ASAE Gambles on a Bold Pricing Model

Author: Michelle Russell       

John Graham speaking at the Opening General Session.

When ASAE President & CEO John Graham, FASAE, CAE, announced a bold, new registration-payment model for next year’s Experience Design Project (XDP) event during the Opening General Session of ASAE’s Annual Meeting in Chicago this past Sunday, the audience of around 6,000 attendees erupted in applause.

“If you register in advance, you pay nothing now,” Graham said. “And after you attend the event in April, you pay us only what you think the event was worth.”

It’s the latest round of tinkering on an event that has been reimagined over the past few years. ASAE sunsetted its 40-year-long Springtime Expo in 2016 to make way for the new XDP, which launched in 2017. Before the event, Graham had described XDP as “a game-changer for the association meeting industry.” While XDP was meant to reflect the evolving role of event planner to experience designer, registration numbers — compared to 1,400 attendees at Springtime 2016 — did not meet expectations, and they fell off a bit more this year. “In order to boost attendance” in 2019, Graham explained on Monday at a press conference, “we’re providing an incentive for people to sign up. They can register for free and can pay afterwards, depending on how much value they got out of the event.” XDP 2019 will be held April 11–12 at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center.

Registration fees for Springtime, Graham said at the press conference, had been less than $100. According to the event website, registration for the two-day XDP had been set at $195 for an association professional. It seems to be a completely new model for event planners, although many are used to paying nothing to attend certain industry events via the hosted-buyer model. But there are no strings attached with this offer — i.e., they are not required to meet with vendors in exchange for a complimentary registration.

The “pay-as-you-wish” registration model is also a new concept for associations, although the College Art Association offered a flexible payment plan for day passes at its Annual Conference this year in February in Los Angeles. From the description of the offer, however, attendees were not given the option to decide how much to pay after they attended the event and thought about how much value they had gotten out of it.

It’s certainly not without risks, but as Graham said, “Focusing on your success sometimes means that ASAE will take risks and experiment so you don’t have to. Helping you deal with a rapidly changing association events industry is exactly why,” he said, that ASAE launched XDP in 2017.

Drawing a Parallel
In recent years in the restaurant industry, Panera has experimented with a similar business approach but for entirely different reasons — opening  “pay-what-you-can-afford” restaurants to serve homeless and food-insecure populations. Unfortunately, four out of five of those locations have closed after several years of service. An article in Fast Company attributed those closings to the fact that actual consumer behavior didn’t bear out the notion “that customers who could pay more would subsidize those who needed free or discounted food.” 

In a way, ASAE is also betting on people’s better nature — that attendees will feel compelled to pay ASAE how much they think their experience was worth, after the fact. 

The initiative certainly demonstrates ASAE’s flexibility and willingness to take risks, including financial ones — up to a point. When a fellow trade journalist asked Graham at the press conference whether he would consider extending the  “pay-what-you-think-it’s-worth” registration plan to its next Annual Meeting, Graham didn’t hesitate. “No,” he said, laughing. “Not at all.”