Expand Beyond Education: Creating a New Conference Experience
When you think of the average conference, what comes to mind? For most of us, it’s spending our days in educational sessions and our evenings sharing stories (and perhaps a few cocktails) with fellow professionals.
If you happened to be an attendee of the Annual Assembly of Hospice and Palliative Care, co-sponsored by the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine (AAHPM) and the Hospice and Palliative Nurses Association (HPNA), however, you’d likely add memories of playing with service dogs, participating in a traditional New Orleans jazz funeral, and rocking out to local musical artists to that list!
Encouraging Extraordinary Experiences
For more than a decade, AAHPM and HPNA have striven to break out of the traditional conference mold by offering their Annual Assembly attendees not just world-class education, but also truly unique and memorable experiences. According to Laura Davis, CAE, director of marketing, membership, and communications for AAHPM, every aspect of the conference, when combined, gives their members something greater than just knowledge about their industry.
“Going to college, for example, is more than just taking classes; it’s an experience,” she said. “[You also need to] think of a conference as more than just a place to go to learn.”
When you’re working with hospice and palliative medicine clinicians, who spend their days caring for the most seriously ill patients and their families, encouraging experiences that help attendees relax, recharge, and rejuvenate is all the more important—especially as burnout threatens this already overworked, and underpopulated, workforce.
For AAHPM, that means providing amenities such as access to pet therapy animals; meditation and relaxation sessions; location-specific cultural programming, such as art museum tours; services of remembrance and celebration to honor the many patients and friends lost in the past year; and other activities that give attendees dynamic options for connecting with their fellow colleagues—and having a little fun.
Beyond Member Benefits
Although every activity is designed to benefit the attendee, many reap rewards for the association, as well.
For example, AAHPM and HPNA have integrated an expansive social media program into their event, encouraging attendees to market their positive experiences to massive audiences of followers and colleagues—many of whom might never be reached using AAHPM’s and HPNA’s lists of contacts alone.
A competitive Twitter wall, for example, encourages attendees to add their insights to the ever-growing list of Tweets displayed for all to see. Volunteer “Twitter Correspondents” collect attendee questions from Twitter and pose them during panel sessions, ensuring that people who typically wouldn’t speak up have their voices heard. A branded “I Am” (or, at the 2018 conference, “We Are” wall), where attendees post their responses to the question “who am I?,” encourages attendees to express themselves and makes for a fantastic photo opportunity. And a social media lounge and power tower, where attendees can charge their phones—a necessity for many at all-day events—encourages conversation among colleagues who may never have met otherwise.
The result is targeted and extensive marketing—and a new list of potential social media contacts and followers—on which the associations can capitalize long after the event is over.
Evolving Your Event
So how can other associations create experiences out of their events? According to Davis, one of the keys is knowing your audience.
“Our Service of Remembrance, for example, isn’t probably going to work at another association’s annual meeting,” she said. “But for our members, it represents something important to them that we know they would appreciate.”
Engaging the experts—namely, your programming or planning committee—is another way to ensure the agenda is appropriate for your attendees. Davis suggests having volunteers reflect not just on conferences, but all of the events they’ve attended in the past, to come up with fresh ideas for potential new programming and to ensure they think of the conference as more than just an educational activity.
Regardless of what you incorporate, however, it’s important to ensure the experience evolves to meet the needs and wishes of your audience, Davis said.
“Every year, it’s about trying to tweak (the event) and make it personal for attendees. Just because something happens every year doesn’t mean it needs to be the same,” she said. “Listen to what people are telling you and be willing to make those changes.”
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