Virtual meetings, workshops and vacations: Engage your community with out-of-the-box event offerings

Association executives and other professionals often don’t have the budget or the time to globe trot to every conference they are invited to. They have to weigh your conference against a million other alternatives, from other association events to vacation with the family. So what tools do we have to encourage event attendance while building community among our members?

Talk the walk

The biggest hurdle to attendance is usually travel. With the modern joys of steep airfare and sardine can seats, it’s a hard sell to get your target audience to fly more than a few hours for a conference. If you can’t locate your meeting in a place central to most of your members, then consider taking the meeting virtual.

Offer tickets to attend sessions broadcast on the web, and don’t be afraid to spend some money on a good live cast service. There are audio-visual companies that specialize in live casting events and can do everything from recording sessions to fielding questions from your virtual attendees. If you’re going to charge for virtual tickets, you don’t want to skimp. You can also make your live cast more personal if you don’t have the budget for a fancy AV specialist. Instead of focusing on presentations, give a phone or tablet to your public relations or communications specialist and have them crowdcast a tour of the expo and interview attendees on Periscope or Facebook Live.

You can further tie in your online community by encouraging virtual attendees to ask questions on social media and in your discussion boards. Your live cast team can pose the questions to speakers and attendees and share them with everyone who couldn’t be there in person. My personal dream is to attend a conference via robot. When that day comes, I can die a happy nerd.

Howdy, partner

You’re not the only organization planning an event. You know this, I know this, the convention and visitors bureau knows this. And while this can be a major barrier to attendance at your conference–that other taxidermy convention is in Las Vegas this year, so I’m gonna need to save some dough–it can also work in your favor.

That competitor association is trying to attract your audience–and they might be doing a better job of it. Instead of trying to out compete them, consider partnering to co-sponsor an event or to offer a workshop prior to one of their conferences. If you have members who are involved with both organizations, they’ll be thrilled to see you working together. And even if your members have never heard of the other group, creating a platform for discussion between your communities can only strengthen the professional connections associations are dedicated to building.

On top of the professional networking benefits, adding a one- or two-day optional workshop to your convention offers added value in your educational lineup. Members will appreciate that they can extend their learning opportunities and dive deeper into a topic. They’ll also have an easier time arguing for the travel budget if they can tell their supervisor that they’ll get twice the conference for half the airfare.

Teamwork makes the dream work

Your attendees are not islands, and they do not work in a vacuum–unless you work with the Association of Space Explorers. Even if they’re a department of one, it is likely that someone they work with shares an interest in what your convention offers. And whether you target CEOs or line cooks, they could probably benefit from a little bit of team building.

At the least, integrate sessions and opportunities that build group cohesion among your attendees. Things like games in the expo hall and 30-minute breaks between sessions [you’d be amazed how much attendees will talk to each other if they have time to breathe between sessions…] go a long way to building member engagement. Extracurricular activities can also relieve some of the stress of travel and offer a more comfortable way to interact for folks who blossom into wallflowers at the thought of a cocktail hour.

If you’re going to go all out, expand your scope beyond your target audience. Your attendees most likely have families, clients, and/or employees. It’s also likely that they hold an appreciation, development, or networking event for them at some point throughout the year. And doubtless they all need a vacation at any given time. Encourage members to conduct their own meetings and events in conjunction with yours by offering group registration and hotel discounts for their employees, free expo passes for their potential clients, and vacation and tour packages for their families.

At this point you may be slapping your forehead, wondering how the hell you’d be able to do any of this while staring into the heart-rending abyss known as Call For Proposals. But you’ll likely find that the headache of coordinating these extra features for your attendees will pay off in spades so long as you do your research, address your members’ needs and expectations, and remain flexible. By enabling and encouraging your members to further develop their own communities around your event, you are strengthening both their personal networks and the overall association community. Both well worth the hassle.

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