David Pointon from FAST Meetings Co. looks at three challenges facing association leaders in running successful conferences, and what can be done about them.

There is a growing gap between traditional conference formats and the changes in delegates’ work environments, which therefore affects their expectations about how they learn and collaborate in conferences.
To better understand the impact of this gap on association conferences we conducted a series of interviews with association conference leaders about the challenges and opportunities they face when managing their conferences.
We found three themes:

1 waiting for technology to deliver on the promise

People often wait for technology to solve our problems. We get caught up in introducing tools with the hope they will make our lives easier. However, this only happens once you:
Deeply understand and match the needs of the users with relevant technology
Take the time to educate and engage users to use the technology
Current conference technology offers a lot, but so far association leaders feel the technology is not being utilised to its fullest. Voting systems add limited value and efforts to enable collaboration are not yet supported with tools fit for purpose and overall program design – before, during and after the conference.
Sue Blundell from English Australia said, “Conference apps have helped the right people connect with one another. However, we’ve experienced real barriers to people engaging with technology. Next year will be a longer lead-time. We’re really going to go through the process to have people trained and able to use it.”
If you really believe the technology you are using will add value to delegates’ experience, take the time to help delegates learn how to use the tools.
However, real collaboration and peer-to-peer learning requires program design that informs the technology solution, and not the other way around. Firstly deciding what type of knowledge sharing and user experience will be useful to delegates can then inform choices of the most relevant tools.

2 struggling to shift learning to the next level of value

The university sector has been rocked by MOOC’s (Massive Open Online Courses). These are providing uni-quality content for free. Along with, iTune U and the myriad of other great content sites, delegates are no longer seeing the value in just sitting passively in classroom-style conference sessions.
Tony Peacock, CEO of CRC Association said, “People are less and less willing to sit and listen. They want more interaction, less slides and more engagement.”
Throw out the tables. Get rid of data projectors. Ask your session leaders to come up with provocative ideas and questions that will prompt discussion. Provide practical case studies and allow people to workshop the relevance for their own organisations. Debate industry topics, and create dynamic panels that seek to address audience concerns.

3 winning the battle for members’ budget to get bums on seats

Budgets are tight. The registration of four staff from your member organisation at the next annual conference is no longer an automatic decision.
Whilst leaders may not think explicitly about ROI, the questions they ponder include “Do we really need people to go?”, “How else can I provide staff development at lower costs?” and “Did we get real value from last year?”
Margo Asimus, executive director of AWMA said, “It is vital as conference organisers that we engage with senior managers, to help them see the positive impact. We need to plan conferences where businesses will support their employees attending.”
What does your conference impact report look like? Do you measure and demonstrate the lasting results of your annual event to your members and their employers?
The real value of your conference is changing. It is no longer enough to offer delegates an array of topics. Delegates and their employers are seeking a stronger integration of practical learning, deep engagement with industry peers and alignment around issues that are central to their businesses and professions. This can help them bring innovative methods and practical changes to their workplaces to drive measurable improvements.

shifting association conferences

These three real world challenges association conference leaders are facing present opportunities that are not just at a surface level, but cut more deeply to the need for fundamental changes to the model and mindset of your conference.
Just as we have seen sweeping changes in the way we communicate socially, the time has come for conferences to match these changes through bold and innovative program design.
Being clearer on the practical and lasting value to your members and their organisations will help you maintain a strong and relevant program that continues growing from one year to the next.

David Pointon is the managing director of FAST Meetings Co., an Australian based organisation dedicated to improving the productivity of meetings and conferences worldwide. To learn more about FAST Meetings visit