The Associations Forum Association Events Summit held at ICC Sydney in September was a fascinating dive into the world of association events – their challenges, triumphs and future direction.
As CEO John Peacock explains, the Associations Forum was formed in 2004 to create a space for associations to learn from one another.
“There were a lot of associations who were doing a good job but they weren’t really sharing that information with each other,” he said.
The Association Events Summit was a solid example of the benefits of this knowledge collaboration approach.
The three most interesting sessions all came from Associations exploring their experience, progress and future predictions.
Michelle Crowley, Vice President of global growth and innovation at international events association heavyweight Professional Convention Management Association had her session beamed in from Chicago and exemplified the most forward-thinking of the associations as she explored the changes brought about for events by the advent of the “empowered consumer”.
“This is something I do not believe associations have yet caught up with – we have not gotten to the place where we are operating in the expectations of the consumer today,” she said.
“We have to learn to do that.
“We’re so focused on membership and events and the fact that membership is such an important part of our organisational budget. The question really is around how are we engaging knowing that the membership model is changing?”
“We need to think about how is our association is changing to ensure that we’re providing the two most important things to that empowered consumer, which is really around value and really around ease of doing business.
“Associations notoriously aren’t that easy to do business with and so we need to be thinking about that when we look at how our events are designed.”
Crowley went on to highlight that although there is surplus of content available today, there was an attention and engagement deficit.
She said associations were transitioning from a pipeline to a platform – in other words, moving from a controlled, highly prescribed and linear model to a model that facilitates valuable, less constrained engagement with and between its stakeholders.
“The association value, when we look at it, is still commerce – it’s still the thing it’s been for many, many years, where we provide that business interaction.”
According to Crowley, associations are all about building community.
“What I encourage you to do is look at it from the three points of strategy, engagement and storytelling. This is year-round and events are a critical part of that.”
“We look at our events as various engagement pillars and how people interact.”
The three engagement pillars PCMA focuses on are learning design, business connections and brand experiences.
Crowley went on to explore several ideas relating to each of these pillars, which demonstrated how the thinking around association events is changing – from non-traditional conference spaces to new session formats, technology use, new interaction models, gamified learning experiences and encouraging sponsors to do more with their presence and activations at events.
Much of it appears to be around choice and giving the people what they want.
A session later in the day from Dr Tony Coles, CEO of Audiology Australia, added weight to this approach as he explained how his association has grown their income from events by 1300% since 2015 by radically transforming their approach to events.
“The ultimate goal was really about increasing member satisfaction,” he said.
“That’s what we wanted to achieve because we were very loud and clear that our members were not happy with what we were doing about continuing professional development.
“But the corollary effect was that we were able to grow income – massively, it turns out.”
He explained that the association’s culture had been about “chasing” CPD points, but “you don’t build a community by chasing points”.
“It was also setting the wrong tone culturally – not just for the members but for the staff as well.
“So, for my staff, I don’t want them to sit there and think about, ‘what kind of events can I build that’s going to get them the most points?’ I want them to think about professional development and building events that members want to come to.”
Audiology Australia’s revitalised approach to events mirrored the sentiment of PCMA – the nature of sessions changed with a focus of on takeaways and engagement.
Their events now regularly sell out.
The third session of particular note was a Q and A with Eve Propper, Events and Sponsorship Manager for the Royal College of Pathologists of Australasia.
After putting her session under Chatham House rule, Propper showcased a particular talent for telling it how it is – from dealing with the conservatism of her association, to utilising technology, managing volunteers and her worries around a diminishing pool of exhibitors. Her comments around the role food plays in medical events were particularly astute, including the ridiculousness of the doughnut wall trend.
In his interview with ASE below, Peacock references the loneliness often experienced by those running associations – Propper’s session no doubt made some in the room feel less alone in the struggles faced in their organisations.
This inaugural Association Events Summit in many ways reflected its client base – it stayed true to the ethos under which Associations Forum was founded, but we’re also interested to see whether, in future years, the event can lead its attendees by example into more adventurous territory in terms of the theatre of events.