The Problems Attendees Experience at Association Conferences

By Amanda Kaiser posted 12 days ago

  
Members love to talk about their conference experience during in-depth interviews with me. We spend a lot of time talking about their conference experience because the conference is where most members get the most value.

Looking at the responses across more than three hundred interviews, of mostly very engaged members, a handful of typical weak spots in association conferences emerge:

If you don’t have me at registration, you’ve lost me

Members remember those first experiences well. They remember if they felt prepared to attend. They remember their experience at registration. They recall how they were welcomed. They remember the quality of website, app, signs, program book and badge. Often members decide right at registration if they are going to get value out of the conference.

Ideas to try:
  • Send out a consistent weekly email to participants in the months or weeks before the conference with details about what to expect, how to pack, where to go, how to select sessions and more.
  • Direct participants to designated conference “tour guides” who are ready and willing to answer any questions which will help get new attendees oriented and poised to participate.
  • Train the registration crew to offer an incredibly warm, welcoming experience.

I’m a sponsor or an exhibitor, and I feel like an outcast

Sponsors and exhibitors understand the value they bring to conferences but, increasingly they don’t see the value coming back to them. These industry partners want to feel like real partners, however, many times they say they feel like a wallet.

Ideas to try:
  • Personally, thank sponsors and exhibitors in both one-on-one conversations and before participants.
  • Include sponsors and exhibitors in the attendee experience.
  • Identify ways for sponsors and exhibitors to work with event organizers to increase value to participants beyond the standard sponsor offerings and exhibitor booth.

I’m a long-time member, and I’m bored with the sessions

Long-time members feel like they have been there and done that. There is not much new for them to learn at many conferences. Overall the sessions seem very simple. They come to the meeting to renew old friendships. Some find once they’ve formed their friendships, they do not need the conference to keep the relationship alive.

Ideas to try:
  • Offer curated time for those more experienced to talk about and get feedback on non-standard or more difficult issues.
  • Find ways for long-time members to mentor newer members at the conference in a way that is meaningful for the long-time members not just for newer members.
  • Involve long-time members in discussions about the future of the industry.

I don’t use what I’ve learned at the conference back in the office

Many conference attendees go to many sessions. They fully participate in the conference, and they keep up a fast pace. Each day goes something like this: Listen, Learn, Eat, Learn, Learn, Listen, Drink, Talk, Eat, Bed. This fast pace does not slow when they arrive back at the office. Back home, they dive right in to chip away at the backlog. Not only is there little time to reflect what they learned, but they also often find it hard to adapt the methods of another company, likely a larger company, to their unique organization.

Ideas to try:
  • Include reflection time during the last session block of the conference.
  • Invite participants to post-conference virtual de-brief and working session meetings.

Receptions are awkward

Receptions are awkward especially for new members who do not know anyone. “I’m not a joiner” might be the most used phrase I hear when members are talking about conference receptions. Finding someone to talk with at the reception is awkward and we don’t like it. Some attendees opt out of receptions. When networking is the key benefit, some participants opt out of the conference.

Ideas to try:
  • Introduce curated networking, don’t leave connections to chance, help those who need to meet, connect with each other.
  • Combine learning and networking by hosting participatory roundtable discussions and working groups.
  • Focus networking time on an activity or a group goal i.e. hiking a mountain, participating in a brainstorming group, or late night scrabble meetups.

I’m a first-time attendee, and I don’t know how to navigate your conference

First-time attendees don’t know what to wear, so they look at photos for clues. They don’t know what to take or how to prepare. First-time attendees don’t know which sessions they should attend. They worry about missing out. They worry when they don’t know the jargon. All this worry makes it hard to engage.

Ideas to try:
  • Design a first-time attendee program.
  • Invite first-timers to a pre-conference orientation.
  • Assign willing first-time attendees a more experienced buddy.

By eliminating any big or small problems participants experience with the conference, we will provide superior value to members making the conference the gateway to everything else the association provides.

Amanda Kaiser is a qualitative researcher for the association community and a member engagement expert. Channeling member insights, Amanda writes a weekly blog at SmoothThePath.net
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