So you've registered for this event called ASAE annual conference, with thousands of attendees, and an overwhelming number of learning labs. You spent the time convincing a supervisor, CEO, and/or yourself, that the return on your investment is going to be worth the effort to pack clothes for 4-5 days; that the time away from the frantic pace of the office, and spending long days learning and networking are worth the time and money spent. By the way, with room, registration, airfare, taxi, food and beverage, you are probably talking about a $2,500+ investment. That's no small amount, so you better bring back more than just notes in your mobile device or on a legal pad.
When you consider time, effort, and money, a tremendous amount of resources go into attending an annual conference, it is a lot. Yet, I personally am amazed at people who get to the end of a conference and say the words, "I really didn't get much out of the conference!" REALLY? I'm thinking, "I learned the one idea that is going to reshape our membership, revenues, or our entire value proposition!" What sessions were they in?
Having reviewed conference surveys for a number of years, how do we have one attendee that says, "I've been coming to conference for 30 years, and thought the keynote was the best EVER," and another person says, "I didn't get the Keynote's presentation?"
Twelve years ago, I implemented a system for myself to attack any conference, to guarantee I would come away with ideas that could transform our association over the next 12 months. Remember, true success is not about a one time dynamic shift in all you do...it's a small set of incremental changes, made over a period of time. Staff and Boards can handle small incremental change much easier than sweeping change. You don't have to change the world in one shot. You just have to change it over the next 12 months because you will be back here in one year looking for the next set of incremental changes.
Using the simple system noted below has provided me the ideas that have helped our association over the last 10 years to grow its member surplus over 1,000%, and increase non-dues revenue over 130% a year on just 7.5% growth in total members. All this, through the deepest economic downturn of 2009-2010.
So here are the keys to getting the most out of your ASAE conference experience:
Decide whether you want information or ideas - I always ask people the question, "Would you rather return with 12 legal size pages of great information, or 2 sentences of an idea that could transform your association?" I find people are so focused on writing down what the presenter is saying, that they never transform what the presenter is saying into something actionable. Personally, I want the GREAT IDEA! Something I will actually implement when I get back that will make a positive change in our operations or member experience.
Before you leave for ASAE, it it important you do the following so you know WHAT you are looking for onsite:
Define and write down the 2 top challenges your association needs to solve now, and the 1 top challenge the association needs to be looking at solving in the next 24 months. This keeps you focused on the presentations to listen and write down the actionable ideas you know will work for these challenges.
When you are at conference, write down the following three items for each day (I don't require myself or my staff to write any notes on what the speaker is saying at any session. I only require that we make note of the following items for each day we are at conference to review at the end):
1) A new idea or new way of doing something that we already do.
2) What are we going to do differently on Monday when we return?
3) One person I met who can help us make the change we need.
Putting focus on these three items each day of a conference has helped us to cut through the mass information, and zero in on ideas and people that have led to the amazing growth and excitement we have experienced. ...and it is continuing in 2016!
Four big tips for maximizing your experience:
EDUCATIONAL SESSIONS: There are tons. Download the ASAE conference app and scroll through all the sessions and select one for each time slot that hits the target on areas you are looking for answers in your association. Be flexible to jump into another session you hear onsite that it is outstanding. Don't be afraid to leave a session if it doesn't hit the mark and go into another one.
TRADE SHOW: There are tons of booths. Have a plan when you enter so you maximize your visits. You have 2 days to cover them. The system I have used has worked wonders. On day one, I start down aisle one and I walk down every aisle seeing what is available in the show. Window shopping per se. I make notes in my phone of the booths I want to come back to and have more meaningful conversations on day 2. This helps you not miss out on any great vendors that may help take your association to the next level.
NETWORKING: Connection is KING at ASAE Annual. You will meet tons of people if you hang out in the right crowds. Bring plenty of business cards and never be afraid to stick your hand out and say, "Hello my name is...where are you from?"
SUNDAY NIGHT HOSPITALITY NIGHT: You will most likely receive numerous invites to hospitality parties from hotels and other vendors. Have a sense of where your members would like to host meetings and who you would like to meet. If you are like me, I schedule as many as 3 parties to visit for an hour a piece to network, collect business cards, and socialize. It's a great learning experience.
A couple of closing comments: Don't get caught up in the information. Get caught up in meeting people and discovering the ideas that you can actually implement, that are clear, achievable, measurable, and support the future vision of your association. If you have reached the end of a conference and don't have any ideas, you need to change the crowd you hang with at conference. I personally could miss every session at conference and still walk away with a great return on my investment, because I feel I hang with the most innovative minds in the industry. We like helping each other solve our challenges so we can achieve the greatest successes both personally and professionally.
So get your pad or mobile device out, and define your challenges that you are looking to solve. If you are looking and listening, you will find all the answers at conference. SEE YOU AT ASAE!! Ping me on twitter at @tommorrison. I love expanding my network.