The question isn’t whether most annual meetings and conferences are stuck.
Just look at the data from some annual meetings. These conferences have declines in registration, participation in general sessions and education breakouts, sponsorship and exhibitors. Their growth in new attendees wanes. Their customer loyalty is steadily decreasing.
The question is what it will take for conferences to get unstuck. And even more to the point, how many conference organizers and hosts have the will and courage to change direction?
What Getting Unstuck Will Require
Here’s what I think conference organizers will need to do in order to get their annual meetings unstuck.
1. First, stop pretending there isn’t a problem.
Stop believing that it’s better to stay the course, especially if the course is self-defeating. Stop buying into “But we’ve always done it that way.” Stop the delusion that to keep on as you’ve always done for the loyal remnant is sufficient purpose. Or even deluding yourself into thinking that it is necessary and adequate. Keeping the conference going for another year or two while guaranteeing death in five to ten years is simply irresponsible.
2. Look beyond what your current customers tell you they want.
Start looking at what your future customers will find attractive. Going to the same cities every year will only continue to attract the current crowd. Get out of the mindset that going to top tier cities will only distract your attendees from your event. If your conference provides a stellar experience, nothing will drag them away from it. Your admission that a city like Las Vegas or Chicago has too much to do is an admission that you’re annual meeting is not good enough to keep the attention of your attendees.
3. Move past the traditional corporate general session.
The traditional general session with the parade of business information, awards and board recognition isn’t a draw! It’s passive, hierarchical, predictive, repetitive and dull. It’s self-serving. At many conferences its stiff, older-than-average people doing stiff things that don’t appeal to anyone else.
People want relationships, not seats in an audience! They want to explore with each other and not have organizational authorities tell them what to do.
4. Make education breakouts different than the traditional monologue lecture.
There is ample evidence that the traditional lecture does not result in attitude, behavior and skill change. The multi-person panel is nothing more than a lecture on steroids with the same results as a solo lecturer. The lecture is actually a barrier to learning. Conference organizers need to have the courage to demand that breakouts be done differently with a focus on the attendee as the learner. We need more peer discussions and less one-way lectures.
5. Stop fighting change.
Stop fighting it. Stop fighting newness. Stop fighting to preserve the beloved franchise. Stop fighting to be right. Stop fighting change. Embrace it and all it has to offer.
6. Look outward!
See the world outside the precious conference traditional preserve. See needs other than your traditional audience. Look outward with respectful curiosity and enthusiasm, not with the disdain that is often displayed.
7. Get to work!
It’s been too easy to repeat what we’ve always done from year to year. Organizing an annual meeting that has real stakeholder value was never easy. We need to get out from behind our excel spreadsheets, BEO forms, room layouts, speaker management systems and Word tables and get into the real world. We need to observe our attendees in action and watch what is or isn’t working.
Will And Courage Needed
Do conference organizers and leadership have the will and courage to allow change? It will require the courage to take risks, try new formats, to let the treasured past go, to engage with people whose yearnings and journeys are quite different from our own.
It will require the courage to be in love with creating unique attendee experiences of value. It will require unlearning old ways to adopt new ways. It will require bravery to embrace change and newness.
Are you ready for the journey to get unstuck?
What other traditional conference items need to be reinvented or get unstuck? What are some new things that you’ve seen done at conferences lately that were different and unique from the traditional conference?