Tim Ebner is former senior editor of Associations Now in Washington, DC.
To create a meeting with high impact, you don’t need a big budget or a huge crowd. You may just need the right people in the right place with the right expectations for a small event that delivers big value.
Usually, when an association plans a meeting, staff keep a close eye on registration rates. The common challenge: How to get more people in the seats?
But that’s not the case for Linda Caradine-Poinsett, executive director of the American College of Prosthodontists, as she plans ACP’s Digital Dentistry Symposium, a two-day niche-topic meeting that will take place in February in Chicago.
“Our attendees and sponsors seem to like this meeting because it’s focused and much more intimate,” she says. “Annual meetings or conferences are great for one-stop shopping, but if you’re looking for something more specific, a small meeting can work well.”
ACP’s symposium is just one example of a small-scale meeting that can deliver significant value—for both attendees and the association. After three years, the event is now turning a profit, thanks to sponsorship dollars. And attendance is growing. The first Digital Dentistry Symposium attracted 60 attendees; last year’s meeting sold out at 200 and had a waitlist. Caradine-Poinsett is considering adding 50 more seats for the 2019 program.
That sounds like success, but she’s slightly worried. “What we’re anxious about is growing,” she says. “We’ve asked, ‘At what point will this start to feel too big?’”
A small meeting has a different vibe. “The philosophy has always been that attendees should interact more and learn from each other,” Caradine-Poinsett says. Too much growth can undermine those advantages.
Many associations are beginning to see that small meetings can bring big value, says David Spinks, founder and CEO of CMX, a membership organization for “community professionals,” including people who work in associations.
“We’re definitely seeing a big trend of organizations launching local and more intimate events,” Spinks says. “It creates a more personal and engaging environment, which I think is the greatest aspect of small events. Each person is featured and expected to get involved.”
What we’re anxious about is growing. We’ve asked, ‘At what point will this start to feel too big?’
—Linda Caradine-Poinsett, American College of Prosthodontists
Roundtables, fireside chats, dinners, masterminds, workshops—these are just a few of the small-meeting formats that might work well for your association. Figuring out which one is best for a program requires some volunteer input and testing.
“Start really small with one group. Test different meeting formats, until you feel like something clicks,” Spinks says. “When you’re ready to grow, look for opportunities to [enlist] members or champions” to promote the program. He calls these people your “event ambassadors.”
Anne Trompeter is an event ambassador for the Healthcare Convention and Exhibitors Association. She chaired a volunteer committee to facilitate a new half-day workshop called HCEAInnovate, which replaced a two-day marketing summit that the association sunsetted last year.
HCEA Managing Director Emilie Mendia says there was “no differentiation between that event and our annual conference. So, the board decided to change things up and leverage our existing resources and network to create a new experience, targeted to a wider audience.”
Trompeter spearheaded the effort to reimagine the summit as a shorter meeting open to both members and nonmembers, which could help grow membership. One challenge: a shoestring budget.
“This was about as low-budget or no-budget as you get,” Trompeter admits. “But what we got was an engaging event experience that produced a high return on investment, reducing the organization’s event operating expenses and providing an increased revenue stream.”
She credits the volunteer team for the successful transformation. “Our committee was allowed to shake things up,” she says. “For any small meeting, you need to have a dedicated set of volunteers who can lead the charge. Our main thing was that we wanted this event to offer intriguing and compelling content with strong, qualified speakers.”
Trompeter called in favors and asked HCEA board members for help in identifying speakers who could speak for free or on small stipends. Her lineup included a former executive from Philips and a New York Times bestselling author.
Our event would have been dead in the water if we didn’t message it to the right audience.
—Celeste Smith, CAE, American Association of Law Libraries
You can also save big if you think flexibly about your venue. “Pick an event venue that matches the mood and theme of your meeting experience,” Spinks says. “It doesn’t have to be expensive—an association might pick a coworking space, community center, or academic setting.”
ACP’s Digital Dentistry Symposium was hosted on the downtown campus of the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. “They offered a number of pieces of equipment and room layouts that facilitated hands-on [learning] opportunities,” Caradine-Poinsett says. “It helped us especially for breakout sessions.”
Co-location is another strategy that can save on site costs. HCEA co-located the inaugural HCEAInnovate with the ExhibitorLive conference in Las Vegas last February, sharing room and food-and-beverage costs. Event sponsors chipped in to deliver F&B surprises, like an ice cream pop-up bar for a snack break.
When budgets are especially tight, associations may be able to arrange virtually no-cost venues for small meetings by working through members’ organizations or local chapters.
Celeste Smith, CAE, director of education at the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL), hosted a recent skills-based workshop at a law firm in Chicago. The firm provided a large conference room that could comfortably accommodate the 40-person, two-day meeting.
Law firms “have the technology, table arrangements, and screens we need, but can still feel intimate and open for attendees to speak and be heard,” Smith says, adding that “law firms and local chapters supported us, not just with event programming, but also with scholarships and grant opportunities.”
You can have a great concept, the right format, and the perfect space, but if the attendee experience isn’t right, your small meeting will fall flat. Identifying the right audience is the first step.
AALL targets its workshops to professionals with specific legal interests and skills. “Really scrutinize the language of your invite and event description too,” says Smith. “Our event would have been dead in the water if we didn’t message it to the right audience.”
Step two: Define—and then share with attendees—the kind of experience the event will deliver, including your expectations for what attendees will bring to the table. Before the meeting, “you want to be intentional about what kind of interaction you’re going to have,” Spinks says. “You set the container by sharing ground rules, expectations, and intentions for why you’re here. That then quickly creates a space [where attendees can] be vulnerable.”
Without this setup, he says, you leave attendees filled with questions: What can and can’t I share? Will what I say be shared or judged? How do I respond to someone else who’s sharing?
A feeling of openness and trust can be supported in the meeting’s agenda. AALL’s workshop started with an exercise where attendees stood in a circle and shared a challenge or question they couldn’t solve. The ice breaker was designed to overcome any reluctance to participate by attendees who may have viewed other attendees as competitors because they worked for other law firms.
The goal is to create a cohort that will last beyond the event. “The expectation is that they will continue to learn and lean on each for support, even after the workshop is over,” Smith says. AALL gives attendees access to a private online forum where conversations, questions, and resources can be shared later.
Spinks suggests having attendees write down a goal or next step before they leave and pairing them up in a buddy system.
“That way, the buddy can check in by email two weeks or four weeks later to see how it’s going,” he says. “With a small meeting, you can build intention into the event, making sure everyone is included and walking away with something.”