Sunday, February 13, 2011

Association Management - Building a Vision for Your Conference

Just a quick post for this week. Recently, I saw that ASAE had a program where they were discussing setting a vision for your conference. That is a really great concept and a few months ago I had the good fortune of helping one of my clients actually develop one.

If you think about it, your conference may be the most important asset your association has both in terms of member connection, financial benefit and goodwill. Back in the old days, we thought it was enough to choose a "theme" and then schedule keynotes and workshops accordingly. I even recall (back in the day) asking presenters to massage their session descriptions to reflect key components of theme. (Ugh. Insert shudder here.)

The good news is, I evolved with the help of some of awesome peers and thinkers out here in our association community (Yeah, @jeffhurt, @velchain, @JoanEisenstodt, @jcufaude, @ginsut, @mbobrow, @steveswafford, @asegar - I'm looking at you!)  I finally realized marketing is not the place to start and neither is logistics. You have to start with "producing" a conference and "theme" and "standard room set crescent rounds" ain't gonna get 'er done. Production must center on solid, innovative content presented with the best of adult learning techniques....period.

A few months ago, I had a client who decided to re-invent their conference. However, they were facing a level of internal and external resistance to change including detractors who had ownership and political pull. We decided to focus on ways to get the entire team - staff, volunteer leaders and presenters - to see potential changes as a desirable opportunity instead of a threat. To do that, we needed to create pathways they they could all resonate with, aspire to and hold all planners and participants accountable for. The only way I knew how to do that was to encourage them to use a mini-strategic planning process that included adopting a vision and envisioned experience for their attendees.

Hence, their conference vision was born.

Here is how we did it:

Association Vision - We started with the vision of the association itself. The conference was their highest-profile opportunity to see their association's vision played out in front of them, live and in living color. We knew the Conference Strategic Position would need to be a direct support pillar and reflection of that greater vision. We isolated certain key elements and asked staff to do some pre-meeting thinking as to what those elements meant to their members and how the conference could directly impact their achievement.  We placed those key elements at the top of the Conference Vision Statement so we could draw a direct line between the association's vision and the conference outcomes we identified.

Conference Strategic Position - With the association vision as the starting point, I facilitated a meeting where they developed a Statement of Conference Strategic Position. (By the way, the key there is "they developed." A statement like this shouldn't be boiler-plate and should be organic for each group.) It is a vision and does not need to be changed every year. These are long-term goals they want to see achieved in each meeting planning cycle. I haven't included the entire statement but here is an excerpt:

"Our goal is to provide an environment that will move our attendees from a passive position to being vocal advocates for our profession. Attendees will be active participants in the creation of their educational experience. Attendees wlll learn to extend that active stance post-conference to engage in meaningful dialogue with colleagues, legislators, regulatory agencies and the public at large."

Attendee Experience - Once the Strategic Position was established, the next thing was to clearly define and describe the envisioned attendee experience. Ideally your experience creation statements would be limited to between four and six. More than that, and your conference and education planners will lose focus. Some of the experiences they wanted to create for their attendees were:
  • We provide thought-provoking education utilizing creative environments and interactive adult learning techniques.
  • Our conference is energetic, fun, filled with ah-ha moments and our attendees eagerly anticipate the next opportunity to engage.
  • Our attendees leave feeling they have been heard, understood and empowered to take action.
Once complete, the staff, volunteers and committees now had a document to refer to that acts as the final arbiter on debates regarding content and logistics. The group prioritized content first, logistics second and marketing third. Next, they did a strategic analysis of each conference component from the lowliest continental breakfast to the highest profile keynote. They threw everything on the table and every scheduling element came with two questions, "How does this advance our vision for our association and our conference?" and "What experience goal does this fulfill?" Social media became part of the discussion. How they laid out workshops and keynotes came under scrutiny. Room sets. Session formats. Session lengths. Leisure activities. Time to network. White space. Games. Integrating music and video. Technology. Sustainable practices.

Better yet, now they had a clear vision for presenters to rally around and openly stated expectations for performance. The staff and presenters now have the opportunity to create a real partnership designed to advance the level of education and create opportunities for attendees to really learn. Instead of the old patterns of "relying on the kindness of strangers" and feeling like they shouldn't ask presenters to improve their skills lest they appear ungrateful, now staff is empowered to carefully coach presenters and provide examples of the types of workshops and learning techniques they want to see used in their conference.

The last I heard they were headlong into planning for their upcoming event, having a blast and, better yet, feeling confident that everyone is on the same page and ready to produce a meaningful, fun and lasting experience. I was privileged to be a part of their process. If you have a conference you are looking to re-vitalize, consider using a similar process to make it happen.


  1. So important and so logical to do, it's almost shocking how few conferences work for a guiding principles document like what you suggest. You've just provided them a clear case and a compelling path for getting with the program though.

  2. What an exciting experience for all involved! I'm imagining how this same approach can be applied to creating online communities too. Thanks for sharing, Shelly.

  3. You just provided a great blueprint for all conference and meeting professionals. Thanks for sharing your story and experience.

    I loved their emphasis on the attendees as active participants in the educational experience. That's golden.

  4. Thanks for the comments was really a lot of fun and so great to see the energy it unleashed....



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