The world of associations is vast and varied. It covers everything from organizations targeting a small, niche group of hobbyists to institutions that cater to widespread professions. It’s a unique space to occupy and everyone does it differently.
Kelli Wondra is Exhibits Manager for the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA) in Chicago. She is currently preparing for their annual conference Oct. 7-11.
Walsworth interviewed her as part of our Day in the Life series. We want to shed insight into the day-to-day requirements of successful associations.
Let’s start with the basics. What are some of your main responsibilities as exhibits manager?
I have several. This particular job is both an internal- and an external-facing position. My major responsibility is to create and manage and sell the exhibits program.
We do exhibits for our annual convention, but we also do exhibits for some of our small programs as well – such as the Assembly on Education, the long-term care meeting, and a couple of other products throughout the year.
I organize the space. I am the main contact person for sales, but then I also am the person who is the logistics operator. So, I provide the service kits and all the materials that our vendor partners need access to in order to be set up for the meeting.
On the inside portion, I also organize all of the internal things on behalf of the association to bring the commerce to any given space. Whether it be Los Angeles or New Orleans or wherever we’re going, I’m that person working on the shipping, I’m that person who is working on all of the on-site signage. I assist with the coordination of transportation. I assist with the coordination of security. I’m the main person who is working with the decorator that we hire, our general contractor, to create all of that beautifully branded space that you see every time you walk through the door of a convention.
And then there are other, smaller facets of responsibilities that I have. I work with the AD vendor as well, both on the exhibitor side and then on the show management side.
There are many, many areas that I’m responsible for. The challenge is always making sure that the external and the internal are working harmoniously together so that you have a nice flow of events from the preplanning to the launch to the execution, and then tying it up at the end as well.
How do you begin most work days? When you come into the office or wherever you happen to be, what’s the first thing you normally do?
I usually look at my calendar the night before just to see, “What’s the shape of my day, for the next day?” And then I look at my several to-do lists. I have a couple of different calendars that I look and I merge them together so I can see, color-coded by project and by task type, what my time is going to look like.
Some days are really nice and easy because I look at it and it might be in what everybody else would consider a fallow period. There’s always that month, six weeks after a show where you’re like, “Whoo! My show is done!”
But actually, that’s the time when you’re really ramping it up and you’ve already started your planning for the next fiscal year. That’s your sweet spot because the show is kind of done, and you’ve got all the things that went well or didn’t go so well in your mind. You’re already firmly planning for that next year.
I look at the day to see that. Those are the fun tasks for me, because that’s where you get to do your daydreaming and your big ideas. And then, juxtapose that with some of the other tasks, which are a little more mundane, like a mail merge.
Sometimes they might be a little more mundane or maybe a little tedious, but you look at the day to see how it’s parsed out, in terms of internal/external and then the broad thinking versus, “OK. I have to pay a lot of bills today.”
Every day is very different because it depends on what day of the year and which show you’re in. It’s never boring. Ever.
Do you have a method for prioritizing the order you’ll tackle different tasks each day?
I do, because the world has changed so much in the past few years. As much as I love technology, I’m constantly inundated with phone calls and text messages. Notifications pop up everywhere all the time, and it’s really easy to let yourself get distracted by something that looks like it’s an emergency when it really isn’t.
I like to use the early part of the day, when it’s like 7:00 in the central time zone, and nobody on the West Coast is up yet and people in New York, they’re marching forward with their day. So, from 7:00, 7:30 until about 9:00 it’s really quiet. If I have something that is very exacting – maybe a merge task or business metrics that require intense lookups – I like to do it then because my mind is rested and I find that it’s easy to see things that early in the day.
And then, as the phone calls start to trickle in, I can gauge the needs of external stakeholders with those of the internal stakeholders and address them as quickly as possible. And then by the time I’m getting to the end of the day, I have that free window where everybody’s starting to leave. And then I can go back and think about those larger issues, when I’ve got most of the day’s work behind me.
That’s typically how my day rolls out, but it’s the association world as well, so in between every one of those things is a meeting (laughs).
That’s how I like for it to go. It doesn’t always go that way. I also commute, so there are those times when you’re standing for unforetold moments, waiting for signal clearance because that’s just the way trains are sometimes.
How do you think working for an association is different from other office environments?
It’s not that much different. It depends upon the mission of the association, of course, but it’s really not that much different.
Maybe in terms of challenges and demands, I think in some cases it’s much harder to work in the association world. That’s because I think people who commit to association work have it in their core, they’re kind of driven by that mission-based objective. It’s easy to go out into the wide world, the wide working world, and say, “Hey, I’m going to go to work for this bank or this agency,” and get caught up into a nine-to-five routine.
Once upon a time I worked in a Wall Street company. You get into these microenvironments where you sort of lose touch with the rest of the world. Your mission is about making that particular agency or that company lucrative. So sometimes that more obvious economic goal kind of suffuses everything that’s mission-driven about the company.
In that sense, it’s very different. I come to work here and we’re looking at how to make health information better, make it more accurate, make it safer. We’re trying to help improve patient safety and outcomes.
Every day as you take on your tasks, even on the operations side where I’m located – my daily task list may be about moving five skids of boxes from point a to point b, but at the same time I’m doing it in the service of an organization that’s seeking to make healthcare better.
So, it’s always with that mission very clearly highlighted for you. It makes the work better, easier, it’s very different. I appreciate it.
On the surface, the tasks are the same across the spectrum. But, for me, there’s just a different sense of purpose when I come to work here.
Do you have anything cool you’re working on now?
We have an innovation classroom on the exhibit hall floor at our annual convention. We have different stakeholders coming in to do some micro-classes within the context of the exhibit hall.
That’s something new for us. We haven’t done it before. I’m excited about that prospect because there sometimes can be a division when you have larger trade shows. Oftentimes attendees who don’t plan to buy anything won’t go down to the exhibit hall for anything.
We’re a little bit novel in our approach, in that we feel that if there’s educational content to be found we can offer it to our attendees. So, we offer educational content on the exhibit hall floor.
In past years we’ve had the product world theaters and they’re very popular. We thought it would be interesting to add a small innovation classroom. We have a classroom that seats about 50 and we have presentations that will be going on during normal track times. It’s a small, intimate classroom and it will be interesting to see how people will respond to it.
What kinds of projects are you always working on, like when the conference is over and things are a little less busy?
We’re always trying to look ahead. My colleagues and I, the planners on the AHIMA meetings team, we always go back to our own source organizations. We’re trying to see the new things out there, the new technologies that we can bring into the meeting that will help make the experience for the attendee more engaging. Something that’s – not necessarily whimsical or novel – but will grab their attention and keep it for the four or five days they’re on-site.
We’re also looking at ways to make things leaner, make the task easier for ourselves and make it as little work as possible for an attendee to come. We want them to be interested by the meeting, register for it, come have the experience, and think about us for the next year when they leave the meeting site.
We’re constantly planning. We have mini bi-weekly meetings where we talk and share articles we might want to try out. We spend a fair amount of time doing a lot of “what if” thinking – looking at the risks, the ups and the downsides of trying to implement new technologies or maybe just a different way of configuring a classroom.
We don’t want to be just a series of talking heads. We’re looking at how it all impacts expenses and whether it’s realistic.
We do a lot of – I guess you’d call it daydreaming. We get into a conference room with a whiteboard, and make lists, and crazy caricature drawings, and we try to work it out. We vet these ideas with leadership so everyone’s on the same page.
It’s never a down time for us, but that post-meeting time is a great time where you take all of the great knowledge you learned while you were on-site. You run with it, and try to keep it fresh and lively and build something new. For me, that’s the most fun time because that’s when you’ve really connected with your colleagues. You’re talking about content you’ve seen or things you’ve experienced.
That’s what I love doing, the what-ifs and the thinking about how to do it, tweak it. You want to find those little ways of bringing wonder into the educational sessions, getting that spark of curiosity and keeping it fresh throughout.
Do you have any advice for other people working for associations?
Stay curious. Go to other association meetings, go to other meetings. Go to events.
It kind of depends on your work cycle. Those things that you find, when you start a career, that are really new and that you love – sometimes when you get embroiled in your career and you kind of get trapped in that day-to-day slog, it’s hard to see beyond that.
So plan for time every week to get out of your office and do something that gives you a different perspective on your own life and your association’s work. Because if you’re not fresh, then you can’t be bringing fresh ideas back to what you’re doing at the association level.
Also, understand that sometimes you can’t do every single thing in a day. Come to terms with the fact that you can only do so much in one day, so plan accordingly and keep looking forward.
If you or someone you know would like to be interviewed for our Day in the Life association series, please contact Sarah Scott at firstname.lastname@example.org.