and the level of effort they require can be commensurate with the effort required to plan and execute your major meetings and programs. Any time you assemble your profession's, industry's, or cause's thought leaders and other key influencers, you have to commit time and money to create a quality experience and demonstrate your ability to lead change. If you do not have the capacity to pursue the new directions or ideas a summit generates, think twice about staking your credibility on one.

Staff and volunteer leaders should expect to commit at least three to six months of planning and post-summit work. At least one project leader will be quite consumed with the details. The more people involved and the more complex the issue you are tackling, the higher the cost can be in time and money. An ambitious summit with about 100 people can require a direct expense budget of more than $100,000, especially if you decide to underwrite participant travel expenses or engage contractors to help direct the action and capture summit highlights.

If you can't afford to spend serious time and money, you have to consider the tradeoffs.

  • Will you have the right people in the room for a rich dialogue if you cannot offer to pay all or a portion of their expenses? The American Society for Mechanical Engineering (ASME) supported the international guests attending its 2008 Global Summit on the Future of Mechanical Engineering. APTA paid for about half the participants at its summit.
  • How productive and reflective can you expect participants to be if you cannot host the summit in the right environment? APTA chose a retreat setting to support the sense of community and reflection. ASME chose the National Academy of Engineering as the prestigious and best venue for a global summit, and NAE donated the facilities. The American Institute of Architects used universities for summits bridging academia and practice.
  • Video may seem like a luxury, but in this era of digital communication and repurposing content, can you afford to pass up the opportunity to use it to take the summit's learning to your full membership or the larger community? APTA and ASME feature videos from their summits on their websites. ASAE & The Center made an even bigger commitment to member engagement and used the iCohere online event platform to offer a way for people to participate virtually before, during, and after its Global Summit on Social Responsibility.
  • Two other factors to weigh before you press ahead are your association's readiness for change and the environment:
  • Is your elected leadership on board and willing to make this summit a priority? Will your members see this as a priority worthy of a significant investment by the association? Can you secure the commitment of your key constituent groups? Even when summits are not political in nature, they require a great deal of political goodwill to succeed.
  • Are you in a financial, political, or public crisis spurred by internal or external factors—for instance, the current recession? This might be exactly the right time to rally your members around a new direction. A summit could launch new opportunities that give your members hope and lift your association's fortunes. But be prepared, because the crisis will make the stakes higher, add to your stress, and may compromise your capacity to be proactive and reflective.

The Wrap-Up

Summits take careful planning and execution. Done well, they are exciting, groundbreaking events that engage your members and energize them to generate systemic change or chart new paths. But be forewarned. People like energizing conversations. They will want more, and they will expect results. You need a strategy and ambassadors who will keep the learning alive and present in the association's decision-making processes going forward.

Association executives need to be good at conceiving, organizing, and executing summits, because they are one of the most powerful tools for membership engagement and change leadership in our toolkit. We hope these lessons learned, along with the case study on APTA's PT & Society Summit available in the ASAE & The Center Knowledge Center, are valuable contributions to this toolkit. We also hope you will add your experiences and case studies to grow this body of knowledge. 

Jennifer L. Baker, MSW, CAE, is director of special projects at the American Physical Therapy Association in Alexandria, Virginia. Email:

Marsha Rhea, MPA, CAE, is president of Signature i, LLC, a consulting firm that uses inspiring and pragmatic practices to help organizations lead changes that matter most to their future. Email:

A Summit Planning Checklist

Once you have committed to doing a summit, here is a list of decision points, key questions, and commentary to guide you through the next steps.

Planning Team Can we handle all the roles needed with internal staff, or do we need to outsource? Enlist a team of volunteers and staff. Some will be involved from start to finish, some only for specific tasks. Give sufficient notice regarding summit timelines, and ensure everyone has the same expectations. During the summit, volunteers may act as ambassadors to welcome participants and model an inclusive and open culture.
Agenda Design What's the end we want to achieve? Start with the end in mind to select the right activities and allot enough time for each. Successful summits operate on the principle that less is often more and offer both intensive, engaging activities as well as space to reflect and react. They offer opportunities for participants to speak as well as be spoken to—a critical element for successful summits. And they create community among participants through trust-building activities before, during, and after the summit. Agenda design considerations include key questions to be addressed, speakers and their purpose and speaking formats, maximum time for strategic conversation, small-group or breakout-session time, processes and templates, activities to encourage creative and innovative thinking, and opportunities to own their ideas and commit to next steps
Participants Who is needed, and how many participants are needed? You want diverse perspectives to achieve the summit's purpose but not so many people that the conversation loses intimacy. Give plenty of time for the invitation process, because it may take multiple invitations to get all necessary perspectives.
Funding Will funding be provided for participants? You need to provide a clear answer to participants on this question and have the financial and administrative structures in place to support the funding decision. Options include completely funding all participants, subsidizing some or all participants, or having participants pay their own way.
Location What setting is needed to support the agenda design? Environment matters. Consider carefully the kind of energy and interaction needed for your summit: Is a retreat setting needed to spur contemplative thinking and to keep participants together, or is a high-energy or high-recognition city location desired? The best location to achieve the desired outcomes may not be the most convenient for travel.
Timing What is the best timing for the summit? Summits are time intensive. Consider what's on the association's calendar and what's going on in the world. Is it an election season? Is Congress or the state legislature in session? Is there an event that ties into the summit or conflicts with it?
Orienting Participants How can you get everyone on board with the summit's purpose and prepared to engage in constructive dialogue? Your many constituencies and affiliates must be on board with any major initiative. Communicate internally to secure member support for your purpose and priorities before including key influencers outside your organization. And, since the beauty of a summit is different perspectives, you need some method for creating shared understanding before the summit. Readings, environmental scans, backgrounders, issue papers, and online forums are possible tactics.
Communications and Use of Technology What message(s) do we need to have in place before, during, and after the summit, and what is needed to capture and convey the message(s) effectively? You will need a variety of clear and engaging communications. Audiences will include, but may not be limited to, invitees, participants, staff, elected leaders, members, and the press. Plan in advance to capture the summit content in useful formats for your post-summit communications, such as audio and visual files and graphic recordings. Carefully consider whether using technology is helpful or distracting in meeting summit goals. Sometimes going low tech can be the best decision.
Logistics What else is needed to execute the summit? A good summit design can unravel if event administration does not go smoothly. Deadlines need to be realistic, with the right things happening at the right times. Logistical considerations include the invitation process, participant registration and materials, and speaker support.
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  Scott Briscoe , CAE , September 30, 2009
A good how-to that gives summit planners a wealth of ideas to explore. I especially like that they tackled the cost factor. I would love for an exec at a small-budget organization to weigh in with their advice for big bang for low budget.


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