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What I Learned by Listening at BizBash Elevate DC

On Wednesday, August 3rd, hundreds of event planners descended on the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center for BizBash’s Elevate DC conference. Here’s an inside scoop on a session I was proud to participate in:  Rethinking the Model: How to Improve Association Events and Trade Shows.

Facilitated by Carol McGury, Executive Vice President – Event and Education Services with SmithBucklin, I joined Johnnie White, Senior Director, Global Education, Meetings and Strategic Partnerships with American Academy of Otolaryngology (AAO) and Shannon Burch, Vice President of Events and Business Development of ASIS International. I started the presentation with a focus on generational marketing and what I have learned since we launched targeted programs and campaigns for the next generation.  After five years of trial and error, here is what I have found to be most effective.

First: listen and then actually implement.  The best form of feedback is through focus groups and advisory groups and not just once.  Have multiple touch points throughout the year.  The young professionals we work with are vocal and eager to help.

Second: get the C-level on board.  Many executives like knowing there is a strategy for different age groups, but the real difference in budget and implementation is ensuring they are part of the conversation.  We had several projects “greenlit” after executives attended an advisory group meeting and heard suggestions first-hand.

Third: make sure next gen innovators are represented at all levels. Most shows and associations have a variety of committees, task forces, and boards.  The suggestions our young professionals have introduced improve the experience for all attendees, not just millennials and Gen X/Y.

What I enjoyed most was learning from my co-presenters.  Johnnie shared the LUCK principle (Listen Understand Create and Know). When he joined AAO, he didn’t come in with a slew of changes immediately.  He stopped and listened, recognizing that the next generation of learners are forcing show organizers to create experiential learning opportunities that are interactive, hands-on and touch multiple senses.  Their delivery must be short and sweet and include an e-format with 24/7 access.  Johnnie then implemented several initiatives to improve the attendee experience including:

  • RFID for the session rooms to capture attendance and provide a better process for the evaluation process
  • New meeting app
  • Rebranding the exhibit hall
  • Better alignment of the meeting schedule
  • Focus on international with specialty sessions and a governance structure

Shannon then discussed what happens to a trade show when after 40 years of the same executive team, almost everyone changes.  The ASIS International show realized they were not regaining ground after losses taken following the recession of 2009 so they asked their customers the hard questions.  Shannon’s advice, “Ask, even if it hurts, and don’t be afraid to hear the answers because a healthy conversation is progress”.  Her suggestions upon hearing feedback:

  • Be ready to respond to the positive and negative
  • Engage your board and top leadership
  • Makes changes in small doses
  • Set a realistic time frame

ASIS was able to start a new tradition while changing the floor experience and room sets.  Creating unique networking opportunities and VIP lounges were important changes for their customers, as well as launching all-inclusive FAM trips to future cities.  These FAM trips are open to all exhibitors (last year over 40 attended) and last several days including tours of the convention center, hotels and offsite special event venues.

So, what did I learn?  LISTEN and then take it to heart.  We all know this model works best.  I certainly enjoyed listening to my peers and will use my experience to continue moving International Vision Expo & Conference forward.  The most important reason to speak and attend industry conferences is to learn something new, or walk away feeling good about what we’re already doing and keep at it.  With CEIR Predict in September and Expo! Expo! in December, I’m looking forward to listening and learning.  #bizbashelevatedc #expoexpo #MATSO

Angela Harar, CEM, Senior Director of Shows, The Vision Council and Chair, IAEE MATSO Council


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