It's the perennial question facing associations: How do we persuade people to attend our conference? “Unfortunately, I’m seeing attendance down,” says Bethany Curtis, president of the Michigan Charter of Meeting Professionals International and director of sales at the Bavarian Inn Lodge and Conference Center. “I just think we’re all doing so much. We’ll survey our memberships on the best times for the conference, but then they still don’t come. When we ask why they didn’t attend, they say they’re just too busy. Something’s got to give and, unfortunately, it’s the education.”
Indeed, potential attendees often must choose among competing professional opportunities; then they must weigh the best option against the challenge of time away from work and family. That doesn’t mean, however, that planners need to give up hope of hosting a successful, well-attended conference. There are plenty of ways to increase attendance at your company or association event. “It’s about giving them reasons to justify being out of the office,” Curtis says. “As many of those as we can do in one timeframe, the better.”
Here are four tips for getting more people through the door.
Market the Event Effectively
This one might sound obvious, but too often organizations do a poor job of selling their event. “We need to think more deliberately about marketing,” says Aaron Wolowiec, founder of Event Garde, a Grand Rapids consulting company. “What our members are demanding these days is proof that attending your meeting is going to give them something they didn’t already have.”
At many associations, Wolowiec notes, the planner must wear many hats, overseeing everything from logistics to networking to special dietary needs. When marketing is added to the list, it can become just one more task to check off. And given that planners often aren’t trained as marketers, that task isn’t always expertly executed.
“It’s not enough anymore to say attendees will walk away with five CEUs,” Wolowiec says. “We need to identify and measure outcomes, and then market those outcomes to attendees. Measure their success level and use those metrics to market next year’s conference to past and new attendees.”
Effective marketing can help busy attendees plan better, too, Curtis says. Conference planners need to make event details available as far in advance as possible so that potential attendees can lock in the time. And if they can choose a venue or destination that attendees will want to explore, either for fun or for work, even better.
Foster Personal Connections
Attendees want to connect with each other, and smart planners make sure they do. “Because our membership is about half suppliers as well as planners, for them the networking is just as important as the education,” Curtis says. “They want to be able to talk to each other. Usually we have a structured activity to get things rolling—a sporting event, a team-building activity.” Wolowiec notes that event attendance and organization membership are strongly correlated, and the relationship between the two should be better leveraged. “An annual conference is such a large member benefit,” he says. “Often if that’s the only thing you do, it’s still worth being a member to get the discounted rate. Then you can plug members into other avenues of the association to encourage their long-time commitment and loyalty.”
The association should have a membership booth at its expo, he says. He’s recently seen membership years on attendee nametags so that staff and board members can thank members for belonging or approach nonmembers and ask what would motivate them to join.
Focus on Learning
Attendees’ desire to connect should feed into a conference’s educational programming, too, Curtis says. Learning sessions have become more collaborative and focused on facilitating attendees’ sharing with each other.
“We have so much knowledge in our membership base, they almost want to hear more from each other than from some person from California with a big name who doesn’t know what’s going on in our state,” Curtis says. “You still have those experts in the field you want to hear from, but it’s more about collaboration.” That can mean roundtable discussions or surveying attendees before the conference regarding key industry topics, and then discussing the results in breakout sessions.
“I think people just don’t want to be lectured to; they want to be interactive and feel they’re part of the program,” she adds. “Learning from each other is really important right now. Everyone feels like they’re in it together.”
Wolowiec agrees that conferences need to move away from lecture-heavy presentations. “You can’t have talking-head education anymore,” Wolowiec says. “It’s not going to deliver the quality of education people are looking for.”
Here, again, planners’ multiple roles can be a hindrance. Few planners are trained in educational theory or know much about how people learn most effectively. “The brain needs to learn in a certain way to retain and apply new information,” Wolowiec says. “The question is, whose responsibility is it to know this? If we’re going to offer education, we need to understand the learning process.
“The learning brain requires repetition, practice and periodic reassessment,” he adds. “While you’re identifying learning outcomes, maybe attendees have it for a nanosecond, but in terms of actually learning it and being able to retrieve it in the moment that it’s offered in the workplace, we’re failing.”
For the upcoming American Society of Association Executives’ Great Ideas Conference, to be held in March in Orlando, the ASAE Professional Development Section Council, of which Wolowiec is a member, curated a selection of presentations, identifying top speakers, forward-thinking topics and innovative formats. Each session will be presented in a different format, based on the latest research on how people learn. The goal, Wolowiec says, is to both offer an effective learning experience and offer attendees fresh format ideas that they can take back to their own associations.
“There’s a lot of reason to believe the classic call for presentations is about to expire,” Wolowiec says. “What associations are finally realizing is that what they’re getting back is what they’ve always gotten.
“Within 30 days of any education program, unless you’ve [been taught] correctly, you’ve lost 90 percent of the content from the session,” he adds. “People just aren’t walking away with it. You can’t market value if there is no value to be had.”
Make it Family-Friendly
If your attendees hail from Generations X or Y, making your conference family friendly can help close the deal. “I hear from mothers and fathers all the time who say, ‘I didn’t go to that conference because I have a young child,’” says Lisa Bower, owner of Plus One Meetings, which creates experiences for children traveling with parents and other caregivers for trainings, conferences and other business meetings. “But as the planner, you don’t hear from people who don’t choose to register. It’s incumbent on associations to really make an extra effort to demonstrate they’re dedicated to the needs of working parents, especially working women.
“If your event is being held in a venue or a location that could be attractive to families, that really makes the event more appealing,” she adds. “It’s really astonishing how much vacation Americans leave on the table. So if you can tack vacation on to a work experience, that can make it easier.”
Being family-friendly, though, is about more than offering child care, she says. “If you look at Gen X and Gen Y, they have completely different perspectives about relationships between work and family,” she says. “I’ve spoken to a lot of associations that say to me, ‘We offer child care, but not many people take advantage of it.’ It’s because they’re treating child care as a solution to a problem. As a mother of four, knowing there’s child care at an event is not attractive—that means I’m dumping them somewhere while I’m doing other things. If you want people to truly focus on the agenda, you need to create an attractive experience for their kids so they know their kids are truly enjoying themselves.”
Bower says family-friendly events can also enhance networking opportunities an advantage that is often overlooked. “There’s still this old boys’ club belief that the only way good networking happens is on the golf course or by getting drunk until two in the morning,” she says. “That’s just not the case. When you’re connecting with other adults over having kids, you’re getting to know each other on a very personal level. But that’s sort of a new way of thinking.”