At the opening general session of the ASAE Annual Meeting & Expo in Chicago in August 2018, John Graham, the organization’s president and CEO, invited association professionals to mark their calendars for the Xperience Design Project (XDP) — with a bank-account-friendly caveat. “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.”
That made one member of Graham’s team anxious. “I was so nervous when it was announced from the stage,” Amy Ledoux, CMP, CAE, senior vice president, meetings, expositions and events at ASAE, told Convene. “There was an audible gasp in the room. People wanted to know what the catch was.”
There was no catch. Instead, the offer was meant to meet a particular objective. “We wanted to engage more people,” Ledoux said. “Part of getting more people to participate involves eliminating barriers. One of the barriers is simply the process of registering, and another barrier is getting the approval for the expense. We challenged ourselves [and asked], ‘How do we make it so easy for people that it would be ridiculous if they didn’t sign up?’”
Making it easy on attendees meant more work on the back end for the staff. The individuals who wanted to attend XDP expressed interest by responding to a survey question in the ASAE Annual Meeting app with a simple yes or no. Those who did not use the app were able to visit the XDP booth at the event where a team member scanned their badge to confirm interest. ASAE handled the rest of the registration process, verifying emails and inputting information. By the end of the ASAE Annual Meeting, 595 people had registered — eclipsing the 571 executives who had participated in the 2018 XDP event.
“We had no programming, and we already had more people interested,” Ledoux said. “And we had done it without spending tens of thousands of dollars in marketing efforts.”
Building the Program — And More Interest
Getting people to register is one challenge, but Ledoux and the ASAE team and development partners had an arguably bigger hurdle ahead: Encouraging those attendees to stay interested in the event. “It was a question of how to keep people engaged,” Ledoux said. “We shifted our focus to a nurture campaign to connect with the people who had committed to attend by asking their input on content and several other aspects of the event.”
The campaign gave all those registrants a bigger voice in creating the program with regular invitations to hear from them about what they wanted to learn and how the experience could be most beneficial for them. “Normally, you put the content together and go get the attendees,” Ledoux said. “We flipped the model. We already had the attendees, so we had them help us create the content that would matter most to them.”
As they were choosing speakers and adding discussion topics to the program, the ASAE team and event partner 360 Live Media were also working to add more names to the attendee list. The pay-what-you-want offer had an expiration date: After Nov. 30, you had to pay $295 to attend. While not as generous and headline-worthy as the pay-what-you-think-it’s-worth initial offer, Ledoux highlighted that most of ASAE’s one-day programs — XDP delivers two full days of education — cost much more than $295.
“We know that many of our members can only attend one meeting each year,” she said. “So even when we began charging a registration fee, we didn’t want to compete with what people were already attending. We wanted it to be an opportunity to attend in addition to something else on their calendars, as well as allowing other team members from the same organization to attend together.”
More People From More Places
In the end, more than 1,600 attendees came to XDP 2019 at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland, April 11–12, and the number of executives — the figure that matters most to some of ASAE’s business partners — grew significantly. In 2018, 571 executives came to XDP. In 2019, that number increased to just under 1,000, but Ledoux was even more impressed with where they all came from. While the 2018 edition of XDP attracted attendees from 29 states, the 2019 audience included participants from 40 states and eight countries, a good sign as the organization works to shift the event “from a regional event to one with a bigger footprint.”
When the program ended, the organization did not want to immediately ask the pay-what-you-want attendees to think about attaching a dollar sign to their experiences. Ledoux also recognized that some of them might not have a budget to pay anything. So ASAE created a survey and a form designed to “unpack the experience and assign value to it.” It gives respondents a chance to check off individual items that were valuable to them and will help in their own organizations. “The purpose is to make them go through all the activities that were valuable,” Ledoux said. “And the next question spelled out that the experience was valued at $1,000 and had been offered at $295. They could click and fill in any amount.”
At press time, 21 percent of attendees had responded to the survey and invitation to pay from ASAE, and of those attendees, 70 percent had paid something — the majority of whom forked over the suggested $295. Outside of the monetary value, though, Ledoux is more satisfied with the fact that 60 percent of respondents indicated that they plan to change an aspect of their meetings and events as a result from the program — proof that the experience is sending people home with actionable takeaways.
ASAE plans to send a physical mailing and one more electronic invitation to complete the survey for attendees who took advantage of the offer to choose their registration value. The team recognizes that many e-mails get lost in the clutter of overwhelmed inboxes, therefore the combo of e-mail and snail mail is being deployed.
“We’re not going to badger people,” Ledoux said. “The deal was pay what you want, and if you can’t because of budget reasons or value, attendees don’t have to pay us.”
The experiment worked for ASAE because, as Ledoux pointed out, most of the money for XDP does not come from attendee registrations. Instead, the majority of revenue comes from ASAE’s business partners, which include sponsors and exhibitors that want to showcase new innovations to the association executive audience. “The registration revenue is a small portion of our overall revenue for this event,” Ledoux said. “It was a risk, but we also looked at the reward of being able to attract a greater audience. Our business partners wanted more participants, and we delivered.”
That’s an objective for many other event organizers, and Ledoux said that the model can make a big difference in helping organizations connect with new or potential audiences.
“We learned a lot from doing this, and I would recommend a similar strategy to other organizations,” Ledoux said. “If you’re struggling to attract a certain demographic of attendees, what do you have to lose? You can use this as an opportunity to prove to them that the experience is valuable. There is everything to gain and nothing to lose.”
David McMillin is an associate editor at Convene.