Chapters want to host events that everyone talks about. But, as we discussed in our previous post, if chapter events aren’t providing what members seek—interaction, connections, and community as well as memorable learning experiences—members will stay at work or home instead.
In our recent webinar, Adding Snap, Crackle & Pop to Chapter Events, Peggy Hoffman, executive director and president of Mariner Management, shared dozens of ways to give members the events they desire, and our webinar participants provided even more proven ideas.
5 strategies for increasing chapter event attendance
#1: Outside the meeting room
Experiment with bringing education to new places and watch as different conversations arise.
Learn in transit:
- Walk and talks.
- Rent an Amtrak car and invite speakers to address conference attendees on their way to the venue.
- Pub crawl with a different topic for discussion at each location.
- PR agency (or other potential employer) crawl for students.
- Bicycle bar tour of different properties for commercial real estate professionals.
- Local realtor association’s bus tour of new developments with adult beverages on the bus and snacks provided by each developer.
Do something different:
- Learn how to take pictures on the fly using your phone on a PR chapter photo safari, followed by a dinner conversation about takeaways.
- Visit a craft and art museum for a hands-on session on generating creativity during the workday.
- Take members to a service project—food pantry, park cleanup, tree plant, or school.
Combine learning and play:
- Technical tour of a local water park for engineers, then stay and play with families.
- Brewery tour focused on sanitation.
- Technical presentation on transportation issues followed by go kart racing.
- Behind-the-scenes building operations tour of an aquarium for building/property managers.
- Kayak tour to discuss how local natural resources drive economic development.
“You might think that holding a meeting outside, the attendees will be distracted,” says the International Association of Conference Centers’ newly released Meeting Room of the Future white paper. “Brain science shows that learning in an unexpected environment, like outside in nature, triggers the release of dopamine to the hippocampus, the part of the brain that creates memories.”
Plan for post-trip conversations on the bus, at the bar, or around the table about what you’ve learned. These memories help cement the learning.
#2: Small pods in large meetings
To help create connections among attendees, create the conditions for small communities within large gatherings. Many associations and chapters already do this with roundtables, fireside chats, masterminds, and workshops. Here are additional ideas from Peggy and webinar chat participants.
The National Restaurant Association created a new space on their show floor, the Water Cooler, to host crowdsourced conversations and group meetups. Attendees voted for their favorite topics on the meeting app and social media. The app agenda listed upcoming discussions. Since it was the first time for this idea, staff seeded some of the discussion topics.
The meetups gave members of special-interest groups—students, sustainability devotees, and mixologists—a place to connect. The space saw lots of small group conversations and busy whiteboards.
Hackathons—when someone brings a problem and the group solves the issue together—are another favorite. Many associations also host small sessions on the show floor where attendees can explore new products or get a tutorial.
Another favorite is conference group dinners. Attendees sign up for dinner with a small group based on the type of meal they’re interested in having.
#3: New ways of networking
If a member only has superficial conversations at a chapter event, they might not come to the next one because that’s just a sugar high, says Peggy. Design opportunities for conversations that go beyond small talk.
Sarah Michel, CSP, vice president of professional connexity for Velvet Chainsaw Consulting, said, “We can’t just leave networking up to chance anymore, with cocktail receptions where we hope and pray” that attendees will form new relationships, rather than having “empty interactions or huddling with people they already know.”
Chapters must design an intentional structure for networking to make sure it’s happening in a meaningful way. Many chapters have had success with speed networking. In one version, participants are given a question to discuss or a conversation starter. They’re asked to take notes on the conversation and share interesting points before moving on to the next person.
Another idea is ‘Ask an Expert.’ People with topic expertise sit on one side of the table. Attendees come in and ask them for advice.
Host a Human Library made up of veteran thought leaders or young experts (maybe someone who runs a social media account). Attendees can ‘check out’ a person for 15 minutes to pick their brain.
During lunch at chapter leadership conferences, designate tables for specific leadership positions so members can get to know their leadership peers.
#4: The “power of moments”
In their latest book, The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact, Chip and Dan Heath describe what happens during a powerful moment:
- The moment elevates. The attendee is lifted out of the ordinary and taken to another level of understanding, connectivity, or experience.
- The moment brings new insight and shapes the way the attendee sees the world.
- The moment creates connection and deepens the attendee’s ties with others.
Which moments during an event have the potential to be powerful and how do can you optimize them?
In a Fast Company article on the power of moments, the Heaths described the Castle Hotel in Los Angeles, a nondescript hotel that’s always rated in the top three on TripAdvisor because of a powerful moment.
A guest picks up a mysterious red phone at poolside and someone answers, “Popsicle Hotline, may I help you?” Minutes later, a waiter wearing white gloves and carrying a silver tray delivers a free popsicle to the guest. “Customers will forgive small swimming pools and underwhelming room décor, as long as you deliver some magical peak moments.”
A wedding ceremony, according to the Heaths, features all three ‘power of moment’ traits: the elevation of fine food, dancing, and fancy clothes, the insight afforded by toasts and stories, and the connection of sharing the moment with loved ones. The Heath brothers say memories are “snippets of scenes. Moments.”
Webinar chat participants provided more examples:
- Playing with dogs or puppies.
- Entertainment in unexpected locations, like registration lines.
- Playful art projects.
- A fun hang-out space on the show floor with yard games, digital jukebox, comfy seats, pergola, and lights strung to look like a backyard party.
Get sponsors involved in planning these opportunities for networking and conversation. The backyard party was called the Sunz Deck after the sponsor.
Peggy described an opening session at a Maryland chapter’s conference—a panel on how to improve Baltimore’s image. The power moment occurred when the facilitator invited attendees to share their passion about Baltimore. The panel, all movers and shakers in Baltimore, heard the collective wisdom in the room, and could take some of those ideas back to the office and act on them.
The Heaths say, “We can be the designers of moments that deliver elevation and insight and pride and connection. These exceptional minutes and hours and days—they are what make life meaningful. And they are ours to create.”
#5: Conversation catalysts
Conversation connects people and catalyzes action. “Through conversation we discover who cares about what, and who will take accountability for next steps,” according to an article titled Conversation as a Core Business Process.
The truth is: people usually remember the conversations they had in the hallway or at lunch more than they remember the speaker. Chapters must understand the importance of conversation at events and figure out how to create the conditions conducive to conversation.
Start with using name tags to facilitate conversation. Add an “Ask Me About” box to the registration form and ask attendees to fill in an icebreaker, for example, “my craziest work idea” or “what needs to go in our profession.”
Use conversations to help attendees find answers to their challenges. An example from a MeetingsNet article: Invite industry outsiders to an extended lunch-and-conversation session with different tables designated for specific topics. “Both the attendees and the visiting professionals stand to learn from each other’s experiences and perspectives.”
The goal of these five strategies is to provide a memorable learning experience that helps attendees get to know each other and helps the chapter build a stronger community. But how do you begin to nudge them in this direction? That’s the topic of our next post: coaching chapters on improving the event experience.