Professional associations are vital organisations, providing a focus for professionals working in the same or similar fields. Associations represent their members and give them the opportunity for networking and collegiate engagement, as well as opportunities for ongoing learning to advance members’ careers.
An association’s annual or biennial conference is a vital component to any associations calendar, as it provides these networking, career development and learning opportunities. The conference has the ability to connect existing members, engage new members and provide an injection of energy and direction to the group.
Association conferences are unique in that they must always have their eye on the financial bottom line. Traditionally the conference is geared to make a profit which is essential to contribute to the annual management and running of the association. This can be a big challenge, as associations will want to keep their registration fees low, so attendance is affordable for their members.
As a result, most associations will reach out to their industry to provide financial support by offering the opportunity to sponsor and /or exhibit at the conference. This is an important component and must be managed carefully. Sponsors and exhibitors are looking for interaction with the members and the opportunity to form lasting relationships. If they are treated simply as a source of income and their return on investment isn’t considered, then they won’t support the event in years to come. Associations must value the relationship with their industry and treat them as true partners, ensuring they have ample opportunity to engage with delegates in as many ways as possible to ensure a real return on their investment. If associations do this well, then they can expect their industry support to grow from year to year.
The budget for an association conference is a unique beast; ever changing and requiring constant evaluation. It differs from a budget for a corporate conference because you don’t know exactly what revenue is likely to be generated from registrations or sponsorship and exhibition. It is a true balancing act and requires skill and adaptability. A good understanding of what is essential expenditure in delivering a conference to professional standards and what is a “nice to have” option is important. It is also important to know when the “break-even” point is reached, so that those additional non-essential options can be incorporated. Most associations are understandably conservative with their funds and may not understand that they must invest in their conference to make it a professional and sustainable event. Investment generates profitability.
There are many reasons delegates decide to come to an association conference. Most importantly the decision will be based on the quality of the program and its relevance to their work practice. A well-structured and interesting program that pushes the boundaries and provokes thoughtful insights will secure a good delegate attendance. There also needs to be ample opportunity for delegates to engage with each other. So often the mistake is made to pack the program with too many presentations, leaving little time for networking and no one is happy. There is a very important balance between program and networking time that contributes to the overall success of the event.
Even with restricted budgets, association conferences need to embrace technology and innovation. There are so many opportunities now to deliver conferences that offer engagement through apps, audience response systems, hybrid and virtual technologies. Delivering a conference year after year without change is unappealing, delegates expect more and are looking for an enhanced experience.
Association conferences also need to review their impact on the environment and introduce sustainable practices, moving on from old technologies. For instance, it may no longer be necessary to fly all the key speakers to present face to face as the technology to bring them to the conference virtually is now well developed and reliable. There is also a move to healthier and lighter conference catering using local produce, the removal of plastic water bottles and reducing general waste.
Most of all an association conference needs to be inspiring and rejuvenating. Delegates need to leave the conference feeling that their participation and time away from work was well worthwhile and the conference had real purpose. This will ensure that the conference builds on its success from year to year and will contribute to the growth and financial stability of the association.
Written by Dianna Crebbin, Director