Throwing a truly spectacular event can be an enormous boon to your association. However, it’s a lot of work.
Whether your association has never thrown an event, or you’ve hosted dozens and are hoping to take it to the next level, events require planning. This is not something that can be haphazardly thrown together at the last minute.
Meredith Taylor has a lot of experience with association events. She’s an account executive at the association management company Kellen. She’s also currently the executive director of the College Media Association and in the recent past served as the executive director of Association Media and Publishing. She’s thrown events ranging from a few dozen attendees to thousands, from luncheons to multi-day conferences.
She shared advice with Walsworth about what it takes to throw an amazing association event.
Finding the Right Event for Your Association
To plan the perfect event, you need to know what type of event it will be.
“Which is a lot to coordinate, a lot of speakers, and a lot of the events also include some sort of tradeshow component,” she said.
She’s also hosted smaller events, such as Association Media and Publishing’s Lunch and Learn series.
“Those are a little bit more intimate. Sometimes a little bit more discussion based,” she said. “There’s still a lot to plan, a lot to coordinate. You still want the content to be as high quality as if it were a giant convention with a lot of people.”
There’s a lot of planning to do for both, although larger events require more work. No matter the event, communicate to the attendees what they’re in for and what you have to offer before the event. And don’t be afraid to use them as a resource.
“Listen to your members. Listen to what they want. Ask them,” said Taylor. “You don’t create an event in a vacuum, you need people to come. So why not ask them to contribute ideas?”
You could ask association members to recommend speakers, or even serve as speaker liaisons or coordinators.
“Getting them involved just makes them more invested in the final product. And make sure that your final product is something that appeals to the members, because the members need to tell you that.”
You need to know what’s right for your organization. Because Taylor is not a member of the associations she works with, she spends a lot of time communicating with association leadership to understand the industry and what members want. This will change from industry to industry and even from year to year.
To really understand the membership, you need to rely on those members to tell you what they want. Are you starting to sense a theme?
The planning stage can be stressful, but Taylor said there are ways to make it enjoyable for everyone on the planning committee.
“If it’s a new client, or an event that I haven’t run before, having a really serious conversation at the beginning about timelines, expectations and roles and responsibilities just makes it easier in the long run.”
Putting a successful conference event together is a team effort. Everyone needs to be on the same page for it to work.
Taylor suggests laying out areas of responsibility. For example, put one person or group in charge of ordering food and beverage, another in charge of the trade show, and another in charge of logistics.
“Taking that step to coordinate all that and making sure everybody knows what they’re in charge of just makes it a better experience for everyone because then you’re not stepping on someone’s toes or no ball is getting dropped.”
When you start planning should depend upon the size of the event. Taylor’s College Media Association events are multi-day conventions with nearly 2,000 attendees. She starts planning for these about three years in advance, “so we know where it’s going to be and we know what the meeting space is going to look like, just because we need so much.”
Smaller events require much less planning. For a luncheon or day-long event that doesn’t require travel, Taylor recommends starting the planning process at least three months before the event. This allows two months to plan and one month to promote the event.
“For me, it’s all about the attendee experience,” said Taylor.
This can be improved year over year by listening to feedback. Send out surveys at the end of the event, then use that feedback!
With every single survey you send out, for any event, include a question asking what other topics they’d like to hear about.
“That is gold. That’s so valuable, to know what will get people excited to come back.”
Was it worth it to them to be away from office and families for a few days?
“You really want them to feel like the content is something that helps them in their jobs,” Taylor warned. “That’s not always a given.”
Surveys will give you an idea of this, as well as the number of attendees from year to year.
People sometimes feel like they could have found the content offered at the event online instead. Taylor has fielded questions about whether webinars are replacing live events.
“In some ways, they are. People can get content from free sources or online sources, and that’s super valuable. It allows people to get education a little more easily and without travel, which is a good thing,” she said.
However, some parts of live events just can’t be replaced. Face-to-face networking is a valuable part of events that can’t happen in webinars, so allow time for that, too!
“Even though events may change in the future, I don’t think that they’ll ever completely go away because being with your peers and your industry colleagues, whether it’s once a year or once a month, makes you better at your job because you are making the connections that make you a better professional.”
The best way to ensure valuable content is to listen to what association members want to learn.
For Taylor, “attendee experience” includes vendor attendees. She works to ensure exhibitors are meeting with the right people and that it was worth their time and travel to come.
The main thing you should take away from this is: listen to your members. They’ll let you know what you’re doing right, what you’ll doing wrong, and what they’d like to see in the future.