Archive for May, 2021

Wellness Options Flourish During Virtual Events

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Since the start of the pandemic, associations have transitioned their fitness and wellness offerings at conferences to virtual ones. Here’s a look at how they’re keeping self-care and workouts top of mind during their online events.

For the past several years, fun runs, yoga classes, and meditation sessions were often incorporated into in-person conferences.

And they haven’t gone anywhere during the pandemic. In fact, wellness activities are still a staple of virtual and hybrid events. Here’s a look at how association conferences have maintained these opportunities during their online conferences since March 2020.

First up is the American Association of Endodontists. After its April 2020 in-person annual meeting was cancelled, AAE launched the 2020 Endo Wellness Challenge, powered by Heka Health, over four days in September as an alternative event.

The challenge was to see how many steps participants could take during the challenge, with tracked steps, a leaderboard, and overall step count featured on the Heka Health app. Participants were competing for top prizes like free registration to AAE’s 2021 virtual annual meeting and a complimentary subscription to “Endo on Demand,” an educational content platform.

“It really was something we wanted to do to support overall health and wellness,” Assistant Executive Director Tanya Kinsman told Convene magazine. “And we wanted it for not only health and wellness for the individual, but also for the association and for the endodontic community. We really encouraged any friends, family, even corporate partners who might not necessarily be sponsoring it—it was open to anyone to join.”

Beyond wellness, the app also gave sponsors the opportunity to connect with AAE members they would typically speak with at in-person events. Through the app, “the sponsor could send out an email with a video link or set up virtual sales calls,” Kinsman said.

Plus, the challenge allowed members to raise money for the AAE Foundation for Endodontics. Participants were able to match a dollar contribution for each step or mile completed with a friend, donate $5 per mile achieved, or challenge colleagues to a “step bet.” Users could also buy “bonus steps” to add to their step count by making in-app donations. According to Kinsman, participants walked a collective 5 million steps and donated $20,000 to the foundation during the event.

AAE isn’t the only group emphasizing virtual wellness: Knowing that its members were feeling stressed and burned out supporting children and families, the Association of Early Childhood Educators of Alberta hosted an online wellness conference last month. Sessions covered everything from finding your balance to understanding the neurobiology of stress to recognizing the importance of self-care.

Then there’s the National Conference Association’s virtual convention. During the March 2021 meeting, NCA hosted a yoga and stretching break with Ailis Garcia, founder of The Strong Movement. Along those same lines, the Tennessee Bar Association held daily workouts during its June 2020 virtual convention. Among the options offered: Zumba, dance, body sculpting, and chair yoga.

Personally, I never imagined myself being a fan of virtual wellness activities. But, as we hit 15 months since the start of the pandemic, I’ve found myself relying on apps like Peloton, Johnson & Johnson Official 7 Minute Workout, and Obe Fitness to get home workouts in. So, it’s no surprise that meeting participants are willing to take advantage of virtual workout and wellness opportunities too.

What wellness activities have you incorporated into your virtual and hybrid conferences? Please share in the comments.

The post Wellness Options Flourish During Virtual Events appeared first on Associations Now.

A New Membership Model Proves Its Value

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Some organizational soul searching uncovered an outdated, cumbersome membership model that needed to be revamped. The reinvention focused on enhancing inclusivity and offering ways for members to engage on their own terms.

A lot of associations are reassessing their membership models and realizing they are outdated and—perhaps even worse—confusing. The National Speakers Association reached that conclusion after some reflection.

“It was a more of a traditional model, based on your level of experience, as opposed to how you want to engage with NSA,” said Mary Lue Peck, NSA’s president and CEO.

The group conducted qualitative and quantitative research and analysis of the marketplace—both nonprofits and for-profits—to gauge what they were doing. “Essentially, membership is the ultimate subscription business, and more and more companies are trying to get into the subscription business,” she said.

NSA’s purpose is to help thought leaders build better speaking businesses and be better speakers. Like many associations, it traditionally put a heavy emphasis on membership recruitment, but didn’t always see the results they wanted.

Peck talked to a lot of potential members to figure out what was preventing them from joining, and she kept hearing a similar story. People said they tried to join when they were new to the field and didn’t think they met NSA’s qualifications. By the time they had the qualifications, they decided they didn’t need the group.

“We put up a door saying, ‘We don’t want you,’ which is the opposite of today’s culture,” Peck said. It also was at odds with the community NSA serves. “Having a membership model that was exclusive didn’t align with a lot of our members’ values,” she added.

Public speakers are solopreneurs and struggle to make it, so putting up walls between them and the tools NSA provides was counterproductive. “If our mission is to empower professional speakers, then we have to provide tools to prepare people at all levels,” Peck said.

Peck’s team identified three primary ways for professional speakers to engage with NSA: learn, subscribe, and join. The membership model essentially treats those engagement levels as a progression. For the “learn” component, NSA allows potential members to access certain resources for free.

Then, when they are ready to become a professional speaker, they can subscribe to NSA for a monthly fee. Those who are assessing the profession and aren’t sure if they want to commit to it completely can maintain that monthly subscription, which provides access to more resources, the digital magazine, and recordings of NSA’s monthly business and speaker series. When a subscriber is ready to fully join NSA, the organization offers three levels of membership based on how they want to engage.

Peck said NSA learned a valuable lesson during the pandemic. The group put out a lot of digital offerings and didn’t know if members would be ready for a higher level of digital engagement.

“Not only were they ready for it, they embraced it and asked for more,” she said. The team realized they could offer more supplemental chances to network virtually throughout the year, not just once a year at the annual summit.

“Let’s keep them active all year round,” Peck said, “because the more engaged your members are, the higher your renewal rate.”

Before embarking on a membership transformation, “make sure your organization is ready for the change,” she said. It is an emotional journey, especially if your members are highly engaged, like NSA’s.

“You can’t talk about it enough,” Peck said.

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The Post-Pandemic Future of In-Person Meetings

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Tech tricks learned during the pandemic can improve in-person meetings as we slowly return to normal.

How will lessons learned from the pandemic affect future face-to-face meetings?

Until We Meet Again…Face to Face

“Hey, can you hear me? Is my microphone on? Sorry, I should be good at this by now!”

Our industry, like so many others, came to a screeching halt when the pandemic hit in 2020, and we were forced to settle into the norm of virtual meetings. And while we’ve all grown comfortable with simply being camera-ready from the waist up for video calls, we’re still longing for a return to face-to-face meetings. The pandemic has shown us how valuable in-person connections are and that no amount of technology can replicate those experiences.

Despite the current trend of offering in-person and virtual experiences with hybrid meetings, there are numerous reasons why returning exclusively to face-to-face meetings will be paramount, especially for meetings focusing on training and certifications. Many medical meetings provide professionals with hands-on instruction as part of their continued education. Technical students depend on in-person demonstrations to effectively showcase their abilities as part of their career advancement.

But incorporating components from online events such as virtual booths, breakout networking sessions and remote speakers into meetings can bring value on a larger scale. While this may require additional labor and a bigger budget, it will increase participation from attendees who may not have previously had the opportunity to join. Improved accessibility can significantly grow an association’s member base, potentially across the globe.

For in-person meetings, cleanliness will continue to take priority at convention centers, hotels, restaurants, and other venues. A newly heightened awareness of sanitation will keep attendees safeguarded, with the health of all participants being a top priority that can also provide additional benefits. For example, the trend toward using mobile check-ins for touch-free interactions can also streamline and speed up registration processes. The ability to provide services we need more quickly and efficiently with the help of new technologies is always a positive.

The resilience of our industry has been proven throughout the past year. Many organizations have had to do more with fewer resources. Possibly the most important lesson from the pandemic is to be nimble. It’s important to be willing to pivot and have a plan for the situations we may least expect. As face-to-face meetings return, we must remember what the last year has taught us, and celebrate how far we’ve come.

When the time comes to turn off our webcams, put away our comfy pants and return to places we haven’t visited in many months, we will do so with a newfound sense of appreciation and gratitude—and a few extra tricks up our sleeves.

In Atlanta, we pride ourselves on a collaborative hospitality community that is dedicated to making every meeting a success. Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau works as a team with our hotels, venues, restaurants, neighbors and ambassadors to create a seamless meeting experience. Now is the time to see Atlanta like you never have before.

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Three Keys to a Better Post-Pandemic Culture

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All those Zoom calls have kept your organization running, but plenty of challenges remain. Two association experts share some keys for managing through the pandemic and beyond.

Remember all the concern in organizations about silos? Then along came the pandemic.

“If there were silos before, they’re canyons now,” says Maddie Grant, cofounder of the association and workplace consultancy Propel. Grant and Propel’s other cofounder, Jamie Notter, have seen that associations have been able to manage through the essentials of keeping things running. But remote offices tend to erode opportunities for collaboration, Notter says. So those silos are still standing.

“You can’t have informal, casual, spur-of-the-moment conversations, and I think people have underestimated the value of those,” Notter says. “They didn’t realize how much information they got passively by being in the office…. From a culture point of view, they’ve had to make a decision: Are we going to slow down our decision making, or are we going to include fewer people? That’s the choice, and you don’t get to do both.”

That distance has consequences. I and others have written a lot during the pandemic about how associations have struggled to preserve their cultures remotely, and some data suggests that boards have effectively remained in a holding pattern through the past year. Grant and Notter have their own take on the matter: Late last year, they published Association Apocalypse, an e-book that drills into some current cultural challenges and some thoughts about what the post-COVID landscape will look like, and much of it involves getting smart about leading with data. To that end, they shared some thoughts about some of the actions leaders should take to adapt their organizations.

We don’t do that dot-connect thing.

Get savvier about goal-setting and the data you need to do it. Association Apocalypse quotes from leadership pro Verne Harnish’s “Rockefeller Habits,” the second of which is “everyone is aligned with the #1 thing that needs to be accomplished this quarter to move the company forward.” That shared sense of purpose would go a long way toward improving an association’s culture. But, of course, that’s easier said than done—people can gather reams of data and talk about strategic goals, but understanding the value of both across the organization is difficult.

“I find that data-gathering and strategy conversations miss a deeper understanding of what drives the success of an association,” Notter says. “I should want to know what members are experiencing and fill a gap for them. But we’re not making connections around experience, internal capacity, and then exceeding expectations with something amazing. We don’t do that dot-connect thing.”

Stop thinking about data as somebody else’s job. Notter and Grant write that “if everyone is doing something to gather data, you’ll end up with a more nuanced and accurate understanding of the problems you should be solving for them.” Problem is, organizations don’t tend to make gathering and understanding data something that everyone takes part in.

“There’s a culture in the association industry, I think, where the people who know about data are the data experts, and everybody else doesn’t touch it because they don’t know enough about how it works,” Grant says.

Build that understanding around actionable goals. Notter says that associations, like any business, ought to have clear targets for success. But too often, they tend to develop goals that are as wide-ranging and unspecific as their mission statements. “Make it a binary-outcome target,” Notter says. “If you’re asking people if they liked a conference, then the target should be something like ‘go from a 4.1 to 4.3 [rating].’ You either did it or you didn’t. What that forces is learning conversations when you don’t hit it.”

Staffers can naturally be anxious about what it means for their position at an organization if those targets don’t get hit—for many, a “learning conversation” can feel a whole lot like blame. All the more reason, Notter says, to get savvier about data.

“If you want to reduce the anxiety, then you need data points that tell you before you fail that something’s off track,” he says. “We’re not as good at that, but I think this is something that you grow into and learn over time.”

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Create a Culture of Feedback at Your Organization

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The School Nutrition Association is moving toward a culture of feedback. By taking steps to help employees communicate better, the group hopes to increase innovation, revenue opportunities, and member engagement.

For many, the work-from-home conditions of the pandemic have brought into focus the importance of an organizational culture that puts employees in position to perform best. One way to achieve this environment is by fostering a culture of feedback, where it was readily given and received, says Rhea Steele, CAE, chief of staff for the School Nutrition Association (SNA).

“With a culture of feedback, you will actually see increased innovation because employees feel safer talking with other employees about how to problem solve, how to address an issue, or even just an idea that they had,” Steele said. “With greater innovation, you have additional opportunities for revenue.”

Steele, who previously worked at an organization with a strong culture of feedback, is using that knowledge to guide SNA. However, Steele also recognizes big changes don’t happen overnight, so SNA is deliberately moving in phases.

First, it moved away from annual evaluations with six-month check-ins to quarterly conversations to help ensure critical conversations are not delayed. SNA is also developing the structural backbone required to build a culture of feedback: strong personal connections.

“We are creating structured opportunities for the staff to hang out and get to know each other while we’re still in COVID, so they can stay connected,” Steele said. “By ensuring the individual human connections between everybody, it’s easier and safer to build in feedback.”

Next, Steele plans to layer in opportunities for feedback with game-based activities. “Structured activities help them get comfortable with receiving feedback first and then approaching somebody else with feedback next,” Steele said.

Eventually, staff will practice giving and receiving feedback, focusing on things like how to provide feedback in a one-on-one situation, how to manage their own emotions and reactions, and how to ensure conversations are productive.

Steel described what this looked like at her previous organization: “We had staff do a practice conversation and practice scenarios to get comfortable with the ideas in a situation that wasn’t actually emotion-driven,” she said. “We were creating a safe space for them to be uncomfortable with something where it didn’t hold day-to-day emotional meaning.”

Leadership Matters

While a culture of feedback can work for just a single department, it works best at the organizational level where it’s supported by executive leadership.

“This has to be driven from leadership,” Steele said. “The visible actions by the leader are what reinforce the culture. As with any culture change, if you verbalize something but are acting differently, the acting is what is going to rule the day.”

In addition, when leaders aren’t open to feedback, it stifles the process. “Sometimes, when the really challenging feedback comes into the leadership, they want to focus on, ‘Who said this?’ and rationalize or come up with reasons why it doesn’t need to be addressed,” Steele said.

Instead, it’s important to respond to all the feedback. Steele said organizations can share all the questions and responses. Many answers will be easy and straightforward. For tougher questions, she recommends acknowledging the question was heard and setting a later date for response, as leadership formulates an answer.

One reason SNA isn’t trying to rush its transition to a culture of feedback is to ensure leaders are fully trained. “As a leadership team, we want to make sure we are on the same page about how we are approaching feedback and how we are supporting it—that we are consistently supporting this culture in the same way across the leadership team,” Steele said.

For associations looking to implement a culture of feedback, Steele had a couple of recommendations. “Look around to see what elements of this culture already exist,” she said. “Look at those as the baseline and figure out how to become more intentional about those elements. How do we help that happen elsewhere [in the organization]?”

Second, hunt for deficiencies. “Where is the feedback lacking, and what are the opportunities to shift actions or behaviors?” she said. “Where do you have opportunities to shift communication in really small ways but that will lay the groundwork and help you build over time?”

A culture of true feedback transforms an organization. And it will even help your members. “When we wind up in this space, we provide much, much better service to our members, because as we are practicing our culture of feedback inside the organization, we are also doing it with our members,” Steele said.

What has your association done to make staff more comfortable both giving and receiving feedback? Share in the comments.

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Is “Asynchronous” the Future of Meetings?

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The shift to virtual events has given rise to a meeting format where discussions aren’t held in real time. Here’s what asynchronous meetings can do for your organization and how some associations are incorporating asynchronous elements into their conferences.

With meeting planners around the globe coming to terms with the new state of meetings, asynchronous events are coming to the fore. The explosion of virtual and hybrid meetings this past year has given rise to this format, with some arguing asynchronous is the future of meetings.

If that’s true, association professionals need to get up to speed on what an asynchronous meeting or event is, what associations are doing with the format, and how it affects the attendee experience.

What Are Asynchronous Meetings?

Asynchronous communication refers to any exchange that doesn’t happen in real time—where there’s a lag between when a message is sent and when the person receiving it interprets it and potentially responds. Common examples are email chains, notes on project management platforms, or comment threads on message boards, where individuals are communicating without having a live discussion.

An asynchronous meeting or event follows that format: Instead of allotting a specific time for a live conversation or presentation, participants review materials, watch pre-recorded content, and answer prompts on their own time.

How Associations Are Using Asynchronous Meetings

Since the switch to virtual events, more associations have taken to the asynchronous format, turning in-person gatherings into virtual ones with on-demand content and offering more flexibility to now-dispersed audiences. The American Academy of Pediatrics put together an on-demand conference in 2020, which features a digital library of medical education videos. Those who register have 24/7 online access to the content, which they can view on their own time.

Last year, at the beginning of the pandemic, the Western Social Science Association shifted its in-person conference to a virtual one and put together a website with submitted presentations. The conference allowed for “a virtual exchange of ideas, comments, and thoughts about the submitted presentations, without requiring the ‘attendees’ to be logged in at any specific day or time.”

A year later, the Association for Distance Education and Independent Learning held its first spring asynchronous conference, which featured pre-recorded presentations submitted by industry professionals. Each day of the five-day conference, presentations and discussion opportunities were posted to the association’s LinkedIn page.

The Impact of Asynchronous Meetings

The asynchronous format presents new opportunities:

  • Flexibility. Organizers don’t have to worry about finding a time that works for all attendees—a particularly challenging task when considering multiple time zones.
  • Easier participation. Without a live component, those who are uncomfortable speaking in front of large groups can more easily contribute to the conversation in an asynchronous format.
  • Deeper conversation. Attendees have more time to digest information presented to them and formulate ideas.
  • Convenience. Attendees can contribute on their own time, at their own pace.

But asynchronous also comes with its own challenges:

  • Decreased efficiency. Conversations about small tasks that take minutes in a live meeting could drag on. For example, creative collaborations—like a brainstorm session—might lose momentum in an asynchronous format, as these meetings often rely on quick bursts of communication as participants bounce ideas off of each other.
  • Lack of connection. While all virtual formats lack in-person connections, asynchronous events may exacerbate the sense of disconnection as registrants engage with the content on their own or participate in conversations that are not in real time.
  • Loss of spontaneity. Great ideas are sometimes born out of impromptu conversations that naturally develop during a live conversation. An asynchronous meeting is more limited in its agenda and opportunities to share with others..

So how can associations make the most out of an asynchronous meeting while mitigating its drawbacks? The format works best in certain situations, but in any case leaders can take a few steps to help things go smoothly.

Preparing for an Asynchronous Meeting

Given the disconnected nature of asynchronous communication, meeting organizers need to make sure attendees are on the same page. This requires significant prep work: Organizers should provide a detailed meeting agenda with talking points, conversation starters, and a clear explanation of what is expected from attendees.

To ensure timely participation, organizers should set a deadline for when attendees must review the meeting’s materials and add notes or answers to thought starters. Project management software, such as Basecamp or Trello, may help streamline the organization of an asynchronous meeting by keeping meeting materials, notes, and comments in one place.


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5 Post-Pandemic Conference Program Design Changes

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“Never let a good crisis go to waste” has become a popular adage in the business world over the past year, for good reason. As it becomes more apparent that face-to-face events will return in some form this year, conference organizers have an opportunity to make changes that would have been more difficult to sell up the ladder in the past. It’s a good time for planners to challenge their organizations to make the meeting experience more valuable than ever.

As we work with conference organizers to plan the return of their major conferences, five conference design trends have emerged, which may be useful to keep in mind as you design your own events.

  1. Purposeful abandonment This is a nicer way of saying that you need to barbecue some sacred cows. Long-term traditions can deter next-generation conference participants. Some organizers are cutting back on pomp and circumstance in general sessions. No more opening prayers, recognizing those who have passed, obligatory leadership speeches, and long-winded awards presentations or processions. Others are reimagining their President’s Reception as a networking reception — with a focus on the attendee, not the leadership.
  2. Double-down on the main room This is where you can have the biggest impact. The conference that brings the industry back together and tugs at the emotional heartstrings will create a lasting impression. Instead of a general session in the morning and breakouts all day, some organizers are considering bookending each day with a main-room gathering.
  3. More white space Hallway conversations are going to be even more highly valued in our conference future. Consider chopping 15 minutes off of your concurrent sessions and planning 30-minute breaks. Attendees have been drowning in content. Draw a line in the sand and commit to having participant activities and small-group discussions in every session, which can spill over into hallway conversations.
  4. Community spaces Invest more into creating spaces that encourage attendee networking. Create a town-square-like environment that blends micro-learning, member services, refreshments, and entertainment. Delivering on community has never been more critical to your business events future.
  5. Leadership access If your leadership spends most of the conference at invite-only experiences, it’s time to set them free. Committees and boards have gotten really good at doing business via Zoom and Teams. Encourage them to continue this so that more of their time at the conference can be with the core attendee and member.

Which of these ideas would make the greatest impact at your conference? What would you add to the list?

 Adapted from Dave’s Forward Thinking column in PCMA’s Convene. Reprinted with permission of Convene, the magazine of the Professional Convention Management Association. ©2021.

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Good Reads You Might Have Missed: Nondues Revenue

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Looking for fresh ideas for your association’s nondues revenue strategy? These articles can help.

It may be the most evergreen topic in the association world: nondues revenue. It’s been particularly critical over the last year, as many associations saw membership decline during the pandemic, and as traditional sources of nondues revenue—particularly in-person conferences—took a major hit.

To catch up on your reading on this key topic, start with this list from Associations Now and ASAE:

How to Find Nondues Revenue Sources in 2021. The recent GrowthZone AMS annual survey highlighted an important trend—membership is dropping, and nondues revenue sources are going to have to pick up the slack. Amy Gitchell, the firm’s senior marketing communications specialist, highlights ways associations are getting creative about revenue, including “contract work” such as renting out buildings and handling grant writing.

Five Associations That Landed Nondues Revenue in 2020. If you need out-of-the-box ideas for nondues revenue, this roundup from organizations such as the Oncology Nursing Society and the Texas Medical Association should give you a few real-world thought-starters.

How Communications Teams Can Help Boost Nondues Revenue. In a 2019 report, Naylor Association Solutions uncovered potential for associations to raise revenue by leaning more on their communications teams, particularly through data. “Capturing as clean a data [set] as you can and getting some qualitative feedback from members, so you are delivering communications that your members want—that is how you will make those nondues revenue streams as effective as possible,” the firm’s Sarah Sain said.

Maximize Nondues Revenue by Optimizing Your Media Kit. MCI USA’s Brittany Shoul and Jeff Selway make the case that media kits should be more interactive, because they play a key role—introducing your brand to new and existing sponsors. “Your media kit needs to tell your association’s story in a way that buyers will find engaging,” they write. “Create content that understands your audience, communicates information about your products for them, and includes sales positioning.”

Grow Nondues Revenue With a Digital Platform Business. On a related note, Barry J. Barresi, CEO and founder of Association Ventures, argues that associations should build themselves out like platforms, along the lines of Uber and Airbnb. “Because associations have influence and central positioning within professional and industry ecosystems, they have great potential as platform leaders,” he writes.

Why Technology Can Help Small-Staff Associations Boost Nondues Revenue. A 2019 Community Brands report asserts that small associations are primed for generating nondues revenue simply by optimizing their digital offerings. One example? Job boards. “What will happen is the employers looking for candidates will pay them a premium to get in front of their niche audience,” said Dan Gaertner, then the firm’s executive vice president of membership solutions.


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Membership Pro Tip: Give Members Technical Tools for Success

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A new benefit gives an association’s members access to comprehensive resources that help them expand their businesses and optimize innovative technology tools in their field.

In response to requests from members for resources in an important practice area, the American Association of Orthodontics unveiled an exclusive new member benefit, AAO TechSelect. Members can learn from AAO’s Committee on Technology about how to create an in-house lab for fabricating clear aligners—custom mouthpieces that are an alternative to traditional braces.

How does it work?

AAO TechSelect features more than 40 videos, guides, and interactive tools, including an investment pay-back calculator. The program includes products that meet minimum technical criteria, and partners have agreed to offer the best price available to AAO members.

Why is it effective?

The program allows members to explore every component needed to fabricate in-house aligners. There is information on the basics, how to evaluate products, side-by-side product comparisons, and product-specific information. Members can also submit an inquiry form about products they are interested in, lock in TechSelect pricing, and receive more information from partners.

“TechSelect gives each of our members a roadmap to creating an in-house lab for fabricating aligners, which ultimately helps patients with an affordable, high-quality, and convenient solution,” said Dr. Ken Dillehay, AAO’s president, in a press release.

What’s the benefit?

There are several benefits to fabricating aligners in-house, including customized treatment plans, lower lab fees, and the ability to deliver aligners as soon as same day. The program aims to help orthodontists expand their patient base by offering high-quality, cost-effective, and convenient treatment options for minor cases.

“One of the goals of the AAO’s strategic plan is to drive transformation and innovation to advance members’ success,” Dillehay said. “I’m confident our members will find TechSelect a valuable resource as they explore bringing this technology to their practice.”

Do you have a membership pro tip? Please share in the comments or send me an email.

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Let’s Rethink the Virtual Exhibit Hall

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Virtual meetings don’t feel the same as their in-person equivalents, especially in the exhibit hall. But that may reflect an opportunity to reshape the event experience for vendors and exhibitors entirely.

With the conversion of in-person events into virtual ones over the past year, one big challenge that event planners face is translating the expo hall experience to a virtual environment.

Matthew Homann, founder and CEO of Filament LLC, considered these issues last December with a group of vendors in a hackathon-style event, the Vendor Value Workshop, which led to a manifesto that alerted event planners and exhibitors to vendors’ concerns. In short: Attempting to replicate in-person exhibit halls leads to disengaged attendees and vendors with little ROI.

One problem? The lack of serendipity. “What we weren’t able to replicate is the reason why so many people spend time in exhibit halls—the serendipitous connections,” he says.

A way to think about this is in terms of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a psychological framework that can be applied to the attendee experience, as a 2016 report highlighted. In a traditional event environment, attendees are often guided directly or indirectly through a convention center as they look for basic things, such as snacks, and more nuanced offerings, such as human connection.

Along the way, attendees might run into a vendor that draws their eye and get pulled in, creating the type of engagement that leads to growth for all parties. But virtual exhibit halls can’t replicate this growth-centric serendipity easily.

“None of those things happen particularly well virtually, and yet we’ve tried to build these halls to mimic what is fundamentally the worst part of the exhibit hall for everyone—hearing about products and getting picked on about something you might not want,” Homann says.

Shifting the Value Equation

So how do we solve this? Homann suggests that the value equation needs to be recalibrated for the virtual experience: “What if instead, you start to think about what can we do virtually that we can’t possibly imagine doing in person?”

A few ways this could come to life, based on findings from the Vendor Value Workshop:

Do more with data. In real-world experiences, vendors get an opportunity for face time with likely buyers but not a lot of access to data beyond an attendee’s email address. In virtual environments, there should be more of a focus on data-sharing.

Improve discoverability. In a physical meetings environment, it’s expected that a vendor can exist in only one place. In a virtual environment, that’s not a limitation, so vendors can show up in multiple places and categories based on attendee needs. “Instead of having to wander through and sift through hundreds of vendors that may or may not solve my problem, they’re all concentrated in one quote-unquote virtual community area,” Homann says.

Bake vendors into educational events. The real secret to making virtual exhibit halls work might be to remove the distinction between educational and expo-hall events entirely. “This bifurcation of vendor hall and conference sessions—that line can be blurred dramatically in a way that is hard to do in person,” he says. Homann recommends shortening the presentations but building in “commercials” between them—something that’s happening at many virtual events already. This also creates opportunities for interactive elements such as brainstorms, fostering some of the serendipity that might have been lost in other settings.

Stage a virtual “gift shop.” Homann says one of the most innovative ideas that came up during the session was the equivalent of an “exit through the gift shop,” an element at museums or theme parks where a commercial opportunity is presented as a part of the journey. “You don’t have to wander through this entire exhibit hall, but you might find a way that it makes sense to wander through a small part of it because these are all the vendors who purport to solve the problem that you have,” he says.

Thinking Beyond Virtual Once Again

Homann suggests that when we move back toward in-person events, there may be a push to revert to traditional formats—but that in many ways, the rise of virtual events has brought the cat out of the bag, which might make selling the value of in-person events harder than it has been in the past.

“What I hope happens is that we use this opportunity, really for the first time in 50 years, to reimagine and rethink what conferences should be,” he says.

That might require a more in-depth rethinking of events—and not just in the expo hall.

“Where I think there’s a real opportunity, especially as we have this permission to reimagine what these events might look like, is to really be creative in not only how we’re delivering information, but how we’re building engagement, exploring format, trying new things,” he says.


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