A successful meeting – one where attendees leave inspired, energized and satisfied in their investment (time, financial) – doesn’t just happen. It requires significant planning, input from key stakeholders, a vision and a design that translates that vision into experiences and content that positively impact attendees.
While those things have always been important, the need to create unique and memorable experiences for attendees is more critical today than ever before. In the past, an organization’s annual meeting was one of the only opportunities attendees had to connect with their community of colleagues from around the country, or world. But with our current remote/hybrid work landscape, your members are more discerning about where and how they spend their time, including whether or not to travel to your event. After all, if they want to connect with someone in Asia, they can just hop on Zoom.
In addition, today’s attendee has new expectations for an experience. We all have frictionless and impactful experiences every day that have changed what we expect – from streaming our favorite programs to downloading boarding passes and ordering from our favorite restaurant. Any ‘friction” to a positive experience can have significant impact on a brand. That is why every organization is actively working to design and deliver new and exceptional experiences for their audiences… and meetings are no different.
Where meetings have a unique opportunity and responsibility: Zoom meetings with colleagues and seamlessly binging your favorite TV show cannot replicate the immersive and fulfilling experience that a well-designed and well-executed physical event delivers.
But to meet attendees’ expectations, we cannot rely on the old way of doing things. In order to create more strategic meetings that not only engage attendees, but connect them to your association’s mission and encourage them to take action, we need to start at the beginning.
Start Here… with the right conversations, with the right stakeholders
As event planners, the list of action items when planning a meeting is extensive and daunting. So many times – especially if this is a meeting your association puts on each year – it’s easier and more natural to pull out that list and start checking items off as soon as you’ve recovered from last year’s event. But it’s important to resist that urge to dive right into to-dos, and start the planning process with a clear direction and vision for the meeting by facilitating discussions with key stakeholders.
How do you determine who those stakeholders should be? Interestingly, this is where we see the greatest opportunity in the work we do with associations. So often, people who should be involved in setting the meeting’s vision are pulled in too late, or worse, never step foot in the room at all, resulting in missed opportunities to align the event to the organization’s bigger mission, vision and brand.
With a direction and vision set, that’s when you pull out that to-do list and review it through this renewed lens. What needs to be added? What can you remove? How does the vision help you home in on the decisions that need to be made around speakers, entertainment, award ceremonies, networking and sponsors? And, how does that vision help illuminate the multiple pathways an attendee might take at your event?
While each organization is unique, you should consider involving the following roles in those initial direction-setting conversations:
- Chief marketing officer and/or marketing & communications team
- Director of meetings
- Education team
- Executive director or leadership team
Create and execute an agenda aimed at achieving your meeting’s vision
Ideally, you should begin having those initial conversations about 12 months before next year’s meeting. That gives you plenty of time to make sure you set the right direction, and ensure it aligns with your organization’s larger goals and initiatives. After all, your meeting – while only one piece of the organization’s overall marketing strategy – is an opportunity to bring your brand to life, and for your attendees to interact and engage with it through branded, curated experiences.
To build that agenda and facilitate those discussions around your meeting’s vision, here is a checklist of categories and questions you should address:
Understanding your attendees
By taking time to not only define, but truly understand, the people who are coming to your meeting, you can better design experiences that address their individual needs and preferences and connect with them in ways only your brand can do.
- Who comes to this meeting?
- Define your attendee personas. There can be two or 20 (young member, tenured member, are there different categories of members – nurse, doctor or researcher, academic, exhibitor, industry representative)?
- Create your attendee journeys. How do each of the above differ and what are they looking to take away? How do you want them to feel? Can you visualize each stakeholder’s journey?
- Are the right people coming to the meeting?
- If not, how can we re-think or improve to attract the right people?
Identifying your meeting’s ‘why’
As attendee expectations evolve and our ability to find and engage with content virtually continues to change, it’s important to re-assess and re-affirm your meeting’s reason for being. While the organization’s mission may remain the same, the reason members attend your meeting may shift – and it’s important to recognize that, and adjust with them.
- Why do people come to this meeting?
- Is that why we want them to come?
- If there is a disconnect, how do we close that gap?
- Does your meeting align with your organization’s mission/vision?
- Is your organization’s mission/vision clear to meeting attendees?
- How does the meeting help your organization achieve its strategic goals?
- What do we want attendees to feel at this meeting?
Defining attendee value
Without recognizing that attendees expect a value exchange – their time/financial investment for valuable content/experiences/connections, your meeting can easily become dispensable. Therefore, it’s critical to design experiences that aim to deliver value, as your attendees define it.
- What ROI do attendees get from your meeting?
- What would they miss if they didn’t attend?
Achieving consensus on the organization’s goals for the meeting
At this point, you’ve discussed how your attendees define value. Next, it’s time to define what success looks like for your association. Once you have agreement across stakeholders on that, you can begin designing an event – an experience – that delivers value to attendees and achieves maximum return on investment (ROI) for the organization.
- What is the call-to-action (CTA) for attendees?
- Is that the same for all attendees, or different for different segments?
- What does success look like for the association?
- Are you set up to measure the success?
- If not, what steps do you need to do so?
An association’s event is not simply an opportunity to bring members together. It is a primary touchpoint to provide members a tangible, memorable and valuable experience with your brand – one that sets you up as an indispensable resource today and into the future. Without designing your event strategically, it becomes a moment-in-time that is disconnected from the association’s mission/vision, which can easily lead to members disassociating the meeting/experience with the organization. While the idea of thinking differently about planning your next meeting can seem daunting, a few tweaks to the process can lead to improved attendee satisfaction, better member engagement and a significant ROI.
For future meetings, download our Event Vision Checklist to help your team plan and ensure an exceptional experience for all attendees that aligns back to your association’s goals.
More from our strategic meeting design series
[Part Two] Why Your General Session Should Serve as the First Step to a More Strategic Meeting
[Part Three] Beyond the General Session: Designing a Consistent Attendee Experience Throughout Your Event