I always try, if possible, to attend an event every month. However the last few months have conspired to make it pretty hard to get out and spend a day at an event. So I was delighted that the Association of Association Executives allowed me to attend the first day of their “Event Strategy” event in London. It was the first time they had run a dedicated event strategy day for associations and they were delighted to have attracted 50 association event professionals. The number and the type of attendees made for an engaging day.

The event was held at one of the particular fantastic – and pretty new- ETC Venues in London and it was a day that promised something different from the standard association conference: and trust me, association conferences can be VERY STANDARD. I am delighted to say that it delivered something different and importantly something of real value to the invited attendees.

The Association of Association Executives is the recent incarnation of “Association Network” an organisation that has been running dedicated events for the association section for several years. They clearly know a lot about the space! Having run a few association event departments (I also wrote a book: Successful Events for Not For Profit Organisations) I also know a thing or two about these peculiar beasts: The Association / Trade Association and Membership Body so I thought I would add my thoughts to the day.

An "insight" session: basically an introduction session to a workshop

An “insight” session: basically an introduction session to a workshop

Event Strategy in Associations

Much of the day was set to addressing very useful but quite practical areas of events. So in this back up post to the event I’d like to talk strategy. If you can catagorise the biggest strategic issue for Associations it would be: having to balance the “commercial” aspect of their events framed in the environment of providing a member service. For me, this is the theme that should spread through an event like this. And for the Association Event Planner the issues break down a little like this:

Paid for events: The difficulty arises from the fact that attendees have in some way, via their membership fee,(this can be real or just perceived) already paid to attend. So why are they being asked to “pay again?” This puts a particular strain on the events and the event organiser.

Free to attend events: The strain is on the organisation: how can it fund great events solely from membership fees? Even if you are not in the association sector you can probably see the challenges!

How the event strategy issues were addressed

The programme was designed to lessen the strain for the events professional and I am sure the content will have helped those organisers who attended. Addressing declining sponsorship; the need to be more innovative with marketing and the best use of event technology were all covered on the programme. But if you are talking strategy, then any programme really should be looking at these issues:

  • how should associations support a changing environment for their events? Should their events become more or less commercial?
  • association events have never been solely about raising revenue, so how do associations set and measure other targets?
  • how can the event planner play a more strategic role in their organisation?
  • how can the event planner prove that their events can do so much more for their association?
  • how can associations run more or / and very different types of events?
  • what are the resource implications of delivering new events?

In my many years of working in, and supporting the association sector, these are the top strategic issues. The more planners engage with these strategic issues the more understanding we will have. And following that the more impact.

Some great things about the event

I would like to commend the organisers in their desire to do things differently: doing things differently is so much harder than following the crowd. So I thought I would highlight five things in particular that were innovative and crucially added value to the day.

  1. They used Meeting Design
  2. They had a gender balanced speaker programme
  3. They structured the day around peer to peer learning and sharing
  4. They recorded the content (hopefully they will do something with it) and
  5. They chose a great, relaxed and modern venue

Overall the day was a really refreshing approach to association events. Running events in this space has never been easy and it is certainly getting harder. Attendees at the Event Strategy day will no doubt have had their burdens lessened.