Design Thinking Brings Back Relevance and Revenue to Annual Conference

engaged meeting attendees March 20, 2017 By: Emily Bratcher

EDUCAUSE turned around declining attendee numbers and nondues revenue by employing this design-thinking principle: Start with the end in mind.

Annual conferences are mega-moneymakers for associations, especially as member dues increasingly occupy a smaller percentage of an association's total revenues. "When you look at what's happening, and what you're needing to get done—a conference [is the place] to make it all happen," says Keith Chamberlain, formerly of EDUCAUSE and now cofounder of RevvCrew, a consulting group for nonprofits. "A conference is where you can bring all those sorts of partnership dollars, sponsors, and of course, relevancy to your members."

But what happens when an association finds that its conference is missing the mark—not bringing in all the revenue that it could? In 2011, EDUCAUSE applied some design thinking to not only bring back its relevancy but also healthy amounts of nondues revenue.

The problem. At the EDUCAUSE Annual Conference, the one type of attendee that exhibitors and sponsors really wanted was the chief information officer, Chamberlain says. But the conference wasn't attracting droves of CIOs, and their absence affected how much sponsors and exhibitors were willing to spend, which, of course, affected the association's bottom line.

A conference is where you can bring all those sorts of partnership dollars, sponsors, and of course, relevancy to your members.—Keith Chamberlain, Revv Crew

The solution. EDUCAUSE assembled a team with representatives from across the association—from membership to meetings. By putting their heads together and conducting some research, the team discovered that CIOs really didn't want the kind of meeting experience that EDUCAUSE offered. Instead, they wanted to network and create their own meeting experiences. Using a design thinking tenet—working with the end in mind—EDUCAUSE brainstormed ways that would enable CIOs to create their own conference experience.

The result. In 2011, EDUCAUSE created the CIO Experience, a conference track within its annual conference that was designed for CIOs. With this track, CIOs had access to a special area, called the CIO Lounge, where they could come and go for coffee and snacks or conversation other CIOs in comfortable chairs.

EDUCAUSE also created a flexible space that CIOs could reserve for hosting their own sessions, as well as a private offsite area for career counseling. In this space, CIOs could talk to career and resume coaches and professional recruiters about their next steps—whether it was an assistant CIO looking to become CIO or a CIO looking to change jobs. Chamberlain says this career service was hugely popular and sold out each year they offered it.

Lastly, the CIO Experience included the launch of "Start-Up Alley," a place where higher-education and tech startups that did not have the money to exhibit in the main conference hall could show their wares and share their resources. This appealed to CIOs because it allowed them to get to know all these younger companies and their new products and tools. In the years since, Start-Up Alley has become so popular that EDUCAUSE monetizes it with a sponsored competition for selecting Alley participants.

At the same time, sponsors lined up to pay for new CIO Experience amenities, since they were going to be used by their target audience.

The byproducts. Within three years of implementing the CIO Experience, CIO attendance increased by 32 percent, and EDUCAUSE's net margin increased by $500,000. But perhaps more importantly, the EDUCAUSE brand and conference was elevated as "the place to be," Chamberlain says.

Emily Bratcher

Emily Bratcher is a contributing editor at Associations Now.