Mark Athitakis is a contributing editor to Associations Now.
Meeting attendees are looking for more ways to mix business and leisure on the road. From post-conference tours to day trips to planned downtime, associations are stepping up to help them maximize their "bleisure" time.
Chris Williams, CAE, executive director of the National Child Support Enforcement Association (NCSEA), remembers the bad old days of conference travel for staff: Fly in to set up. Spend 14-hour days in a convention center. Fly back as soon as the last sign is packed up. Williams saw the displeasure on colleagues’ faces at past association conferences, and he knew that once he had an executive role he’d do things differently.
“The last thing I want for my staff is to be so burned out toward the end that they’re not friendly, they’re not at their very best for our members, so that our members have a negative impression,” he says.
What’s true for burned-out staffers is equally true for attendees: Since joining NCSEA in early 2016, Williams has made a point to build break-time experiences for both groups at conferences. And he’s not alone: In recent years more associations are eager to create experiences that blend business and leisure—or “bleisure”—around events, from pre- and post-conference travel to in-conference day trips. According to a 2016 survey by the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA), 67 percent of business travelers said it’s important to build extra free time into their trips, and 36 percent said they’d done so in the previous three months.
Associations have responded to members demanding more than a few days of education in windowless rooms, however productive, and CVBs are doing more to assist. Those changes raise some concerns: What experiences will resonate? Will a member’s boss sign off on a travel agenda that looks like too much fun and games? But blended meetings are likely here to stay.
Attendees want to network, they want to learn, they want to experience, and they do want to relax a bit. —Matt Grayson, International Fruit Tree Association
When the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) took its annual conference to Honolulu in 2014, it wasn’t going to deny attendees the opportunity to explore a top global vacation spot. But how to balance the work and play elements of the conference?
“We knew we were going to have to do things a little bit differently, so that we could still keep up the energy and excitement within the educational space and then give people plenty of time to hit the beach and to see the sites, because Hawaii is such a beautiful place,” says Tracy L. Vanneman, SIOP’s program and continuing education services manager. “We knew going into it that we better be honest with ourselves about how people would want to spend their time while they were there.”
Some of SIOP’s changes were modest, like starting sessions earlier in the day to accommodate the biological clocks of attendees, who were mostly from the U.S. mainland and who wanted some afternoon and early-evening sightseeing time. SIOP hadn’t been in the habit of hosting multiple post-conference tours, but in Hawaii it hosted three for the day after the conference ended: the U.S.S. Arizona, Diamond Head, and Oahu’s north shore. Each sold out.
Moreover, for attendees who were building vacation time into the trip, SIOP negotiated a room block in Maui. “We knew that there were plenty of people who were doing trips before or after away from our conference headquarters,” she says. Booking the additional room nights “was unusual; we hadn’t done that [before].”
In planning the bleisure elements of the conference, SIOP had plenty of help from the Honolulu CVB, and that kind of assistance from destinations has become common. Rich Cerino, director of convention services for Visit Phoenix, says he sees more groups looking to extend their stays, and he talks with planners early to understand what experiences they might want to offer attendees.
“We ask, what are the demographics of your group?” he says. “What have they done in the past? We try to cater specific opportunities for them when they get here based on what they’ve liked in the past.”
The International Fruit Tree Association made a mistake of sorts in 2016, when it scheduled an optional post-conference tour for attendees. IFTA had historically given attendees a chance to see nearby orchards after the conference, both as a getaway and a learning opportunity in the field. But after IFTA’s 2016 conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Executive Director Matt Grayson decided to make a change.
The problem: Most attendees are growers with little time to get away from their own orchards and with limited budget to cover an extra getaway. So for its 2017 conference in Wenatchee, Washington, all orchard tours are built into the conference schedule, which alternates between conference sessions and site visits.
Attendees “want to network, they want to learn, they want to experience, and they do want to relax a bit,” Grayson says. “So you try to accommodate a bit of all four in your planning, knowing that they’re there to learn the newest, latest research in the field and to talk to old friends and to get geared up for their next production cycle.”
While bleisure experiences at an association conference can be appealing to attendees, it’s often a harder sell for the managers who sign off on travel budgets—especially in the highly scrutinized public and academic sectors. SIOP anticipated that concern with its Honolulu conference by setting up a toolkit with sample letters and tips for selling the value of the conference.
“They definitely had to make sure it was very clear that they were going to present or learn and not just to go have a vacation, because obviously that doesn’t go over well in a public university or government agency,” Vanneman says. “We had to play to both audiences, vacationers and those that needed assistance from us.”
But the locale doesn’t have to be exotic for that bleisure discussion to happen. Vanneman notes that SIOP is taking a similar approach to its upcoming meetings in Chicago, New Orleans, and Austin.
“People don’t necessarily want to travel across the country just to sit in the session room for three days and then get on the plane and go back,” she says. “We have to be cognizant that people work. People are continuing to do their work in a different, more flexible way.”
To that end, bleisure travel seems bound to increase: According to the GBTA survey, 43 percent of millennials report building extra travel into their trips, compared to 34 percent of Gen Xers and 35 percent of boomers.
NCSEA’s Williams adds that it’s important to extend those courtesies to staff as well, from approving time off to extend a trip for personal travel to handling reimbursements. (See “Who Covers the Side Trip?,” page 50.) That means happier staffers, with a potential trickle-down benefit for attendees. “I encourage staff to arrive early so that they can take at least a half day to enjoy the host city,” he says. “By doing so, they can learn about fun places to go and pass that along to members throughout the conference. It works quite well.”
But the future association meeting may not be a matter of add-ons; instead, the meeting may truly mix business and pleasure.
“We had people who were building in time both pre- and post-conference to enjoy a vacation there, which is great,” Williams says. “But we also look at the people who can’t do that, who have to get back to the office. How do we make it so that they get a chance, from a cultural standpoint, from a leisure standpoint, just to go out and experience the cities we’re in?”
Who is building extra travel into their trips?