In some ways an upheaval, in other ways an evolution— everything about the way associations gather is changing. Here’s what some California industry leaders have to say about the modern association meeting.
Embracing Smarter and Ever-Present Technology
“Technology will continue to have an expanded role in nearly all aspects of meetings,” predicts Jim Anderson, president and CEO of the California Society of Association Executives (CalSAE). “For example, planners are using data analytics software to improve the meeting process at appointment shows by creating better matches between members and vendors.”
Over the past year, the use of social media to engage attendees has skyrocketed, says Libby Zarrahy. As both the vice president for education of the MPI Southern California chapter and the marketing and public relations director at the Hyatt Regency Los Angeles International Airport, Zarrahy has observed a dramatic increase in general session speakers asking the audience to use their devices to send questions, comments and opinions in real time. These are shown on the screen with the speaker addressing the input immediately. Presentation live feeds are also on the rise, says Anderson, enabling people not in attendance to participate by watching the proceedings live or recorded on their devices.
Data analytics are driving smarter marketing and planning tactics to increase attendance at meetings and conventions, says Rhanee Palma, vice president of Visit Oakland and co-chair of the awards and recognition committee of the MPI Northern California chapter.
“Identifying attendees’ interests allow planners to curate experiences that will attract more attendees,” she explains. “For instance, if the group is mostly women, attractions should be safe and within walking distance. Data also shows that women like wine, so it’s smart to incorporate wine tasting into the program. If the group is mostly men, ‘let’s do beer,’ is a good selling tactic.” Age and where the delegates are coming from are also important factors, she adds. “If delegates are from the East Coast, then combining events in two cities in one, such as San Francisco and Oakland, is appealing and likely to boost attendance.”
Building Relationships That Matter
New Ways of Networking. “People come to meetings, above all, to meet others, and they usually have specific ideas of who they want to meet, from mentors to peers,” says Anderson. To better enable meaningful relationship-building, an evolution from passive to active networking is underway.
“Planners are pinpointing attendees’ interests and implementing new proactive networking techniques to bring like-minded individuals together,” Anderson says. For example, volunteers might be assigned to meet first-time attendees and facilitate introductions to likeminded delegates. Another easyto-implement tool: using colorcoded badges to identify members who share interests and seating them together.
Goodbye PowerPoint. Jessica Martini, the meeting sales director for Visit Anaheim and a member of DMA West, says planners are punching up the opening and closing sessions in engaging ways. One arresting new trend is having dynamic speakers deliver their presentations in a theaterin-the-round-style stage. Martini has also seen an increase in the use of nontraditional speakers, such as those from a discipline outside of the association’s. More and more frequently, she adds, planners are tapping into what she calls “the local intellectual capital” of the destination for speakers, choosing area residents who have compelling stories, perspectives and information to share.
Redesigning meeting space. Living room-like settings with sofas and chairs are replacing ridged conference layouts. “Delegates want focus areas, but not four walls,” says Zarrahy. At the recommendation of meeting planners, the Hyatt Regency LAX created a “Think Tank” along one wall of its conference center during its 2017 expansion and renovation. The space features booth-like seating areas for up to 10 people, “where delegates can kick back, work, network, table-hop, and grab a cold drink from built-in refrigerators,” Zarrahy explains.
Less square footage. Palma is seeing more and more association planners change the meeting setups to reduce square footage and, in turn, save money. “Look for more rounds of 10 versus six, and chevron-style seating with three people at a table and the rest seated theater-style,” she says.
Interactive trade shows. Representatives behind a booth don’t cut it anymore. “You have to engage the delegates and build relationships,” says Martini. At last December’s CalSAE Seasonal Spectacular, Martini’s Visit Anaheim display featured a photo booth. And Palma’s Visit Oakland took home the Best Booth award, thanks to “Myrtle,” a costumed cow who handed out free ice cream from Oakland-based Fentons Creamery. The line for selfies with Myrtle was nonstop.
Today, “the destination that’s chosen often has more to do with attractions and activities before and after the gathering than with the meeting itself,” says Palma. “Attendees expect to experience a destination they are in, in part because they recognize that touring and sharing experiences generates meaningful relationships.” To ensure good attendance, planners are switching from traditional choices such as San Francisco and San Diego to new locales, including Monterey, Riverside and Catalina, that offer something unique and compelling, she says.
Opportunities for cost savings are driving destination changes. “Associations are increasingly using second-tier cities to make their conferences more affordable,” says Palma. She cites Oakland’s meetings business, which nearly doubled from 25,727 room nights in 2017 to 43,092 room nights in 2018.
New Directions in F&B
“Sit-down meals are going away,” says Martini. Look instead for customized interactive food stations that cater to delegates’ changing dietary needs and promote socializing to become the new norm. High-top tables and open seating are increasingly popular because they give attendees the “freedom of movement to network,” says Martini. Adds Zarrahy, “Dining has become as important as some general sessions in the way it gives attendees the opportunity to network and socialize.” That’s why, in another innovation that planners recommended, the Hyatt Regency LAX has added two event lawns specifically for buffets and grab-and-go networking mealtimes.
Only two meetings a year? Not anymore. The need for associations to stay competitive and to increase their members’ involvement is leading to more frequent meetings that are highly specialized and shorter (often a half-day and one overnight, at most). These additional gatherings offer several advantages. For starters, says Martini, the variety increases engagement: “When you choose a new location, you’ll probably attract new attendees from that area, along with members who haven’t been there before.” More and shorter meetings also provide an opportunity for planners to “test the waters” of a new location for a future annual conference.
These multiple meetings are usually planned with less lead time, a trend that’s leading to an increased use of airport hotels, says Zarrahy, who estimates that 30 percent of occupancy at Hyatt Regency LAX is meetings-related. “Getting people in and out is critical for a one-day meeting and airport hotels meet the need,” she says.
Don’t bother to hold a meeting, if you don’t have top-notch connectivity. More than ever, delegates want to know they can go from one building to another and have seamless Wi-Fi on all their devices, says Martini. She believes that savvy marketers will take growing advantage of this tech demand. “Connectivity can be a great advertising and branding opportunity,” she says. “For instance, sponsors and exhibitors could put their logo on the charging stations or make the log-in password their company name.”
Community giveback activities are growing in importance, everyone agrees, and hosts are making volunteering increasingly easy. For example, when the American Heart Association met in Anaheim, Visit Anaheim helped the group donate heart defibrillators to local schools and teach school personnel how to use them. At the Hyatt Regency LAX, Zarrahy helps coordinate association participation in programs for Habitat for Humanity, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and local organizations like Dress for Success.
“Members increasingly want to make the meeting a mini vacation, so marketing it as a ‘bleisure’ opportunity is a good way to boost attendance,” says Palma. Visit Anaheim, in conjunction with Disneyland, has created a customized Twilight Ticket discount that allows attendees and their families to enjoy the theme park after a day of meetings. Meanwhile, says Zarrahy, “In recent years, the Hyatt Regency LAX has experienced a 100 percent increase in families coming along during meetings and conventions. Spouses and kids will spend the day by the pool and then join the attendees to explore LA in the evening.”