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Want to Shake Up Your Annual Meeting? Try These Ideas

Reduce the maximum attendance by a lot. Eliminate the call for proposals. No, we’re not kidding. One association did those things and it worked.

After hosting a fairly successful but somewhat homogenous annual meeting for the past 20 years, the Radio Television Digital News Association decided a few years ago to move in a new direction.

During a session at the American Society of Association Executives’ Annual Meeting & Exposition in August, Tara Puckey, CAE, CMP, executive director of RTDNA, explained that one impetus for the shift was the rapid pace of change in the news industry combined with the reporting she and her board saw from their members, who were covering the innovation taking place across many other industries.

Those observations sparked ideas among RTDNA leadership, and Puckey and her team went about redesigning the group’s annual meeting in a few ways. First, the call for proposals disappeared. “This was not a popular decision” among the group’s members and suppliers at the outset, she recalls.

However, the association made sure to promote the fact that the new approach didn’t shut anyone out of the content conversation. “We used committees to identify and discuss the pain points our members were experiencing in their work, and then we found organizations outside our industry who successfully solved those same issues,” Puckey says.

As a result, the next RTDNA annual meeting saw aerospace engineers present on how to harness innovation in a way that brings focus and benefit to the organization quickly. And for a future event, Puckey wants to bring in Chick-Fil-A managers to explain how to create internal processes that can be scaled up smoothly with proper employee training. "We are getting away from insiders talking to insiders" and thus encourage broader thinking among attendees.

For members and suppliers who still want to contribute content to the RTDNA audience, the association will post submitted articles to its website, newsletters, and social-media channels, while occasionally conducting 15-minute Q&A video sessions with industry members on their chosen topics. “This provides us with a pipeline of content for use throughout the year,” Puckey notes, while also providing a testing ground to see which topics should become part of the committee conversations about the annual meeting’s agenda.

When Less Is More
Another big change for RTDNA’s annual meeting was making it a much-scaled-down affair. While the annual meeting typically drew more than 2,000 attendees, Puckey and her board decided to cap attendance at less than 500 people. “We decided to stop trying to have the meeting be everything for everyone,” she says. “It forced us to create content that is focused and sticky.”

To complement that change, “we created a lot of white space between sessions so there could be a lot of peer-to-peer conversational opportunities” that didn’t feel rushed, Puckey says. “It took two years for our members to get used to the new environment, but we’ve got them feeling so excited for the event that there is a waiting list to attend.” In fact, the considerable rise in the attendance fee for the smaller event has affected demand very little, she adds.

For exhibitors, the smaller attendance is also working. “We told them their interactions with attendees will become deeper, so they should rethink how they build out their exhibit presence for more focused engagement,” Puckey says. “They like the experience.”

One way that RTDNA might get its annual meeting revenues back to what they were is to hold two events each year on opposite coasts. That idea is in discussion among the board, Puckey says.

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