Delivering Community And Connections at Conferences

CalSAE Elevate 2014-1653

CalSAE Elevate 2014. Community and connections. Closing general session gallery activity. Photo by Steve Pate-Newberry, SPN Photography .

Does your conference have connexity?

Not sure what that means? Or even if your conference has it?

Well, the success of your face-to-face meetings depends on it!

Connexity Happens When…

Connexity happens when community and connecting collide! In a good way of course.

Your attendees crave these two things:

  • They want to connect with others (and learn from and with each other).
  • And they want to belong to a community.

When you blend connecting with community you create connexity!

Our increasingly digital world has created opportunities for conferences to become the physical watering hole for the global village. Your conference participants can connect online and then come together face to face to solve problems, share ideas and experiences, and grow together. Conferences that focus on connexity will see continued growth and high attendee satisfaction ratings.

A Connexity Sizzle And Steak Story

California Society of Association Executives (CalSAE) recently held their annual ELEVATE three-day conference in Palm Springs. Organizers intentionally focused on leveraging attendee connexity opportunities.

ELEVATE 2014 had two primary strategic priorities:

  • Participant professional development
  • Fostering community

Two volunteer committees were charged with intentionally baking professional development and community into every aspect of the meeting design. They branded those two areas as Sizzle–community and connecting–and Steak–education and development.

Why Sizzle and Steak? Well, you need to have the sizzle to sell the steak! And having both will provide a truly memorable attendee experience.

CalSAE Connexity Take Away Tips

CalSAE leaders and volunteers work hard at fostering community, connections as well as education and learning at ELEVATE. Here are some of my take away tips after attending their conference.

1. Focus on your attendees cravings!

Your conference participants crave two things: connexity and education! Put your focus on designing an experience that delivers community, connecting and learning with peers.

2. Get everyone involved!

Don’t hide your conference focus in strategic planning documents. Publicize it for everyone to hear, read and embrace. Recruit volunteers and leaders to help embed connexity and professional development in the meeting design. Learning and connecting are partners at the hip. Develop activities that focus on fostering connexity while learning together.

3. Sponsors dig meaningful connections.

CalSAE leaders wanted sponsorship emphasis on learning experiences and relationship building instead of advertising and promotion. Offering brands sponsorship opportunities that create targeted learning and meaningful attendee community building and connection experiences is a win-win for everyone.

This has been a winning formula for us says Gina Sutherland, CMP, CalSAE Director of Education and Events. “Designing meaningful connections to brands has opened new sponsorship doors for us. We’ve created new targeted education experiences in collaboration with sponsors that has been a win-win for everyone.”

4. Take a tip from museums and create displays for discussions.

Museums call them social objects and exhibits. These displays of artifacts and items serve as a springboard for viewers’ discussions. CalSAE secured a graphic facilitator to illustrate key points with images and key words of one keynote speaker. This larger-than-life illustration was then displayed along with a Connexity Board (ideas shared from the opening general session on posted outcome cards) in the hallway to promote continued conversations.

5. Ditch the traditional ballroom keynote general sessions.

It’s time to get more innovative and provide general sessions that promote connecting and community through interactive, facilitated experiences. Don’t just rely on the traditional speaker routine. Work with them to create something different and unique like CalSAE did for their opening and closing keynotes. The opening was a facilitated peer to peer small group discussions based on each attendee’s association pain points. The closing was a Recap Gallery Activity where attendees highlighted one of their takeaways through a visual drawings and shared with each other in small groups. (See picture at top of the post.)

Disclosure: Sarah Michel was a paid speaker for CalSAE’s Elevate 2014.

What ideas has ELEVATE 2014 sparked for you in your meeting design? How can you help your sponsors and industry partners shift from selling to helping with their sponsorships?

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  1. Eris Weaver says:

    Nice piece, Sarah! It WAS a great conference!
    Here’s a link to the graphic recording you mentioned:

  2. Great article Sarah! I would LOVE to hear more about their creative sponsorship opportunities. What did they do, how was it received by the attendees, increases in sponsor participation? Anything you can share to help us with our confrences?



    1. Sarah Michel says:

      Hi Sharon!
      CalSAE made the decision (based on member feedback) to eliminate the tradeshow/exhibit from this conference. Instead they approached their partners with “attendee experiences” that they could sponsor. For example, they had a great “connection zone” where the local CVB partnered with local decor and furniture rental and created this wonderful, bright and welcoming area for attendees to meet-up in. They created more white space between session (30 mins) and attendees would go into this space to connect and vendors/suppliers acted as host which strengthened relationships. No selling…just helping. Attendees knew these sponsors created this amazing experience for them and it was very appreciated. Each break featured food from a CVB city (for example Toronto had Tim Horton Coffee and Maple Doughnuts flown in for one break-VERY MEMORABLE). They had a “Zen Den” and got local spas and providers to staff it. Feel free to email Gina at CalSAE (mentioned in the post) for more info. Bottom-line: Both the attendee and sponsors (partners) love it and they have had no problem getting sponsors to sign-up and members to return. Loyalty for both is very strong. Hope that helps and feel free to call me. You know how to reach me 🙂

  3. Thanks so much for sharing tips from CalSAE’s ELEVATE Conference, Sarah! It was such a pleasure having you (and Jeff in 2013) be part of ELEVATE! I do want to clarify a couple items in your reply to Sharon. As cool as it would be to have authentic Tim Horton maple doughnuts flown in, our doughnuts were local. 🙂 The coffee was the real-thing though! (Thanks Tourism Toronto!) Also, our Zen Den is created by our host hotel’s spa…that small sampling of the spa experience encourages some participants to book spa appointments during their stay (although there is no pressure for them to do so).

    From the time we decided to retire the tradeshow component of the conference, our Industry Partners have been part of the conversation about participant experiences. Their involvement in the creative process is a huge reason for ELEVATE’s success! We also are grateful for the creativity of our ELEVATE Committee – they’re passionate about the event and are “make it work with low/no budget” geniuses!

    Sharon, I’d be happy to talk with you about our experiences. You can reach me at gina at calsae dot org.

    Also, I highly recommend Velvet Chainsaw’s ebook on Conference Connexity. As a long-time reader of the blog, it’s great to have some of the terrific concepts and ideas captured in one resource. We shared the ebook with our ELEVATE Committee last year and will continue to utilize it for inspiration!

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