Mark Athitakis is a contributing editor to Associations Now.
Technology advancements, rising competition, and revenue imperatives are changing the meeting planner's role. Today, it's more integral to an association's success than ever. Say hello to the new meetings strategist.
Was running an association get-together always this complicated?
Time was, the meetings manager at an association might have been responsible for one big event, where speakers were corralled, tradeshow booths were sold, and a core group of members could reliably be trusted to attend, even if you weren't offering continuing education credits. Where else were members going to network and learn about the latest trends in the industry?
The answer now might be: everywhere.
That change is forcing a major rethinking of the conference business model. Members have more meeting options and more ways to learn and network. Exhibitors want clearer evidence of ROI. And the association meeting has more competition and more pressure to attract sponsorship dollars: According to ASAE Foundation research, 89 percent of associations attracted sponsorships for their largest meeting in 2011, up from 79 percent in 2005, and median net revenue jumped from $35,000 to $65,000. Meanwhile, an association's need to derive revenue from its major meetings hasn't dissipated.
The upshot is that the meetings manager at many associations is now far more than an event planner. He or she now plays a strategic role in the livelihood of the organization, bolstering its current conferences and other events while finding ways to innovate future ones.
"It's no longer a functional role," says John J. Toner V, vice president for convention and industry relations at the United Fresh Produce Association. "You're not processing applications, you're not processing registration forms. You have to be out there working with your members, working with your exhibitors, working with your attendees to get them to invest in your tradeshow."
Financial Fast Facts
Cost and revenue figures for 2005 and 2011 reveal a changing financial picture for association meetings.
Median budget is rising:
Attendees are providing less revenue…
…while sponsorships are providing more:
Toner is one of a new breed of association leaders who've taken up the challenge to make meetings more vibrant while giving them a more integral place in organizational business strategy. In interviews with Associations Now, Toner and two colleagues in similar roles explained how they've found ways to experiment, expand, and—despite all the current talk about virtual meetings—make the case for that old-fashioned handshake at a face-to-face event.
In June, the United Fresh Produce Association held its 109th annual meeting, complete with an attention-grabbing opening speaker: former U.S. Secretary of State and possible presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. The high-profile event speaks to the association's durability and success, but Toner notes that there's a complicated challenge underneath it.
"It's not like there is a new breakthrough every day in fresh produce," says Toner, who has handled exhibits for United Fresh since 1999. "So you're thinking about how you're going to make this year different from last year. That takes time."
One challenge is grabbing attendees' attention. When he started, he says, there were three major produce-related tradeshows in the United States; today, he counts up to 10 national and major regional ones. One way United Fresh cuts through that logjam is with its Fresh Impact Tours, mini-conventions that the association brings to cities that otherwise might not host a large meeting. The strategy broadens United Fresh's reach while supporting members' knowledge base.
"You spend time with members on their turf, you see how they lead their lives and how they view their world," Toner says. Since launching the events in 2011, United Fresh has hosted Impact Tours across the United States and overseas.
That effort has run in tandem with another to make the tradeshow floor more inclusive and welcoming. This year, United Fresh launched an Expert Consultation Center, where attendees could schedule sit-down meetings with consultants about their business. Toner says he believes the chance to sit down and talk shop benefits the entire show. "If you give someone a place to hang up their jacket, they're going to spend a lot more time on the show floor," he says.
In the three years he's been manager of strategic sales initiatives at the National Association of Chain Stores, Donovan Woods has made a point of expanding his role. "Customer service and logistics are my primary responsibilities," he says. "However, exhibit managers are involved in all facets of the tradeshow, and I wanted my position to reflect that."
So Woods has looked for opportunities to expand NACS's meetings options. When interest lagged in the association's events app, he led the effort to fix it, and he's improved NACS's virtual meetings. Both cases required savvy about not just technology, but sponsorships and user experience as well.
"Many associations, ourselves included, began launching mobile apps in 2010 because the technology was fresh and we saw the potential for using it within the tradeshow environment," he says. But surveys determined that "there were too many options on the dashboard, and that left the attendee feeling overwhelmed." Since then, the association has been more careful about the number of sponsorships it sells for the app connected to the NACS Show, its largest meeting, and usage leapt from 7,500 downloads in 2011 (its first year) to 13,000 downloads at last year's show.
Data: Virtual Conferences
The percentage of associations that reported hosting a virtual conference as part of their online learning program.
Virtual meetings have proved harder to crack. NACS experimented with the format in 2011 and 2012, including video of education sessions and images of products featured in its Cool New Products Preview Room, to engage a remote audience during the NACS Show. Results were disappointing.
"Our onsite content didn't translate to members who did not attend the event in person," Woods says. But he hasn't given up. "We realized that we have to watch other things that are not association-based" for ideas, he says. "We have begun to look at other industries, including the medical fields that require credit hours, to find a better way to provide online content that members desire and need."
In the meantime, Woods works more closely and strategically with NACS's sponsorship staff to make sure their goals are in sync.
"By working together from the planning stages, it has helped our advertising team make sales that are effective the first time, and that has led to repeat advertisers," he says. "Exhibit operations no longer means working strictly within the confines of the exhibitor service kit."
As senior director of global meetings, conferences, and events for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Marie Hunter manages a lot of conferences—an anticipated 1,500 in 2014. But the key to IEEE's success, she says, is not to think of them simply as meetings.
"Sometimes people think about meetings or events very literally as a sort of one-dimensional thing—you get content and you sell it," she says. "But I don't think of it that way. I think of it as a mechanism, a tool. It's multidimensional."
In practice, this means a lot of deep mining of meetings content for future use: recorded sessions, speaker articles written before and after the event, attendee interviews. That's part of many associations' meeting-planning mix. But Hunter does this with an eye toward finding new audiences for IEEE content, looking beyond its familiar membership base and aiming to brand the association as an authority in new markets. For instance, a recent conference on financial cybersecurity was marketed to attendees outside of IEEE membership.
"The shift for our team is to go from executing meeting arrangements to actually being producers of conferences that are relevant to new audiences," she says. "I'm asking more of the team."
Like anybody associated with IEEE, Hunter is a believer in technology, but she also says virtual meetings have their limits. "Ironically, as people get more technologically connected to each other, there's also a sort of distance that can be created by that, so people are not talking on the phone, they're talking via email, and the desire to meet face to face I think is increasing. And the value of that interaction is on the rise."
The association does virtual presentations, but more as a branding exercise than a revenue driver. In the case of a recent meeting in India, IEEE presented sessions online "to position ourselves as thought leaders. In terms of revenue, I don't think you can expect to charge the same for virtual as you do in-person, at least not over the same period of time, unless it's a hot topic or you're doing accreditation. That you can charge for," Hunter says.
So if the future of online meetings is fuzzy, they are certain to redefine what a meeting experience is for members.
"I'm looking at a model of continuous engagement which is punctuated by live events and interactions," Hunter says. "In the past, maybe membership was the only way that associations thought of community and engagement, but what I'm finding is that there are many attendees of our events and conferences who are not members of our association or one of our individual societies. In the past their connection to us was transactional, related only to that conference. And to me, that's a really big opportunity."
[This article was originally published in the Associations Now print edition, titled "The New Meetings Strategist."]