Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Big 3 (Costs, changing demographics and mobile) impacting association meetings

Like many of you, I belong to a national association that normally charges about $800 for its 3-day national meeting. 

But, the registration fee is less than 20% of the total cost of attending. In addition, I have to pay airfare/travel costs (around $500) and lodging expenses (about $950). So, my out-of-pocket costs total about $2,250. Since I’m self-employed, I need to look at potential lost income from being away from my work. This “lost income” can amount to as much as $3,000. So, the real cost of attending that one professional meeting totals about $5,600!
It is vital for associations and meeting managers to look at this math from the eyes of their attendees and potential attendees.
As more of your members (and prospects) start “paying their own way” (because they have become self employed or because their employers no longer pay for professional development), you need to be aware that they too are calculating the true cost of attending your meeting.

And, this helps explain why more people are looking more favorably on mobile education.

Several stories in the news last week made me consider the potentially big changes coming in association meetings & education ...

Professional Development in a Mobile World

  • By 2016, it is projected that 85% of broadband will be delivered via mobile (tablets, smartphones) versus fixed locations (hardwire computers) per Maris Stansbury in eSchool News. Such ubiquitous broadband access will transform learning of all stripes. From public to higher education to professional development, educators and trainers should take heed.
Supercomputing Conference Feels Effects of GSA Scandal 
  • The supercomputing conference, happening this week in Salt Lake City, is one of the first major scientific conferences feeling the impact of reduced federal employee attendance. The event, which draws a number of federal research labs that the U.S. Department of Energy runs, saw a sizable decline this year. While specific federal attendee numbers weren’t available, the conference, which had 11,000 attendees in 2011, has 9,500 attendees this year. This is despite a record number of exhibitors. 
Washington University joins group offering online credit courses
  • The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Washington University in St. Louis announced Thursday that it’s joining a network of nine other schools — including Duke, Notre Dame and Northwestern — to offer courses online for credit. The project, dubbed Semester Online, is regarded as a significant — though cautious — step by elite colleges to embrace a technology they have previously just dabbled in.
Earlier in the week, I read a similar Clay Shirky post on Napster, Udacity, and the Academy  He talks about the creative destruction of MP3 and the likelihood that MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are likely to radically change higher education.
While these four articles point to the future in mobile or online education, one story goes contrary to that thought: The Limits of the Virtual: Why Stores and Conferences Won't Go Away

There is nothing as compelling as direct human interaction. It strengthens trust, creates serendipity, and fosters community in an irreplaceable way. And although technology is progressing, there will always be a premium placed on meeting in person.

“Participants in every online community that we have joined have ultimately tried to find opportunities to meet in physical space as well. Communities that blend interactions in virtual and physical space ultimately become much stronger and effective than those remaining in virtual space alone.”

Both sides are correct.
Back on 9/13, I posted comments on “E-learning will Impact Association Education Programming.”  In it I mentioned the four reasons associations should experiment with mobile learning:
  • Accessibility
  • Customized content
  • Easy to check progress
  • Variety
Face to face conferences are costly; time-consuming BUT offer experience, connections and a personal touch not possible (today) with mobile or online programming. 
Yes, most associations have traditionally struggled to reach the majority of their members via in-person meetings. Before the internet, we called these members “mailboxers” because they joined and only wanted our publications. We now call them “lurkers” because they follow our social media posts but rarely, if ever, comment or become engaged.
So, as you evaluate your own face-to-face education/conferences, you should track:
  • What percent of your membership attends? 
  • What percent leave the meeting a day early? 
  • What percent of attendees are actually in your sessions ... especially the general sessions?
And, you should be asking “how can we revitalize our conference and conference programming to make it really engaging and useful to our attendees and our members.

At the same time, your association should be exploring the ways to dramatically increase the experience of attending your meeting. I love the post from Tahira Endean, CMP, titled Is Your Event an Oreo or a Macaroon?

Has your event become an Oreo - where your participants know exactly what to expect, from the level and tone of speaker and message, to the dinner in a ballroom with the same type of meal, entertainment and dress code? Where they enjoy and embrace the familiar, perhaps not knowing there could be more? More engagement, more thought-provoking discussions that lead to new innovations in their field, a feeling of being more connected created by program timing that allows for this to happen.
So, as you explore options for your associations delivery of content/knowledge/education, be aware of these three key points:
  1. Millenials (who represent the bulk of your potential members in less than 10 years) will expect similar offering from their professional societies and trade associations
  2. Cost pressures (not just on federal employees) means associations will need to offer alternative education and conferences to cut costs/travel expenses. 
  3. Technology shifts suggest associations will need to offer more than our “traditional webinars.”
Face-to-face conferences and events will continue to be part of your association’s overall content delivery strategy but not the sole part. In addition to adopting new elements to existing conferences, smart associations will be developing new mobile focused events that provide lower cost options and that appeal to a new generation of learners.


  1. I agree with the search for more online content but associations are also going to rethink the way they do conferences and control costs. I attended a recent national association conference and, honestly, could have done without the elaborate stage setup and video about all the wonderful things they did throughout the year. Save the money! Give me quality program content and leave the high cost, non-informative out of the program.

  2. Thanks for adding your thoughts ... good insight!

  3. Thanks Dan. Hope these posts help!