American Institute of Architects Convention Becomes Better by Design

Author: Nichole Bernier       

American Institute of Architects

Attendees soak up a session at the American Institute of Architects’ annual convention at the Javits Center in New York City. The reinvented meeting included trips to the New School, Radio City Music Hall, and St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

When the American Institute of Architects (AIA) set out to transform its annual convention, it wasn’t because attendance was down or revenues were waning. By all accounts, the 17,000 or so annual attendees were enjoying it just fine — as they had for more than 150 years, when the then newly formed association wrote annual meetings right into its bylaws. Problem was, something rolling along just fine for more than a century doesn’t exactly suggest innovation. Especially when the world’s leading architectural organization — representing the professionals who reimagine the structures we inhabit — was supposed to be at the forefront of it.

“The annual conference was a good solid performer, but a pretty conventional show — mostly male, mostly white, mostly older, with many exclusive events,” said Kathron Compton, AIA’s senior vice president for brand and engagement. “It felt typical of every conference I’d ever attended.”

Compton joined AIA in 2012, just three days before AIA’s annual convention, which gave her the opportunity to observe it from a newcomer’s perspective. “It was eye-opening,” she said. “We needed a younger, more diverse audience, and more architects. If you look at the penetration for membership and licensed architects, it was only about five percent, and that’s just not a great number.”

The route to reinvention would involve a five-year strategic initiative to examine where AIA stood and position it for the future. But the critical first step was getting everyone to agree it was necessary.

“A lot of the feedback when we first presented our idea to the members was, ‘It’s not broke, why fix it?’” Compton said. But, she added, the event was just maintaining itself, and “with an average age of 63, it wouldn’t be sustainable in the long term. We wanted that conference to be the most compelling live event that any architect anywhere at any level of their career would find really attractive.”

Fast forward to the 2018 AIA National Convention and Design Exposition — freshly renamed the AIA Conference on Architecture, or A’18 — held June 21–23 at the Javits Center in New York. It was the big reveal for phase one of the reinvention, which will culminate in 2020. The goal had been to attract 8,000 licensed, practicing architects to the show. It pulled 9,825 — representing an 11-percent membership penetration, and more than doubling its previous five-percent reach — and a total of 26,000 registrants.

Back to the Drawing Board

The partner in AIA’s reboot was 360 Live Media, a full-service marketing and experience design agency. Compton had met 360 Live Media founder Don Neal while at her previous organization, which had been considering a reinvention. Although that group didn’t end up taking the leap, 360 Live Media had made an impression on her, and when AIA began considering serious change in 2013, she reached out to Neal.

In any organization, there are red flags when it is slacking or needs a reinvention, Neal said. A conference might be seeing static or declining attendance, capturing just a small percentage of its membership, or find that a new or growing commercial event is poaching attendees, exhibitors, and sponsors. In truth, AIA had been feeling the pinch from the 2008 recession, and more recently, from booming shows in design and construction like GreenBuild. But in the end, these are just visible symptoms of the same core problem: an organization not reaching its potential.

“Architects are a unique breed. They need it to be solid and fresh, so we started thinking broadly about how we could amp it up a bit,” said Christopher Gribbs, AIA’s managing director for conference strategy and operations. “We needed to look outside our box and see the convention as a live experience centered around architecture and the power of design — not around the association itself.”

AIA received an initial allocation of $500,000 from its board to begin the five-year transformation, and continued funding came from a reallocation of the annual conference budget. The process began with surveys and conversations with its members, but also among peers and leaders in the profession. “Our members and peers told us they wanted AIA to be modern, bold, be a leader, and passionately represent the profession,” Compton said. “Taking a good look at the conference, one of our most visible manifestations of who we are, was a natural outgrowth of that.”

Neal offered members a 20-question “self-evaluation,” written by 360 Live Media and featuring questions about AIA. The respondents scored the results themselves on a scale of 1-100. The form invited members to rate the association’s success according to statements such as, “We are relevant to the next generation of members and are attracting them to our event,” and, “We have identified the optimal audience and know the ‘market share’ that attends our event.”

“Most people in an organization score themselves in the C or C- range,” Neal said. “This is the best canary in the coal mine.” Neal uses this construct to represent the metrics of success, which he calls the six Rs: reach, retention, relevance, reputation, revenue, and ROI. If you can secure both reach and relevance, then the others will follow, Neal said.

“When we started, in order to expand the impact of architecture in America, we needed to reach a larger percentage of architects. They had a relatively low market share of architects attending the conference,” he said. “To really influence the profession, you need to bring the ecosystem together — students, unlicensed and licensed architects, small- and large-firm practitioners. The vision was to increase the reach, and to reach more people, you had to be more relevant.”

‘A High Level of Sameness’

As part of its relevance evaluation, AIA invited 360 Live Media to its 2013 convention. After observing vendors and traffic flow and interviewing attendees, Neal’s team came back with a thorough post-show report, and Gribbs said they nailed its Achilles’ heel. “They told us it was a really good show with a high level of sameness. They said, ‘You really know how to operate this show the same as it’s always been, and though you do it well, it’s, well, the same.’”

The “sameness” represented all they wanted to shake up. The question was what, and how. In any analysis of an organization’s robustness, Neal said, you need to quantify the current state, then get the constituents and stakeholders to define what you want for a future state. Through the process of audience segmentation, AIA would be able to examine the profile of attendees who come to the conference, then conduct a gap analysis to determine who’s missing.

“You have to study your core audience and find the positive deviation — people who are outliers who don’t come in large numbers,” Neal said. “We learned about them through in-depth interviews and strategy sessions, and talked to people at the event about why they come, to find out their motivations and intentions.”

To determine the future state for AIA, they had to look through the prism of the whole industry — not just architects, but many peripheral professionals that add value at the conference. This meant including apprentices and students, landscape architects, sustainability practitioners, and products and services at the outer edge of innovation to feed the commercial side of the expo. To better envision the target demographics and their priorities, the team came up with about 15 archetype personas. Among them: Old Faithful is someone who comes every year, no matter what. The Emerging New Professionals are getting their feet wet and looking for guidance. The Techies are most interested in cutting-edge bells and whistles in the industry. The Success Seeker is mid-management at an architectural firm, really looking to improve and reaching for role models.

“We looked at how their demographics might vary, and how their behavior and desires will set them apart in what they’re looking for and how they act,” Gribbs said. “It made us look at how we craft a conference, and then communicate to each of these personas.”

A Change in the Layout

Within the structure of any event, there are four dimensions, according to Neal. Each one can be examined from the point of view of each persona, and can illustrate the areas where change is needed: the physical aspect of the event itself (the “chassis” of venue, location, and traffic flow); the physiological (what human needs are being taken into consideration, such as food, sleep, caffeine, distance to move around the show, etc.); emotional (the vibrancy of an event that will be attractive and comfortable even for introverts); and the intellectual (people come to learn, so energize them for optimal learning).

Using these metrics, a few areas of concern stood out in 360 Live Media’s assessment: educational content, educational delivery style, and off-site activities.

“We identified that there should be more of a connection between the general session and breakouts,” Neal said. “What are the macro issues architects care about? Resilience? Sustainability?” The large general session, he said, can be used to create the curriculum for the breakouts, which can dismantle into smaller roll-up-your-sleeve discussion groups around issues that are more granular. “And the delivery needs to be less didactic,” he said, “less ‘sage on the stage,’ with more engagement, even provocation and controversy.”

To wring the sameness out of the programming and personalize the education experience, they used what they heard from members’ and attendees’ interviews to create the most compelling, in-demand sessions. A’18’s programming included more than 785 activities — and the trade-show floor counted as just one — with a dizzying range of breakouts, including sustainable urban housing, energy efficiency, accessibility, mitigating biodiversity loss, landfill reclamation, and floodproofing. (“It’s not as cut & dry as you think,” according to the program description.)

There were too many concurrent sessions to be contained in the Javits Center, already maxed out by the expo floor, so attendees were shuttled around the city: to six buildings at the New School, to Radio City Music Hall for the keynote, and St. Patrick’s Cathedral for a ceremony. “There were huge rental fees like we’ve never experienced before,” says Gribbs. “We had things all over town, and it was fabulous.”

The tours were a popular part of the agenda, with more than 200 sold-out itineraries making the metropolitan area AIA’s playground of experiential learning. A tour of new high schools was spot on for architects and builders who work in educational environments; the newly renovated lion house at the Central Park Zoo for those engaged in animal habitats. A trip to Philip Johnson’s Glass House in bucolic New Canaan, Connecticut, launched a discussion about the early use of industrial materials like glass and steel in home design, and the challenge to preserve modernist icons. And a boat/walking tour of Brooklyn’s waterfront neighborhoods that had been decimated by Superstorm Sandy and then reconstructed, served as an example of post-disaster resilience. A movie theater in Chelsea was rented to show feature films related to architecture, open not only to attendees, but also to the general public.

The only potential downside of so much traveling offsite is that attendees do tend to peel off and do their own thing. “So the key is getting them reeled back into the program,” Gribbs said. “But there’s so much going on here they want to get back and not miss out.”

The evening social agenda differed from past years, when small VIP parties and other invitation-only gatherings were the cornerstone of conference nightlife. “In the past, it was a lonely experience for a lot of people because there were a lot of exclusive events,” Compton said.

This year’s entertainment priority was finding a way to host one gigantic party everyone could attend. So AIA rented Manhattan Center’s Hammerstein Ballroom and booked R&B/pop vocal group En Vogue for the main stage. “We created an all-attendee party, a fun evening out that’s completely inclusive,” Gribbs said, “in a way we’ve never had it.”

Beyond the Veneer

For AIA’s future annual events, Las Vegas shimmers on the horizon for 2019, and Los Angeles in 2020. The shows, of course, are going to be quite different from A’18 — the cities are very different architectural fishbowls. But attendee personalization and engagement will play to the same principles: broadening the conference’s appeal and relevance to a more diverse audience.

“We’ve done a lot of the cosmetic things, and it’s an amazing-looking conference, really beautiful, top notch. Now I would really like to see us make significant headway in the number of women and people of color,” Compton said. AIA has expanded the first-timer program for new attendees, shortened the expo portion of the conference, lowered the average age from 63 to 50, and given incentives to students in the profession. “We’ve made some headway in diversity, but we need more,” she said. “It’s not just a five-year plan.”

American Institute of Architects Info

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