Courtney Mesmer, CMP, DES, CED
Vice President, Events
For implementing a wave of changes to her association’s annual meeting that quickly reinvigorated the attendee and exhibitor experience
Here’s a neat trick: changing the name of your association’s annual meeting exactly two months before it takes place. While that surely is not a recommended course of action, Courtney Mesmer made it work for WorldatWork last year. In fact, her decision to do that in April 2022—just weeks after coming into the organization as vice president of events—was a springboard for a host of other changes to the meeting’s 68th edition, which happened this June for more than 2,000 attendees, a 50-percent increase from 2022.
Known from 1955 to 2003 as the American Compensation Association, WorldatWork’s members are human-resources executives who oversee compensation, benefits, and career-development. Because the association espouses the philosophy of “total rewards”—and used to call its annual event exactly that—Mesmer convinced her executives to change the event’s name from WorldatWork Annual Conference to Rewards 2022, which required a new logo, signage, and other collateral materials on very short notice. “We saw a strong uptick in registration plus exhibit and sponsorship sales” in the final month before the conference, she says. And this year, the event name came full circle: Total Rewards 2023. “That’s the phrase that resonates most with our members, and it’s made a difference in their perception of the meeting.”
That was only the first of many changes for the latest edition of the conference, for which Mesmer had a full year to strategize. The biggest change: The exhibit hall has become the Connection Zone, a hub for content, peer interaction, personal-improvement activations, and exhibitor engagement. “If our attendees are going to transform their employees’ experiences, we need to demonstrate transformation to them,” Mesmer says of the new format.
She began by moving each day’s general sessions from a ballroom to a stage located at one end of the exhibit hall, with various seating configurations to accommodate personal preferences. There is soft seating in the first few rows, with theater-style seating for several rows behind that; eight-person rounds behind the theater-style rows; highboy seats around cocktail tables in the back of the space; and on the periphery are more couches and soft chairs. And to account for the high ceilings of the hall, Mesmer brought in a sound system typically used for outdoor events.
Further, the stage has been lowered to strengthen audience connection, while podiums and panel seating are more informal. “The knowledge gap has shrunk between presenters and the audience, so we want our speakers to literally be on the same level as attendees,” Mesmer says. “We also want them to be wisdom providers and ‘sense makers’ who are telling insightful stories rather than simply providing data and information that people can find online.”
To ensure that, Mesmer developed a speaker-readiness strategy where “we conduct webinars led by presentation consultants to teach learning-design principles and coach speakers how to deliver insight. We also provide designated office hours with a coach to have presenters think differently about engagement strategies other than just using polls.”
Another experience enhancer is a new consultation program for attendees, where they get one-on-one time with experts on creating a better resume as well as building a personal brand through LinkedIn and other social-media channels. This program is set in an area called the Empowerment Zone, which also features personal-wellness stations for attendees to enjoy while learning self-care tactics to use at home and at work.
And to demonstrate the benefits of these activations and deliver serendipitous peer-to-peer learning, Mesmer partnered with tech provider WallsIO to synthesize the event’s multiple social-media feeds onto large screens around the show floor so that participants can take in colleagues’ observations in real time.
“All of these elements enhance our value to attendees,” Mesmer notes. However, “taking on that much change is hard, especially when you don’t really know what the outcome will be.” To get teammates on board, she says that “you have to bring them through the process by being clear: ‘Here is why we are doing this, and these are the results we are going for.’ Then, just trust yourselves and push through.”