Planning a joint convention: Tips for a successful and positive collaboration
Have you ever thought about hosting a joint convention with another association to advance your industry? If the answer is yes, I want to share some lessons learned from a recent experience with two trade associations that operate in related industries.
A joint meeting is a great way to create new touch points for a large group of people at one time. It fits within the mission of most associations who advocate for their members and promote new business opportunity. Your members can save money by not having to travel to two separate meetings during the year and these companies can maximize their exposure, and sometimes invest more, due to a greater expected ROI.
It’s not that easy however, because merging two associations will have its challenges. Primarily in how both cultures fit together. Think of a joint meeting more like a business merger or acquisition instead of a meeting - the culture fit is key to operationalize the experience. Your goal should be to deliver on all of the most important aspects of your association meeting, while also fitting the experience into a larger joint program. The cultures match is paramount to achieve success, so the organizers should have a good idea about what events will fit with the norms of each group.
Here are some other things to think about.
Eliminate complexities. Culture matters.
The simpler the better in terms of program format. Remember, this is a new experience for all members. They are not going to your convention this year, they’re attending a joint event (new experience). Don’t fall into the trap of trying to re-create your convention entirely. Both associations must compromise on the format to reduce overall uncertainty of the members. If things get too complex, members will feel like they don’t have enough information and will turn off if they see others engaged who are more familiar with the process. Think strategically about the format of the meeting and how you want members to interact. It won’t work to just take each individual association meeting, merge them together, and wait for the positive reviews to roll in.
Double the networking time
Associations should give members enough opportunities to meet each other at a joint convention. Members want to see their customers, old friends and colleagues first, then branch out to meet new people from the other association. The program should have double the opportunities to network than what you’re used to. This additional time will give members a chance to make their normal rounds and not feel pressured to meet new people at every opportunity. The best connections are made through friends and word of mouth, so give them a chance to talk.
More people overall also means that your members will lose out on those spontaneous runs-ins with old friends and colleagues. This will create a feeling that ‘the meeting is too big.’ Try to create a good balance in your program with large networking events and smaller more focused receptions or meet ups. Often times, we think our normal format can simply accommodate more people with a bigger space. The fact is – people are not always willing to break the ice. Make it easy for your members to feel connected to the larger group. The need to have a place and not feel like an outsider. Matchmaking events can work well in this area, but note it will involve more staff time and support to coordinate a good effort. A poorly planned matchmaking event can have greater negative ramifications than not doing it at all.
Limit the amount of separate meetings.
While each association plans their own business meeting, as well as Board and Committee meetings depending on the rotation, try to limit the one-offs which will make members choose. These events for only one group can create an environment where members of each association are attending their own events instead of actively participating in the joint programming. It’s almost like having two groups in the same space but living in their own silos. The more opportunities there are to choose, the more people will notice non-participation from the other side and think it’s a symptom of the people not wanting to be engaged. For example, host your new member and first timer events together. Another idea is to have staff from each group work together on the other’s events. The association staff can help introduce members to each other and promote a positive dialog about collaboration that helps all attending.
Maximize your keynote speakers.
The educational program is probably the easiest part of the joint meeting, especially if the groups have similar interests, but don’t overlook its importance. Selecting a very high-profile speaker will create a unique excitement that’s not the norm. Selecting two or three really good speakers has its advantages also if you plan to do breakout sessions or deeper dives. Don’t hire more than three speakers though, or your members will feel like they are missing out. Inspiration and business leadership are two qualities to look for. Don’t get too technical or specific on content because it won’t apply to all attendees.
Control your costs, but don’t go cheap.
Make sure people get the most important parts of your convention experience, then compromise on other aspects. The members are paying the same rates to attend the joint meeting, so when they see double the amount of people, they will naturally think the convention will make double the profit. Meeting planners know this is not the case. Large groups incur additional costs for security, F&B and more, so be conscious of how everything is presented. If your members are used to plated dinners, don’t go with only reception style meals because its makes more sense for a larger group. Also, don’t have each association order their own food, make it consistent.
This is one of the hardest parts about merging cultures for a joint meeting to decide how revenues and expenses are matched. That being said, a joint meeting is a great time to try new things and innovate, so don’t be afraid to try something new where it makes sense. After you meet your basic needs, be creative in how other aspects of the event are presented.
Have fun. Be a Champion.
In the end, your members want to feel like you have their back. They appreciate responsiveness, honesty and the feeling that you have their well-being at heart. Have fun at the event and be a champion on-site for your organization. Offer help to all attendees, promote a positive and collaborative mindset, and introduce people to one another. The little things are noticed.
Joint meeting organizers have a very important role to play in supporting volunteer leaders who have been involved in planning for many years. Let them help you spread the word about what’s really important at the meeting – advancing your industry and creating new business opportunities.