Imagine an association that has built its conference or conference series into an annual powerhouse.
Members count on strong educational programs and intensive professional networking to keep them up to date on the latest trends and topics. Employers willingly pay registration fees and travel costs because they see the events as an essential investment, not an optional cost. Exhibitors and sponsors step up year after year because they understand the benefit of supporting such a dynamic community. Everyone gains, so the conference is largely insulated from the ups and downs of a shaky economy.
We know several associations and conferences that fit the description, and they’re a glorious sight (often meeting at glorious sites) to behold.
But for many other organizations, the tough question is how to get from here to there.
Getting Participants to the Table
Conferences work best when three key ingredients - audience, content, and funding - come together in a complete, integrated package. But the audience has to be the first step. If you can get participants to the table and keep them there, you have a far better chance of putting all the other elements in place.
The most effective associations treat audience promotion as a permanent campaign. Gone are the days - if there ever was a day - when organizations could promote their conferences for two or three months, then bask in the glow of a well-attended event.
Today’s participants plan their calendars and budgets far in advance, and many of them may want to attend virtually rather than going onsite. So the two to four weeks after an annual conference are not too soon to send out a Save the Date announcement for next year: Ideally, you should have announced next year’s dates and location while this year’s participants were onsite.
Giving Participants What Matters Most
Conferences are all about conversations and relationships, but they boil down to a basic transaction: Participants commit their time, money, and days away from home when they get what they need in return.
But how will you know what your participants need and want if you don’t ask?
We’ve talked about the value of regular membership surveys, but it’s especially important to probe the strengths and weaknesses of your conference. Meeting organizers are gradually moving beyond generic “smile sheets” that ask deep, probing questions about whether the room was cold enough or the coffee hot enough, but some associations are still learning how to gather the right information to keep on improving and delivering outstanding results.
The Investment to Match the Return
Regular contact - before, during, and after a conference - is also the gateway to strong, long-lasting relationships with exhibitors and sponsors. If you want funders to treat your organization as a strategic partner, you have to demonstrate that you appreciate them as a member of your community—not just as a source of cash. That means nurturing the partnership all year round, so that both parties get the breakthrough value they need and want.
Building the Powerhouse
It takes all three of the key ingredients to build a conference powerhouse. But the most effective associations are living proof that it can be done. By bringing the right tone to all your relationships, you can turn your conference or conference series into a huge source of value for your members, sponsors, and exhibitors.