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Trendspotting 2018: What Will Drive this Year's Association Meetings?

SmithBucklin’s “20 for 2018” outlines the key trends affecting associations this year—including many that meeting planners should heed.

Loyalty. Education. Content. Attendee experience. According to a report in association management company SmithBucklin’s 15th annual Circuit publication, these will be among the key issues affecting associations this year. 

As I read through them, I thought that all but the last two of the “20 for 2018” trends company has gleaned through its work with associations serving a wide cross-section of industries and professions could have some impact on association meetings and events. Here’s how.

1. Inspiring more loyalty among members. According to a recent McKinley Advisors study, “The Health of Associations in the 21st Century,” associations rank in the bottom quarter behind for-profit organizations when it comes to members being likely to recommend the organization to friends or colleagues. While the report doesn’t specifically mention how meetings can help up the loyalty ante, many of its ideas apply to meetings. For example, the suggestion to ask current loyal members to serve as evangelists could entail inviting them to be special social media ambassadors for your meeting, giving them some added perks for tweeting, writing blog posts, and otherwise amping up the FOMO—fear of missing out—factor. Associations also can encourage more loyalty by tracking what members do at an event so it can tailor future event marketing to specific member interests.

2. Focusing on learning rather than training. Associations are already heading in this direction, developing year-round learning programs that address the “why” rather than one-off training sessions that just teach the “what.”

3. Ramping up the non-dues revenues. This has meetings written all over it, of course. The report goes into several options, from education on the trade show floor—which we’re all seeing more of at both industry events and our own meetings—to sponsored keynote speakers. 

4. Understanding and appealing to Millennials (and Gen Z). Of course, these are your now-and-future attendees, so you have to know what turns them on, and off, and especially what they have in common with older generations, such as having fulfilling work and opportunities to give back. If you don’t already include some sort of corporate social responsibility project or other way to give back to your meeting’s host community, it’s past time to start thinking about what CSR ideas would be fit your participants and your meeting goals. To get you started, here are 9 effective ways to engage Millennials at your events

5. Being a safe harbor during stormy times. Depending on the profession or trade you serve, your participants could be facing changing regulations, mergers and acquisitions, economic upheavals, or other uncertainties. Your meeting is where they all come together to share the pain in a safe place, and explore how to meet the challenges they face. This is one of the most powerful things meetings can provide, and in today’s turbulent times, it’s more essential than ever.

6. Learning to excel at risk management. “Nearly every event planner has a story of an emergency or crisis that had to be managed through,” says Dave Weil, vice president of Event Services at SmithBucklin, in the report. “Some are more serious than others, obviously, but regardless of the threat posed, it’s the pre-event planning that can matter most during tense and stressful moments.” The report has a few examples that are well worth checking out. 

7. and 16. Leveraging your members’ collective intelligence to become “the ultimate idea incubator.” While the report focuses more on articles, videos, and other “hard” content, this trend also applies to breakout sessions, keynotes, and other content sharing that happens at events and can be repurposed into more enduring podcasts, videos, articles, etc. And in today’s “fake news” era, people do tend to look to their professional and trade associations for the real skinny on topics in their field. Who better to provide it, after all? This also ties in with #2, as you repurpose content to help provide that continuous stream of vetted, valuable information year-round. And help participants get the most out of the meeting environment by encouraging discussions in and outside of sessions, on the trade show floor, and in off-site activities.

8. Collaborating via technology. While I hope the term the report uses, “collaboratech,” doesn’t catch on, the idea behind it certainly already has. Who doesn’t use chat and team-messaging to coordinate on site, cloud-based documentation apps like Google Docs and Google Sheets to manage tasks in real time, and videoconferencing to get far-flung teams on the same page? 

9. Building on the organization’s mission. The report includes some interesting examples, including how one organization co-sponsored an event with a related association to deliver value neither could provide on their own. Oh, and they both got increased attendance out of the bargain, as well.

10. and 14. Advocating for your industry. There are any number of ways you can use meetings to enhance advocacy, from holding sessions on how to advance causes near and dear to your members through local and federal outreach, to using the meeting itself to draft position statements. One organization mentioned in the report developed an awards program, and invited representatives from that community, along with media and government agencies, to help spread the word about the good work the winners are doing. As the report also says, associations need to be able to back what they’re advocating for with some cold, hard, facts. 

11. Balancing data with experience and intuition. Yes, you are collecting a boatload of data on attendees through meeting apps, registration software, etc., and you absolutely should use it to create experiences that satisfy on every level. But don’t let the data blind you to what you—and your leadership and your members—know from experience and intuition. One example in the report is from the International Baking Industry Exposition, whose winning trade show strategy I wrote about last month.

12. and 17. Accepting that your association is a primary educator. While we’re primed to think that higher education stops at the university, we all know that’s not actually the case. If you offer certifications and designations (and maybe offer workshops and/or exams at your meetings), you’re a primary educational resource for your members. Even if you don’t, chances are they’re getting most of their continuing education through your meetings and other content. But don’t rest on your laurels, either. The report stresses the importance of continually assessing what you offer to ensure that your education remains relevant. 

13. Trying new formats. Think about trying “brain dates." Or look for ways to provide collective experiences that bring people together. This could be through CSR (see #4) or, as the Professional Convention Management Association tried to do but didn’t quite pull off at its annual conference in Nashville this month, try to break a Guinness World Record for the most people forming the shape of a musical instrument. Another possibility the report suggests is using augmented reality on the trade show floor.

15. Finding new ways to provide a champagne experience on a beer budget. This is by no means new, but it is a trend that has some serious staying power into the future as well, the report predicts. The report offers some interesting ideas on how to make pre-con materials pop and how to use technology to personalize experiences.

18. Capitalizing on all your membership resources. In addition to gathering member testimonials and maintaining a good prospect list, the report suggests partnering with sponsors and exhibitors to share prospective members with whom they already are doing business. Another member-recruitment idea the report suggests is sponsoring functions for members and prospective members at other industry events. 

I’m not including them here because they’re not directly meetings-related, but click through to the report to read #19, because it will remind you just why it is you do what you do (it’s a thank-you note from someone whose life was saved by association members); and #20, which will remind you just why associations are the place you want to do it.

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