Conference Season: Learning for More than Members

social fish
social fish

Spring conference season is upon us.  Across the association industry, staffers are packing supplies, charging mobile phones, and polishing their “Trade-Show-Walking-Shoes.”

Soon there will be days filled with registration badges, session evaluations, food and beverage orders and – most important for anyone working in a member driven organization – spending time chatting face to face with members and industry experts.

And just as association staff pack up, so will the association’s vendors and partners.  Some may speak on panels, others will man video cameras. Some will work press rooms and others are making sure everything on the trade show floor is just right.  In fact, as a vendor, this is perhaps the biggest “face time opportunity” we have to prove the value we bring to our clients and we will do anything to justify the continued budget – even if it means working super long days and running crazy from one end of the convention center to the other.

And this running around is a huge missed opportunity.

A few years ago, I was asked to represent the PR agency I worked for at a conference reception to recognize the agency and our client partners for our work on a major campaign.  Since I was going to have to travel all day anyway, I cleared my schedule and figured I would walk the floor looking for ideas we could turn into new campaigns (and more billable work).  The client set me up with a staff badge and I spent the day bouncing from session to session, chatting with attendees and walking the floor.

Along the way something wonderful happened – my mind swapped out projects, deliverables and budgets for passioninsight and drive.  I discovered the “special sauce” that motivates the client’s industry and its most successful members.

As a vendor partner, most interaction is with staff members, committees and those most directly involved with our projects.  These vested stakeholders have invested financially and emotionally in the project.  Yet, in the rush to please these important audiences we miss a significant opportunity to get to know the “real member.”

Conferences present a prime opportunity to get inside the client industry and connect face to face with the average member.  With one day on the ground, you can unearth that intangible, qualitative information that comes from just having a casual conversation with someone about their industry and how they use the association.

Flash forward, and I’m now writing this post from an airplane on my way to a client conference.  In the years since that first “a-ha moment” I have attended many conferences to lead strategy sessions, chat and just watch people as they go about their business.  And it has always helped me deliver a better experience and service to my client by remembering to put the member first.

So to maximize time on the ground, here are my tips for a successful “conference fact-finding mission.”

Plan Ahead and Set Up Meetings.  People are busy at conferences.  Make sure to take advantage of anyone that has said they would chat with you and set-up an official time to chat.  Even if it is only for 15 minutes, you need to grab those key stakeholders and get their insight.

Attend as many sessions as possible. This isn’t your industry and your CE – so you don’t need to sit through a full 1 ½ hour session if it isn’t what you do for a living.  Bounce around, learn a bit about the topics, and check out the various topics covered by the content.  If there are poster sessions, roam the posters and read as many as you can (and stop to talk with the presenter if they are available).

Watch (people) and learn. You’ll have to do some “real work” while you’re there. Go ahead and park in an area where people are congregating and just watch the attendees while checking your email. Are they rushing from one session to another or are they pausing in the hallways to chat and build relationships.

Take every opportunity to chat. You’ve made the investment in time and travel to speak with people. Take every opportunity to learn about the people attending the conference, what they do in their daily lives and how they interact with the association.  I once shared a cab to the airport with a student member and a vendor and in 20 minutes learned more about two important audiences than I did while walking the show.

So next time schedules work out, pack a bag, put on some comfortable shoes and spend the day in your client’s shoes.  You’ll be thankful for the insight and be able to deliver better service with the knowledge gained from the journey.

Oh, and don’t forget… this experience and learning opportunity is just as important for that new staff member who isn’t deemed “necessary” at the conference.  Go ahead and bring them along and give them time to “explore and learn.”  It’ll be the best training they get all year.

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