For associations, events play an essential role in member engagement, reach and even non-dues revenue. Whether it’s your annual conference or convention, or an all-new virtual event offering, having a detailed strategy can help you keep within your budget while still creating the best event possible.
Depending on your organization, you likely have a dedicated event planning staff or staffer who will undertake this challenge. But what do they need to know and how can they accomplish everything for every meeting on time?
In our guide to event planning for associations, we’ll outline the stages of successful planning, ways to leverage emerging technologies and strategies for driving engagement.
The Current State of Association Events
One of the biggest questions you’ll need to answer early on in the event planning process is what your event will look like. During the pandemic, many associations converted their traditional in-person meetings into entirely virtual models or created all-new events to help accommodate their members.
Not only did this help improve reach and engagement when in-person meetings were limited, but also it helped organizations cut costs linked to their biggest annual conferences. That’s likely why 92% of companies plan to continue hosting virtual events even with physical events resuming.
However, in-person events are looking to regain their popularity. In a study from Skift Meetings (formerly Event MB), 56.8% of event professionals said less than 25% of their events would be entirely online.
American Express Global Business Travel had similar insights, saying, “in-person meetings and events are projected to grow in 2022, with 81% of events expected to have an in-person element.”
Plan a Virtual Conference for Your Association
While you may be focused on bringing back your in-person event, that doesn’t mean your associations should abandon virtual altogether. These events still drive engagement and open the doors to members who would prefer an online experience, so be sure to read our complete guide for valuable insights:
Related: Everything you should know about virtual event production
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What Are the Biggest Challenges of Event Planning?
The last few years of the pandemic may have allowed event planning professionals to hone their skills in virtual productions. However, some challenges will still affect organizations planning in-person, hybrid or fully virtual events.
- Decreased Engagement – Even the best event can suffer from low attendance rates or engagement – and this is especially true for virtual events dealing with Zoom fatigued attendees. While you may have set expectations based on previous events, be sure you’re planning ways to improve engagement and adjust your goals throughout the lead-up to your event.
- Thoughtful Networking – One of the main reasons people attend in-person events is for networking opportunities. So, even if you have the best speakers and content planned, forgetting to plan for downtime can be a big problem. Be sure to have structured networking breaks throughout your events and also consider group activities outside of your event – who doesn’t enjoy a morning run?
- Event Staffing – There is no industry exempt from the impact of the Great Resignation. So when you start planning for your event, be sure you have a good idea of who will do what. While most day-to-day operations can be handled by staff, having a dependable pool of volunteers can help fill the gaps.
- Overscheduling – In an ideal world, all your speakers hit the stage at their planned time and your attendees leave the lunch buffet when they’re supposed to. But – that rarely happens. So be sure your schedule has built-in buffer times to keep things running smoothly.
- Logistics – If there is one constant in event planning, it’s that anything can happen! Whether it’s an unexpected storm that knocks out power or a vendor who fell through the night before your event, have a backup plan for your event's logistical aspects.
- Rising Costs – Whether it’s staff costs, rising food prices or even the budget for your production crew, costs can be prohibitive when planning your event. Be sure to have good, better, and best options to quickly adjust for unexpectedly high costs.
And speaking of costs, event planners are looking to host these new events with similar (34%) or slightly higher (19%) budgets from past years. So how do you know where to focus your efforts when planning for your association’s event? It starts by understanding the type of event you’ll be planning for your association and the different stages of your planning process.
Common Association Event Types
For associations and non-profit organizations, there are a few different types of events you’ll likely plan, and it often depends on your organization’s type
- Conferences – For professional organizations that focus on education and professional development, conferences will likely be your go-to event. Driven by keynotes and workshops, these events aim to educate your members while also facilitating networking.
- Educational Events – If the focus of your event is professional development and growth, then you’re likely planning an educational event. Not only will you have keynotes and presentations, but there will likely be more of a focus on workshops and team building throughout.
- Trade Shows – Trade associations are often the primary hosts for trade shows. These events are an opportunity for vendors, advocates and organizations to come together and plan for the future.
- Fundraisers – For non-profit organizations, fundraising events help raise awareness and funds for your cause. They can be anything from gala dinners to silent auctions and even organized outings (think a VIP golf trip), allowing plenty of versatility when planning.
- Networking – While conferences and trade shows rely heavily on keynotes and presentations, networking events are focused purely on connecting your members. Planning out icebreaker activities, teambuilding exercises and acquiring a location with enough space to do it all will be a top priority.
The 5 Stages of Successful Event Planning
Once you determine what type of event your association will host, the event planning process begins. While there are many elements you’ll need to address, working on them in stages can help make large-scale events manageable for smaller teams.
Before you announce your event and start worrying about getting your speakers and location, you first need a few essential details.
- Goals – As an organization, you should have set expectations for your event. Your goals should be smart – specific and measurable – and can include things like what you want your attendees to walk away learning, how many registrants you want, and if it’s a paid event, a profitability goal as well.
- Budgets – Before your event planning dreams take you to extravagant locales and the finest foods, knowing your budget will help keep your planning efforts grounded and practical. Associations should have a set budget that includes costs for locations, speakers and staff, to name a few.
For many associations, you likely already have an annual conference in place, which takes out another essential step in the pre-planning stage – branding and naming. According to Alexandra Watkins, Founder & Chief Innovation Officer of Eat My Words, the best event names connect to your organization's mission, have a memorable or catchy vibe, and create an emotional attachment for the user.
Once you have a general idea of your constraints, it’s time to begin planning the logistics for your event.
- Location – As we return to in-person events, finding a location is vital. Not only does the locale affect production (i.e., furniture layout and lighting), but also it can limit your attendee pool. You should also have open communication with your destination city's venue and visitor bureau to ensure you get the most out of your budget.
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- Platform – Whether in-person or virtual, your event platform acts as a hub for your event. Not only does it support resources like networking, scheduling and meetings, but it can also work to stream sessions during and after the event. There is a wide range of event platforms in the space, so understanding factors like your number of attendees, session length, and analytics can all influence your decision.
- Sponsors – One way to help support your budget is through sponsors. As an event planner, you should know how much money you’ll need from them and the access they’ll get in return. This can mean compiling data for them and facilitating meet and greets with potential customers.
- Themes/Topics – The topics and themes for your event significantly impact both your speakers and marketing efforts. While it’s OK to have sessions on a range of topics, having an overarching theme for your association event can help you focus on subject matter experts and supporting content you can use during your marketing efforts.
- Speakers – Speakers can make or break your event. Not only do they need to be engaging, but their presentations also need to be topical for your audience. Finding them is also only half the battle – remember that you’ll need to handle contracts and potentially even travel accommodations for them.
Related: A Guide to Choosing the Right Speakers for Your Next Event
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Now that you have a place to host your event and know what you’ll be talking about, it’s time to get your attendees in place.
- Ticketing – During your pre-planning phase, setting a goal for ticketing should be critical. But now, you’ll need pricing, packages and event ticketing software to help handle the logistics.
- Marketing – There is enough to know about event marketing that it warrants its own post. However, you need to make it a part of your event planning strategy. Event websites, email campaigns and social media posts should all be thought through and planned so you can successfully promote your event before, during and after.
Guide to Digital Advertising
For associations, events play an essential role in member engagement, reach and even non-dues revenue. Whether it’s your annual conference or convention, or an all-new virtual event offering, having a...
- Production – Lights, cameras, audio and event furniture are all key to making your event polished and engaging. Depending on your location, you can work with a local or national event production company, which should be budgeted for during the pre-planning stages.
- Volunteers – As we mentioned, support staff may be a roadblock for your event. However, for associations, volunteers are a critical asset. Be sure to have a call for volunteers well in advance and rely on one of your staffers to handle coordination and support for them.
5. Post Event
You made it – and survived. But the work isn’t over yet.
- Breakdown – Just like finding time in your schedule for speakers, you also need to prep for setup and breakdown. If you’re using an event production company, they may be able to handle most of these tasks. However, there will likely be some elements, including signage and merchandise, that you’ll need to ship once your event is over.
- Member Followup – Once your event is in the books, it’s time to gather data, and the easiest way to do so is with surveys. Ask attendees what they like the most, sessions they found valuable and things they absolutely hated. As an event planner, having as much data as possible can help you quantify the success of your event, plan for the next one and open your ticket sales as early as possible.
Of course, there's a lot more to it than just that. These stages and tasks can take weeks, if not months, but outlining them can help you stay on track when planning your next association event.
Emerging Event Technology You Should Know
When you’re in the planning stages of your event, you should be focused on the tools, platforms and technologies that will make your job easier and improve the experience for your attendees.
While there are plenty of emerging technologies, some of the most critical include:
- Contactless Check-In – The check-in process can be a challenge at events. One way to help is with contactless technology. Whether it’s a custom QR code that allows for one-touch access or highly advanced facial recognition technology, which is being fine tuned and developed, these tools can help streamline your efforts.
- AR & VR – Immersive technology is designed to enhance your attendees' experience on-site or at home. By using augmented reality or virtual reality, you can allow your attendees to experience virtual exhibition rooms, “attend” your conference from anywhere in the world or simply connect with partners using augmented reality tokens. Additionally, you can use VR to visit venues and plan out the layout of your conference without ever being there!
- Event AI – Artificial intelligence can have a range of applications in both the planning process and as an engagement tool during your event. Some applications include:
- Chatbots: Chances are having 24-hour support for your event will be a challenge. AI chatbots can provide customer support and tackle common issues and FAQs – and best of all, they work when your attendees need them.
- Personalized Event Plans: The more AI tools know about your attendees, the more they can do to help. AI can suggest ideal sessions and even plan out an entire schedule based on interests and interactions with your event content. This is particularly helpful for events with a large number of sessions.
- Data: Finding trends helps determine what works and what doesn't. Using metrics like sign-ups, chat activity, and content engagement, you can pair your data with AI tools to help identify trends that make future event planning easier.
- Reusable Event Apps – Depending on your event platform, you may have a companion app for your event. This gives attendees access to scheduling, networking and communication related to the event. However, some of these apps can be fully customized with your branding and can be a marketing tool outside of the event as well.
Related: Up-and-Coming Event Technology for Associations
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How Can You Improve Engagement at Your Association Event?
As an event organizer, event planning is only half the battle. During the execution stage of your event, looking for ways to drive engagement should be a top priority. So what can you do to provide a good experience for members and attendees while also ensuring overall organization success?
Whether your attendees are in person or online, breaking out of those first-day nerves or keeping attendees engaged after a particularly information-dense session can be a challenge. This is where event gamification can come in handy.
Gamification is the process of integrating gaming elements into a non-gaming environment. Event gamification can include leaderboards, icebreakers for your networking and even polls and surveys that help drive engagement during sessions.
Although the implications of the metaverse and Web3 are still relatively unknown to the event planning industry, NFTs are already having an impact.
Related: Can Event NFTs Be the Next Big Thing for Your Association?
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How can you use them:
- Event ticketing – Because each one is unique and falsification is prevented by the blockchain, you can easily make entrance into your event as secure as possible.
- Merchandising – Whether it’s event-specific collectibles or unique swag bags, NFTs can easily be added to your merchandising without the need for physical assets.
- Gated Access – Have sessions or premium content you want to offer as a separate ticket? Create an NFT that grants access to it instead.
- Credentialing – For associations, professional development credits are likely a part of your conference. Convert those credentials into NFTs that won't be lost and are always tracked on the blockchain.
Depending on your event location or where your members work, time zones and physical boundaries can create problems. However, your event can still be accessible and engaging with hybrid and entirely virtual options.
Adam Parry of Event Industry News says, “the demand for digital, always-on content and smaller, bite-sized experiences will be on the rise. More businesses will debut their media platforms, allowing employees and customers to network at their convenience and eliminating the need to capture attention for the entirety of an event.”
The Road to Successful Association Event Planning
Planning an event for your association that’s engaging to members, affordable for your organization and doable by your staff can often seem like an uphill battle. However, by understanding the challenges you face and creating a structured event planning guide, you can streamline your efforts and create a memorable experience for all.
It’s important to note that things happen, so flexibility and adaptability are critical skills for association event planners. Whether you’re dealing with a challenging speaker or juggling budgets and vendors, having options and quick solutions can keep your event on track.
Finally, successful event planning means looking toward the future. With tools and technologies to help create a successful event, it has never been easier for your organization to plan an engaging event for its members.
Jose Triana joined the Sidecar team as the Content Manager in 2021. He is a writer and creative focused on helping purpose-driven organizations learn and find value online. When he isn't working on content, you can catch him going for a run or resting with a good book.