Trade association staff charged with planning meetings and conventions have a tough job that entails endless details. I don't pretend to know more than they do about how to do their jobs.
This I do know, however -- some conventions and conferences run better than others. I've attended more than 150 of them during my quarter-century in the industry. They've spanned groups representing contractors, wholesalers, manufacturers, reps and engineers, with attendance ranging from dozens to thousands. I've gone to national, regional, state and local events, those with big budgets and shoestring budgets.
I've come back from some of these assemblies feeling uplifted, and from many others annoyed at wasting so much time. These experiences have inspired a few suggestions for meeting planners to consider.
Some of these concern big issues that require policy changes by boards of directors, while others are about niggling details that nonetheless add or detract from a meeting experience.
New Members Need To Be NurturedMembership recruitment is a high priority for virtually every trade association. But it's sad what typically happens after someone falls for the pitch.
Some newcomers have never even been to a business meeting. They may need help with basic tasks such as registration and finding meeting rooms. A mentor from the association's in-crowd ought to be assigned to every first-timer who attends a convention.
The mentor's job should be to chaperone a new member at every social event and meal, and introduce the newcomer to as many other members as possible. If the mentor can't accompany the newcomer to every activity, s/he should recruit substitute mentors. The goal is to make sure someone is paying attention to the rookie throughout the convention to offer guidance, make introductions and promote camaraderie.
I've seen this done, although not often enough, and it works. Mentoring helps new members feel like they really belong. If the mentors do their jobs right, after the first day or so the newcomers will have met some new friends who the mentors can recruit on the spot to pinch hit while the mentors pursue their own agenda. Or, where appropriate, the mentors can invite their proteges to tag along and expose them to various association activities.
It's common for organizations to sponsor a first-timers cocktail party or meeting, but afterwards most leave it up to new members to do their own networking. This may work OK with gregarious individuals, but many people are socially awkward. It's customary at conventions for old friends to hang out together, which leaves new members sipping their drinks in a corner alone. They need to feel a part of the organization they just joined.
Most of the time you see an organization's bigwigs hanging around together at convention social events. They have all year to mingle with one another. At an annual convention, every officer, director and staffer ought to make it a top priority to make the acquaintance of newcomers and spend some time with them.
Kiss The Hands That Feed YouNext to new members, people who frequently get neglected at conventions are the associate members. These are the vendors and suppliers who buy exhibit space and make other financial contributions to a trade association. Yet, some associations treat them as outsiders. I've been to conventions where financial patrons are excluded from educational sessions or social functions other than the ones they sponsor.
You are supposed to kiss, not bite, the hands that feed you. Little gestures, such as officers going around to thank all trade show exhibitors, mean a lot. Also, associate members can be a valuable resource for programs, speakers, ideas and committee seats. If your bylaws don't allow them to participate, change the stupid bylaws.
You Don't Need A Big Budget To Make A SplashMany meeting planners think high-priced consultants are needed to produce a worthwhile educational program. They are sorely mistaken. The best resources are right under your noses.
Take a cue from the Association of Independent Manufacturers Representatives (AIM/R), a national organization of manufacturer rep firms in the PHC industry. Year after year their annual conference contains some of the best industry-specific educational programming around, even though they are a boutique organization of some 300 members with a modest budget. The bulk of their programs consist of members sharing experiences with one another about topics of interest to reps, along with presentations by wholesalers, manufacturers or other supply-chain participants.
Any association's membership has talent to draw from, and typically members will speak for free. Go down your membership roster and check off the people who have distinguished themselves in some aspect of their business. I bet you'll find plenty of them able and willing to share their expertise. The staff can help them develop PowerPoint presentations if necessary. You can also draw from suppliers, vendors and reps. This makes for a learning experience that is both economical and more meaningful than seminars by business generalists or motivational screechers.
Keynoters Are OverratedI say this as one who has delivered dozens of keynote speeches over the years. As much as I'd love to fool my ego into thinking I put some bodies in the seats that otherwise wouldn't be there, I doubt it. There are only a handful of people with that kind of drawing power.
One exception was Norman Schwartzkopf, who graced this year's MCAA convention. However, a Catch-22 arises with recruiting someone of that caliber.
MCAA is a classy group that puts on the best conventions in the industry. They are big-budget affairs held in posh venues with members and spouses paying upwards of $1,000 apiece in registration fees to attend.
It takes a big budget to book a speaker as renowned as Gen. Schwartzkopf. Yet, MCAA conventions offer so much quality education and entertainment they don't really need a celebrity keynoter to generate a big turnout, although someone in Schwartzkopf's league may attract a few fence-sitters.
The Catch-22 is that organizations most in need of a powerful keynote speaker can't afford one. If they could, they'd have enough money to put on the kind of first-class bash that would attract the masses without a big-name draw.
Keep Business Sessions CeremonialIt's a delusion that members of an organization can intelligently debate and enact important policy changes at a convention. We live in a representative democracy because pure democracy is unworkable for groups with more members than you can count on your fingers and toes.
It should be up to the officers and board of directors to devise policies and the staff to implement them. The leaders ought to solicit member input on these decisions throughout the year, but it's inefficient and usually counterproductive when the membership is invited to micromanage an organization's affairs via a show of hands.
Besides, if a decision is important enough to be put to the members for a vote, provisions ought to be made for proxy or absentee ballots, not just left up to the minority that attends the convention. There's a school of thought that views convention referenda as an incentive for members to attend, and if they don't support the association with their presence, they deserve being left out of the decision-making loop.
Buried within this school of thought is a notion that the members exist to serve the association, rather than the other way around. Thinking like that can kill a trade association.
If they schedule them at all, well-run groups tend to hold perfunctory business sessions that last an hour or less. The agenda typically consists of leadership and committee reports to the membership and ceremonial presentations. Attendees who aren't napping in their hotel rooms tend to get bored out of their skulls at these sessions, but at least they waste minimal time.
Little ThingsThese concern minor issues, but which nonetheless can detract from or add to the convention experience.
-- Necklace badge holders. Name badges often get attached to string holders placed around wearers' necks. It's common for these badges to get turned around, hiding the wearer's identity. (Pinned badge holders work better, though some people, spouses in particular, don't like to put holes in their clothes.) A simple solution is to print identities on both sides of the name badge. With a clear plastic badge holder, it won't matter if the necklace becomes twisted.
-- Pouch badge holders. Earlier this year I attended a meeting of Prophet 21 users -- a computer system used by distributors. Prophet 21 supplied registrants with clever necklace pouches. In front was a slot for the name badge, but the pouch opened up at top as a convenient holder for business cards, pens, breath fresheners and other small items people typically carry around at a convention. The pouch compartment had a Velcro zipper. Neat idea.
-- Nix the event tickets. It's a waste of money to print admission tickets to convention events. A name badge should be all that's needed to gain entrance.
Admission tickets often go uncollected for many events, and people are always losing their tickets or leaving them in their hotel rooms. Usually they get admitted anyway. So what's the point? Enforcing an admission ticket policy would be even worse. Why make constituents jump through hoops over a pointless slip of paper?