Allison Torres Burtka
Allison Torres Burtka, a longtime association journalist, is a freelance writer and editor in West Bloomfield, Michigan.
You have loyal, long-time conference attendees—that's great. But to keep your events thriving for the long term, you need to engage your millennial members. How are you changing your conferences to appeal to a new generation?
Interactive, social, personalized, hands on. Does this describe your conferences? Regardless of how successful and popular your meetings are, it’s worth considering whether they are attracting an audience you’ll need over the long term: younger attendees who may want something different from what your event currently delivers.
What do younger professionals value in the conference experience? What will convince them that it’s not just a collection of boring speakers droning on and on? You know next-gen members are tech savvy, but you can’t just get a conference app and call it a day.
Millennials are used to immediate communication and response—such as requesting an Uber that shows up in three minutes—and products and services built just for them, from their Starbucks order to their laptop’s features.
“Young workers enjoy a more customized approach,” says Cassie Thompson, event services manager at the association management company Smith Bucklin, who was named International Association of Exhibitions and Events 2015 Young Professional of the Year. Some ways to customize conference offerings include creating an agenda specific to young professionals and offering a first-time attendee orientation geared toward them, she says.
Some associations devote entire conferences to their next-gen members. The National Beer Wholesalers Association (NBWA) holds a standalone Next Generation Success in Leadership Conference. Some content is similar to what the annual convention provides, but other programs are tailored to next-gen attendees and focused on leadership.
“We offer operational sessions designed to appeal to attendees who have no knowledge of a specific topic—for example, what type of insurance coverages are necessary for a distributor,” says NBWA Chief Financial Officer Kim McKinnish, who manages its Next Generation Group. Other sessions offer a deeper dive into complex topics, such as how to use technology to make warehouses more operationally efficient.
Young workers enjoy a more customized approach.—Cassie Thompson, Smith Bucklin
Finding out what your next-gen members want is key. NBWA’s next-gen group “told us they are concerned about time management as related to growing their careers while starting families and pursuing outside interests, so we are providing a keynote speaker to address this topic,” McKinnish says.
Associations are tackling the next-gen challenge in a wide variety of ways, but the solutions share a common theme: It’s all about active participation and real-world takeaways.
Your conference formula may work well as it is, but are there ways to create more value for next-gen attendees? Once they are at your conference, how do you engage them enough that they want to come back?
DECA is an organization that knows something about that. Most of its conference attendees are emerging student leaders involved with its high school and college chapters around the country. But its conference model had some traditional elements that weren’t a good fit.
The opening session, for example, “had a corporate feel, with an awards presentation, and it wasn’t the most engaging for our audience,” says Christopher Young, director of DECA’s High School Division.
Now, they have brought in “entertainment with more of a ‘wow’ factor,” shortened the keynote speech, integrated social media into presentations, and tweaked the session’s overall music and tone to be more relatable. “Our goal was to keep the show moving,” Young says.
Many associations are making their education programs shorter and more interactive to appeal to next-gen attendees. People lose interest after about 10 minutes, says Chris Ballman, SmithBucklin’s senior director of education and learning services. But, he points out, “this is multigenerational—nobody wants to be bored.”
Next-gen attendees are likely to appreciate “short bursts of content,” such as how to create a great LinkedIn profile, Thompson says.
Ballman warns that presenters may resist efforts to shorten sessions. But his team convinced some speakers to cut their presentations from an hour to 15 or 20 minutes, and the change increased attendee satisfaction.
More interactive offerings might include small-group meetings, allowing attendees to bring problems to the conference so that they can work on solutions while there. Attendees also might participate in live demonstrations or tour local industry-related facilities “to enhance their knowledge of leading practices,” Ballman says.
Interactive programs help “create conversations rather than just push information to them,” Young says.
Mobile devices can make typical presentations more interactive. Through “second screen” technology—using either web-based tools or apps—attendees can submit questions or responses to presenters’ questions through their smartphones and tablets, and that input can be displayed for the audience. This way, attendees become part of the presentation, and they can ask questions anonymously, Ballman points out.
It’s “having them do as opposed to hear,” he says.
The ubiquitous presence of social media provides rich opportunities to engage the young professionals who grew up constantly interacting in those platforms, meeting planners say. In addition to the now-familiar channels—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat—conference apps have evolved beyond displaying conference schedules and expo hall maps to feature an activity feed, allow members to connect on social media through the app, and facilitate live polling and rating of sessions.
And that means there’s a lot of potential to harness real-time, organic content coming straight from attendees. DECA puts user-generated content to work in several ways. Students apply to be considered for a spot on the social media correspondent team by submitting their social media handles and a writing sample, among other materials. The correspondents report to their peers on various aspects of the conference, creating conversations and connecting attendees.
When students interested in the conference “look at what their peers posted the year before, they can see people’s excitement,” Young says. And DECA employs the previous year’s user-generated content to promote the conference on social media.
They've taken ownership of it, from the bottom up.—Matthew Jeanneret, CAE, American Road and Transportation Builders Association
“Students like instant recognition, even if it is just us retweeting them,” Young says. DECA’s students may be more likely than a typical association member to jump at the chance to be a social media reporter, but he recommends “finding champions” who are engaged and creating ways to recognize them for their contributions.
In developing programs for its next-gen leaders, the American Road and Transportation Builders Association let them take the wheel.
The association’s next-gen group—formerly called the Young Executive Development Council and now called the Industry Leader Development Council because the group didn’t want to be labeled “young”—changed the format of ARTBA’s annual regional meetings, says Matthew Jeanneret, CAE, senior vice president of communications and marketing. Those meetings focus mainly on advocacy, and they “engage people who don’t come to the national conference,” he says.
“We’re in a generational transition,” Jeanneret says—many association members have family-owned businesses. Targeting the 30-to-50 age range, the council added a half-day professional development workshop to each meeting, on topics including how artificial intelligence affects the construction industry and self-driving vehicles’ impact on infrastructure. They also added a networking reception.
“They’ve taken ownership of it, from the bottom up,” and now they’re reaching out to get their peers to attend a regional meeting and find out more about the association, Jeanneret says. “We may be providing the bus, but they’re driving the bus and getting people on the bus.” The changes enhance the meetings’ value to next-gen attendees—and other members as well.
Getting next-gen members involved in your conference planning and tailoring some of your programs to them could end up appealing to members across the board, not just younger professionals. Trying different content, delivery methods, and participation models could spill over and enhance the conference’s value to a wider swath of members.
Appealing to next-gen attendees “is important because of the exponential effect” that stretches beyond the conference and helps develop your membership base, Young says.
In imagining what to add to or change in your conference lineup, Young recommends “not being afraid to move away from tradition.”
[This article was originally published in the Associations Now print edition, titled "Next-Gen Appeal."]