aLearning Blog

Online Learning for Trade Associations

What Exactly IS a Conference?

Posted by Ellen on March 2, 2010

  • Is it an educational event?
  • Marketing opportunity?
  • Meeting?

Who’s it for?

  • Members?
  • Vendors?
  • Potential members?
  • General public?
  • The press?

What’s the intention of having the conference?

  • Increase members’ knowledge and advance their professional skills?
  • Educate the public about the organization?
  • Provide opportunities for major sponsors and vendors to make connections for future business?
  • Bring the board of directors and members together for the annual meeting?
  • Generate revenue for the association?
  • Put on a great show for the media and press?

Hmmm…. Seems we’re asking a lot from one event, eh?

Jeff Hurt, over at Midcourse Corrections, has a great post about opening and keynote speakers, and it made me think about conferences in general…

…and about my own situation. As many of you know, I left my association position nearly a year ago to pursue a dream my husband and I have shared to travel the country. But I’m still addicted to alearning and have wanted to stay connected with the association and education/training worlds.

Without an employer to cover costs of membership or the expenses related to travelling to various conferences, I’ve become really picky about what I want to do.

Conversations about “value” really hit home with me: what value is there in it for me to attend? What will I gain? Can I get that same value someplace else for less money?

I’m seeing associations from an entirely different perspective: the truly remote member.

And I can tell you that when I read about Star Speaker appearing as a keynoter, I think, “Gee, they’ll pay tens of thousands of dollars for that, but they won’t provide complimentary registrations to break-out facilitators… or provide a voucher to other industry-related content leaders to offset their travel expenses…” 

Doesn’t it suggest that someone in the association (staffer, or committee chair, or board member) is more interested in meeting that person than in finding me — a volunteer speaker from the ranks of membership  — a way to attend, despite my limited budget?

So what’s the purpose of the conference? What’s the intent of having a Smash-Bang-Wow-A-HAH Moment keynoter?

And what’s the best balance between what you’re spending on that speaker — and other extras — versus providing registration fee waivers, travel vouchers, or  investing in better connections to your truly remote members who will not be attending?

Or are you perpetuating a conference model that needs to be transformed?

8 Responses to “What Exactly IS a Conference?”

  1. Jeff Hurt said


    I love this! You wrote some great things that all association leaders and staff should read.

    I recently had dinner with a long-time association member that had just received her 30-year membership pin. Her pin came at the same time as her renewal notice for her annual membership and guess what she did, she dropped her membership. After 30-years of loyalty, she decided to move on because the association was no longer providing her value. What a loss for that association and they should have reached out to her about a life-time membership or some other accolade.

    I also like what you wrote about being a remote member. That’s stuck with me as we are all remote members and online connect online or at the annual event.

    Thanks for writing this.

    • Ellen said

      Jeff — How sad for the association losing that long-time member!

      Yes, we are all remote members. Some of us feel more remote than others. For example, every time I get an announcement about a “get together” in DC for association leaders, I think, “What about those of us who are not in the vicinity?”

      It’s all relative, but the fact is that too many organizations are still assuming that their annual conference (and/or other face-to-face events) are the primary ways members connect socially.

      Not so true anymore. And what will they do about that?

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Jeff!

  2. When I’m budgeting a conference, I like to build in a conference registration rate that’s around the marginal cost for people who help out with event organization and session facilitation. My philosophy is that exhibitor and attendee registrations should pay for fixed conference costs, not the community members who work so hard to make an event a success.

    • Ellen said

      Adrian — Kudos! Curious — if you can share — how do you calculate the “fixed cost” versus the “marginal costs” ? This is a great half-way point for those who can’t afford to hand out complimentary registrations yet want to recognize those making special efforts around it. Thanks, Adrian!

      • Sorry to be late in responding Ellen – I just saw your question this evening. Sorry, but I’m going to take the easy way out – there’s a whole chapter (Ch 18 – Budgeting and Accounting) in my book Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love, including numerous sample budgets, that answers your question!

      • Ellen said

        Adrian — Thanks for following up!

  3. Working for an association vendor in a non-sales role, I am usually not on the list of conference attendees to attend our industry shows (unless they are local). So as someone deeply interested in associations and best practices I am forced to attend and participate conferences virtually. I’ve had great learning and insight from watching live streams and twitter conversations from several conferences, all without leaving my desk or getting on a plane.

    That’s why my experience participating in the UnTech10 conference was so great. By the very nature of the event, we worked to include everyone that was not in the room. One sponsor provided live video streaming, Elizabeth Engel was monitoring the twitter stream and shouting out questions from virtual attendees, the breakouts recapped their discussions into the camera, and in the breakout I led someone fired up the web cam on his laptop so his team back at the office could participate and another person was streaming the discussion through is iPhone.

    The goal was to be inclusive. But I sometimes feel that conference planners don’t think that way and end up creating an exclusive event. The result? Those members/prospects/customers that couldn’t be there feel marginalized and may look to other sources for value.

    Too often we live in geographic or demographic bubbles and forget that we have members/audiences spread all across the country. In one way or another, we are all “remote members” and recognizing and supporting those engaged but remote members should be a priority.

  4. Ellen said

    Ray — I’m absolutely in lock-step with you on this, and appreciate your comment! I try to read widely and have seen more and more meeting planning groups (formal associations and blogs/followers) try to tackle the “unconference” “remote” option, which is very new and very different from the way they’ve been trained and are experienced in planning these events.

    The challenges? Two primary ones that I see (I’m sure there are more) are:

    — the huge expense of getting rooms at hotels and convention centers wired. We did a “tech” pre-conference event for the foodservice association (to help our members learn what Web 2.0 was all about — social networking, Wikis, blogs, what the copyright laws are around content use, etc. — all for connecting and marketing better within their operations. Among four or so breakouts, we had just one that we could afford to have wifi service available in; the others had to “watch” rather than “do,” which was frustrating and not the ideal learning situation. Still, several attendees later said they got much more out of that event than all the others we’d done over the years.

    — the push-back many associations are still giving to opening up their conferences this way. Not only is it expensive but there are still a lot of leaders who are concerned with legal issues, among other things.

    I urge those who didn’t tune in to the recent posts summarizing the lessons learned from the UnTech10 Conference (the quickly and well-assembled alternative to the ASAE Tech Conference, which was cancelled due to weather) that they browse the various posts from those who attended and those who organized it. Here’s a great starting point:

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