As planners deal with unpredictable attendance numbers and rapidly shifting technologies, many organizations are confronting the need to reevaluate their face-to-face meetings. However, an internal evaluation isn't always productive. At the PCMA Medical Meetings Think Tank, held November 13 - 14 in Detroit, participants heard a success story of looking for outside help in the planning process.
The Optometry's Meeting, an annual event held by the American Optometric Associationand the American Optometric Student Association, typically welcomes 6,000 - 7,000 attendees, but those numbers were declining.
"We knew we needed to change something," Lori Lee, director, meetings center, American Optometric Association, says. "We just didn't know that that 'something' was or how to make it different."
An Unbiased and Unrestricted Opinion
For assistance, Lee turned to Dan Sundt at Michigan-based CXO Marketing, an organization that helps many associations evaluate their programs.
"The benefit of a third party perspective is clear," Sundt says. "We have no skin in the game. We're only looking to improve the performance of the event for all the stakeholders, so we can be completely objective."
That perspective paves the way toward an approach that will challenge plenty of internal beliefs.
"We don't have any organizational Sacred Cows," Sundt says. "There's nothing that holds us back from critiquing particular elements or preserving something because 'that's the way we've always done it.' "
The way the AOA had always done it started well before attendees arrived on-site.
Like many associations, the AOA had been creating bullet-point advertisements for their monthly newspaper that simply listed why readers should attend the meeting. While listing specific benefits may seem like a clear-cut way to motivate attendees, Lee says that CXO helped create new print ads that helped reinvigorate themeeting marketing campaign.
Sundt and CXO helped the AOA transform its straightforward advertising approach into a campaign with headlines tied to topics that seemed outside the realm of the optometry profession. From Leonardo DaVinci to a 19th century British inventor, the left-field approach aimed to awaken attendee curiosity rather than answer questions.
"We'll always help a client articulate the rationale benefits of registering, but we really help clients focus on creating emotional resonance for their prospective attendees," Sundt says.
Lee says that the new approach to marketing increased engagement, motivating more readers to visit the website rather than simply reading an ad.
Appeasing the Veterans, Appealing to First-Timers
"The demographic of our attendees was changing," Lee says.
"We have a set group of people who are very loyal to us, and we were catering to those people that were coming each year," Lee adds. "However, we really wanted to appeal to new members."
Sundt is no stranger to the question of how to balance the old vs. the new. It's a challenge for many medical associations, he says. Still, as they work to attract younger audience members, he says that there are plenty of opportunities to reinvent educational offerings without alienating attendees who may be used to a more traditional talking-head format.
That change can involve something as simple as implementing standards for presenters that will drive more engagement and more interactive learning.
"You can help traditional speakers get better at audience interaction and storytelling for starters," Sundt says.
Talking Heads Transformed
At Optometry's Meeting, some of those speakers became more than storytellers. They followed an approach borrowed from an unlikely model: a sports talk show.
Taking a cue from ESPN's Pardon the Interruption, Optometry's Meeting unveiled Pardon the Objection, a rapid-fire panel session where each speaker had seven minutes to talk. Other panelists were allowed to interrupt to add comments or debate controversial topics. While each panelist spoke, a countdown clock and a preview of the upcoming topics kept attendees in tune with what was coming up next.
The Hang Out
Outside of revamping the educational programming, Lee wanted to transform the association area in the exhibit hall. Using lounge furniture and an atmosphere built to inspire conversations, what used to be a traditional association space became the new AOA Central - and it was a smashing success.
"We created a space where people actually wanted to be," Lee says.
Sundt says that he has other clients currently experimenting with additional ways to turn the exhibit hall into a place where people can simply gather without a clear purpose. In one case, he says the organization is asking exhibitors to follow suit and leave their traditional show architecture at home.
"The more time you can get people to linger, the more of a return you'll see," Sundt says.
Was it a success? Yes. 2012 marked the highest number of attendees at the Optometry's Meeting in six years. However, , Lee can't definitively say that the changes will mean the same numbers each year."
"Because our location changes each year, we don't have the historical data yet to be able to attribute our increase in attendance specifically to the improvements we made," Lee says.
However, there are key signals that indicate those improvements will continue to have an impact in the future. Lee says that attendees consumed the most education in the meeting's 115-year history last year, and attendee evaluations included rave reviews on the program enhancements.
What Would It Mean for Your Meeting?
The process of reinventing a meeting will take multiple months, a lot of questions and a lot of work. Sundt says that he typically prefers around six weeks to complete a deep discovery phase to learn where the association is, where they want to go, what audiences and stakeholders need and a range of other factors.
"It's a very strategically-focused process, especially in the early stages," Sundt says.
While it may take some time, that process can pay off for organizations that are looking for a new direction."A lot of associations are in the same boat as we were," Lee says. "We don't recognize the potential for change until someone else helps us see it."