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How to Create a Can’t-Miss Event

Changemaker Heidi Henning did just that for the National Association of Realtors—and during the pandemic, no less.

MeetingsNet’s 2022 Changemakers list recognizes outstanding meeting professionals for their efforts to move their organizations and the industry forward in unique and positive ways. Find the full 2022 Changemakers list here. 

Heidi Henning

Vice President, Meetings, Sales, and Events, National Association of Realtors

For bringing big changes to her association’s annual meeting that made both first-time and longtime attendees feel like it’s
a “can’t miss” event

As the association community comes out of the Covid pandemic with a desire—and a financial need—to have their annual meetings be essential to their members, things will have to be different than before.

Heidi Henning, vice president of meetings, sales, and events for the National Association of Realtors, recognized this early in the pandemic and pushed her leadership to support significant alterations to NAR’s annual meeting that she and her event team felt would help secure the association’s future. Using data to make the case for each change, Henning got the go-ahead from her bosses—and the degree of improvement to the event experience became clear from attendee and exhibitor surveys conducted after the November 2021 meeting, the first in-person NAR gathering in two years.

For that 10,000-person event in San Diego, Henning strengthened the quality of the first-time-attendee program so that the roughly 3,000 newcomers would be knowledgeable and comfortable right from the start. First, committee members wrote personalized emails to new attendees so they would have at least one point of contact before the show. Then, a kickoff event for them on the morning of day one included an expo-floor tour with explanations of the different areas. And at the opening reception, there was a newcomers’ meeting spot, which made it less intimidating to start up conversations.

“It’s really easy to get overwhelmed at an event this large, with so much going on,” Henning notes. “We made sure to do several things to make first-timers feel welcome and able to get the most out of every experience.”

One major redesign for 2021 was dropping the final-night party, which had typically featured an A-list musical performer. Henning moved the party to the opening night and revamped the focus. “Too many people were leaving town before the closing reception, and the people who did attend couldn’t network all that much because of the concert,” Henning says. “We turned it into an opportunity for people to connect and then be able to deepen those new relationships over the remainder of the show.” With carnival-style games as well as activities that promoted interaction, “a lot of people said it was their favorite part of the whole meeting.” In fact, the average attendee-satisfaction ratings for the party went from 3.03 (out of 5) in 2019 to 4.31 in 2021.

And to improve the experience of more than 1,000 longtime attendees, Henning rejiggered the conference schedule so that the association’s committee and governance meetings did not conflict with the general session each morning. With Olympian Simone Biles and pro quarterback Drew Brees as featured speakers and the association’s “Good Neighbor” social-responsibility awards presented during those sessions, committee members welcomed the revised schedule. “They are at the meeting to learn and be inspired just like other attendees,” Henning says.

Overall, the changes brought tangible results: Attendee satisfaction for networking during the event rose from 3.97 (out of 5) in 2019 to 4.26 in 2021, while the value of the expo rose from 3.83 in 2019 to 4.16 in 2021.

What’s Next?

A name change for the event itself, from NAR Realtors Conference & Expo to NAR NXT, The Realtor Experience. “The old name told you what you needed to know but didn’t reflect the experience you’ll have on site,” Henning says. “With all the retooling we’ve done to the activities so that they bring more value, we wanted to make sure the name makes it clear: This conference is going to bring value to your business and your career.” And to make sure the new name gets traction quickly, the association changed the annual event’s internet address to NARNXT.Realtor.

Moving Executives Towards Change

“Getting leadership buy-in from the beginning is super important; your leaders have to know that the changes you’re proposing are member-driven rather than staff-driven,” Henning notes. “Besides our post-event data from the past few years, we had good information from focus groups we did with attendees of the 2019 conference plus focus groups we did with members who didn’t attend. Then, we presented to our leadership: ‘This is what we’ve heard from members, and that’s how the ideas we’re proposing came to be. What are your thoughts on how we can move forward?’”

View the full list of 2022 Changemakers

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