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Words of Wisdom

Secrets to planning captivating, must-attend meetings for associations

By Michele Sponagle

Associations can’t exist without engaged and involved membership. And a key way to connect with them is through events and conferences. But planning events for associations is a totally different beast than planning for corporations, which are more likely to have robust budgets and guaranteed employee attendance. Associations have to deal with capped spending and often struggle to entice members to sign up. That’s why we asked these association planners to share a glimpse into their playbooks.

Focus on wickedly good programming
Unlike the corporate world, there is no sure thing when it comes to attendees. Association members have the power to decide whether or not they want to participate. Plus they’ve got other meetings and conferences competing for their attention. That underscores the need for planners to create compelling, alluring content, according to Meagan Rockett, association ambassador, Greenfield Services, based in Belleville, Ont. “Your programming has to have spark—especially if centred on a topic that’s on the dry side,” she says. “It could be a lively keynote speaker—someone high profile—from within the membership or someone outside, but you’ve got to make sure it’s a good fit.”

Get creative to squeeze every drop from a budget
Member-driven organizations demand accountability for every dollar spent. Decor is one of the budget line items prone to slashing, but environments still need to keep audiences engaged and be sophisticated but not too opulent. Rockett will switch up the lighting of a meeting room, set up funky furniture (try renting it) and add lively music to accompany breaks and meals to keep energy up. Instead of expensive centrepieces, try groupings of potted herbs. “It’s amazing to see how much conversation simple touches generated,” she recalls. “Attendees loved that they could take home the plants post-event.”

Keep a record of past events
Some associations and the committees that guide event-planning decisions are made up of volunteers and boards of directors who come and go. New blood may bring with it a desire to do things differently or resurrect old ideas. We’ve always done it that way is a phrase that Tina Hutchinson, director, conference & sponsorship, T•O Corporate Services, in Toronto, often hears. “When there’s a strong desire to shake things up, I’m the one who can step in sometimes and say, ‘We tried it and it didn’t work, or it was successful based on history.’” She’s able to equip committees with data about what has happened in the past, preventing wheel spinning and repeat mistakes. If an association does opt for change, she coaches them to do so in baby steps. For conference committee volunteers, assign small, targeted tasks to ensure completion.

Partner up
Budget limitations are an ongoing part of the matrix for planners creating events for associations. That’s why sponsorship plays a big role. “It’s important to allocate the resources to sponsorship procurement,” explains Hutchinson. With so much competition around, associations have to prove every year why they are worthy of a sponsor’s dollars. A great deal of time should be spent around relationship-building all year round, not just during the lead-up to the event.

Another thought for packing a bigger financial punch is forming a partnership with another association. “Teaming up with a like-minded or complimentary organization can be a great benefit,” suggests Rockett. “You can put together a bigger event with more impact by sharing costs. The key is to make sure the groups cross-pollinate and make the most out of networking opportunities.”

Sell the event
Association members have other conferences and events to choose from, so communication about your event needs a touch of act-now salesmanship. “That doesn’t mean just re-sending the same email blast,” Hutchinson says. “You need to change it up with fresh headlines, photos and messages to avoid falling on deaf ears.” Rockett also recommends using social media to boost excitement about meetings, as well as an old tried-and-true tactic—picking up the phone and asking, “Would you like to attend?”

Learn More
The Canadian Society of Association Executives provides conferences, workshops, networking and discounts for members, with chapters across the country. Check out their blog for thoughtful viewpoints on the issues facing the sector.

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