8 Steps to Strategic Meeting Planning for Associations

Creating a strategic meeting plan doesn't have to be daunting. Associations can implement new practices to yield maximum benefits. 

Many associations are defined by their meetings. Just ask Nate Wambold, CMP, director of meetings and conferences for the 10,000-member American Anthropological Association. "When you ask the general population what the American Anthropological Association is, they likely respond, 'It's a meeting,'" he admits.

Nate Wambold, CMP, director of meetings and conferences, American Anthropological Association

Wambold says, however, that AAA does not have a separate strategic-planning process in place for its AAA Annual Meeting. Instead, the association bases event decisions off a strategic plan for the overall organization. "I think [strategic meeting planning] is an industrywide pain-point," he says. "It's shocking how many associations don't have a strategic plan for their meetings. You would think the idea is a new one, but it really isn't."

According to a survey of more than 100 association leaders and decision-makers conducted earlier this year at the annual Executive Leadership Forum by T3 Expo, Inc., a corporate event and trade show general service contractor, nearly half (49 percent) of those surveyed reported not having a strategic meeting plan in place despite 72 percent saying their annual conference's growth remains a top factor in their association's overall success.

Even more, survey results showed that 41 percent of associations that do have a strategic meeting approach do not have measurable metrics. Of those with metrics, 20 percent don't communicate findings to their staff. Nearly two-thirds of all respondents reported not having or planning to have measurable meeting metrics in the near future.

One planner, a CMP representing an association management firm, sees this every day: "In all honesty, neither group I'm [managing] has much of a plan beyond, 'We're holding our annual meeting.'"

Christopher Urena, CAE, chief learning officer, Endocrine Society
Christopher Urena, CAE, chief learning officer, Endocrine Society

But Christopher Urena, CAE, chief learning officer for the Endocrine Society, a global organization of about 18,000 members, thinks something's got to give. "It's about prioritizing, and associations need to be able to find the time to do that." He adds, "I can't get behind the idea that there's not enough time to prioritize a strategic plan for our meetings. It's a hard pill to swallow, but it's more than necessary."

The Endocrine Society has such a plan in place. "We feel it's necessary to operate in a strategic, evidence-based way. Spraying [our resources] and praying is not what works for us," says Urena. "We are very reliant on a number of surveys and a variety of sources that contribute to the overall vision of how we want this program to develop as we head into the future."

Following, we look at a number of steps associations can put in place to define and implement their own strategic meeting planning processes.

1. Define Stakeholders

As conference organizers and leaders, association planners have to take a step back before diving into the entirety of the event, says Tim Heffernan, chief development officer of T3 Expo. He suggests first defining the meeting's audience(s). "We need to identify our different association communities -- sponsors, policy makers, the association board, vendors, attendees, volunteers, organization members and so on." Associations need to define the stakeholders of their meetings more clearly so they can tap into what each of those entities hopes to gain from the meeting experience, he says. 

2. Ask Questions

Urena says the Endocrine Society conducts multiple comprehensive surveys at every stage of the planning game. "Luckily, the association community tends to be a giving one. People are willing to get involved and share their opinions," he says.

The ENDO team aims to talk to at least two representatives from each of its stakeholder groups. "Ask if they are able to give you some considerations. Use that and start to infuse your conference with the takeaways you're trying to produce."  

Your contacts are your most valuable resource, echoes Heffernan. "Ask what they're looking to get out of your conference. Ask what they feel was missing last year. Ask what you can do to make their next experience better."  

3. Develop the Strategy

"I think what happens is that associations try to take on too many tasks at the same time and burn out too quickly," says Urena. Organizations instead need to laser-focus their efforts. "Focusing -- that might be the extent of an association's strategic approach for the first few years if they haven't had a plan in place prior. That's okay," he says. Sometimes, dedicating all resources to simple data-grabbing (and nothing else) is exactly what needs to be done. Endocrine Society's strategic plan, for example, encompasses a 3-5 year window, narrowing in on what can be implemented and developed over time. 

Jay Daughtry, founder and chief communications officer of CQbd

Jay Daughtry, founder and chief communications officer of CQbd, a business consulting and management company, suggests implementing a "5x5" approach: Review where the association has been over the past five years; review where the association wants to go in the next five years. "Once you define the direction in which you want to steer your meeting, you have to start turning that ship. Changes aren't going to come to fruition overnight, and the evolution might not even take place the first year, but you've got to start taking necessary steps." 

A well-defined strategy should be carried out by a designated implementation team. The team should outline specific, measurable goals and timelines for any strategic plan. Leadership, ongoing communication and vision will be required to focus varied interests into a collective goal to advance and improve the meeting-planning process. 

4. Enlist Help

The Endocrine Society uses an outside consultant to aid in defining best practices, implementing strategies, analyzing costs and benefits, and more. "We wanted to hear the good, the bad and the ugly to find the springboards for growth. We worked with our board of directors to create a long-term strategic plan based on the insights collected from our consulting partner," explains Urena. 

Entities like the Ridgewood, N.J.-based Event Consulting Group, for example, assist organizations in designing, building and operating strategic conference management. Aside from monitoring short- and long-term meeting strategies for associations, ECG also provides policy development and assessment, membership management and communications management. 

5. Consider Quality Over Quantity

Tim Heffernan, chief development officer, T3 Expo
Tim Heffernan, chief development officer, T3 Expo

Most associations will tell you that they plan for their events, says T3 Expo's Heffernan. And they do: They vet everything from venue and conference location to food and beverage and decor. "But that's only a portion of the battle," he reminds. "One of the elements that we found most shocking [at the Leadership Forum] is that measuring a meeting's success seemed mostly to mean looking at overall attendance numbers and little else." 

Heffernan believes association leaders should place more focus on retaining qualified attendees and less on the number of bodies in chairs. Long term, doing so will likely result in increased revenue. "Rather than just rallying a community at an annual meeting, associations should start ensuring they're attracting an engaged and qualified audience. For me, the success is in the quality over the quantity." 

Endocrine Society's Urena adds, "I think there's this initial push for associations to try to make as much money as possible through their meeting's attendance. I understand the model and the urgency, but at the same time, we need to hold [our conferences] accountable for maximizing efforts and becoming a resource for our target communities."

Part of maximizing those efforts for his group, he says, is to infuse the ENDO annual meeting with new initiatives that expand and amplify the attendee experience and highlight the meeting's various discipline pathways, including neuroendocrinology, nuclear receptors and signaling, and reproductive endocrinology.

6. Follow KPIs

Key performance indicators (and objective key results) are helpful and advocated by both Urena of the Endocrine Society and Heffernan of T3 Expo. 

"If you're working on a new conference initiative, my recommendation would be to create specific KPIs for each strategy. Determine them beforehand," suggests Urena. KPIs need to be defined according to critical or core conference objectives. Consider the following when defining a KPI:

• What is the desired outcome?
• Why does this outcome matter to the overall meeting?
• How will progress be measured?
• How can the outcome be influenced?
• Who is responsible for the outcome?
• How will you know when the outcome has been achieved?
• How often will progress be reviewed?

"Ask and answer the key questions upfront," says Heffernan. "Be honest about the answers to better define exactly how your team will monitor the growth or creation of each aspect."

Working with established KPIs, for example, the Endocrine Society rolled out an educational pathway specifically for ENDO's basic scientist attendees. "[Feedback surveys showed] our basic scientists felt our program was not designed well enough for them. Knowing this, over time, we created a 'meeting-within-the-meeting' pathway just for these folks. It performed phenomenally," says Urena. "Our team rallied together to find ways to configure the program. The team defined KPIs and, through the years, we have been able to track the growth of basic-scientist-attended programs, networking events and the success of the initiative." 

7. Take Small Steps

As opposed to strategically planning every aspect of the meeting, Wambold says AAA focuses solely on the evolving task at hand. "For us, most strategic planning is centered around exhibits and sponsorship; not the entirety of the meeting. The American Anthropological Association spends strategic-planning time where we want to see change." 

Michelle Klinke, director of education for the Endocrine Society, says, "Don't try to recreate the wheel. Implementing meeting changes [whether on a small or large scale] can be tough resource-wise, but convince leadership that sometimes something else has to give for long-term success." 

Not all changes have to take place at once, she says. "Perhaps your association doesn't take on a brand-new initiative this year. Perhaps you take a year to focus on extra funding. Taking small steps now are still steps that will help to impact the conference's long-term evolution and achievement."

8. Revisit the Plan

The goal of any association is to grow its membership base in order to further advocate its agenda. The quality of the experience that members get from its meetings is a big factor in achieving such a goal. 

"Associations are either growing or they're not," says Heffernan. "I don't think organizations achieve 'status quo' and can continue to exist if they're just treading water. If they're treading, they're eventually going to need someone to come and save them." Start swimming forward, and continue to swim time and time again, he says, to keep the meeting alive and thriving. 

Once a strategic plan is put in place, it should be reviewed on an ongoing basis to ensure it remains workable and applicable to the goals of the organization. Check for any weaknesses throughout the plan and rework it to address any new challenges that might surface.