For most associations, the annual conference is the highest-profile moment of the year; members gather, awards are presented, sponsors are highlighted…

But are you taking your conference for granted? Does it get the strategic attention it deserves? Are you confident it’s living up to its potential? Conferences tend to hide in plain sight – they’re huge, but somehow get camouflaged. How do they do it? Here are 7 ways I’ve seen:

  1. They take on a life of their own, creating inertia. They have their own culture and sacred cows (the opening plenary is always done by a certain type of speaker, or the trade show is always on Tuesday). Makes it hard to question how things are done.
  2. They develop barnacles – all sorts of other meetings and events are piled onto the conference to take advantage of the temporary co-location of so many people. Just as it can be hard to see a rock beneath barnacles, it can be hard to see a conference clearly beneath all the other functions that have been loaded on top of it.
  3. Logistical preoccupations about conferences displace broader strategic discussions – because conferences are so engrossing to manage, and take up so much time, it’s easy to think you’re talking about them in the right ways.
  4. Conference evaluation is done, but it doesn’t always provide useful feedback for bigger or long-term issues. It tends to focus on the immediate. (If there is a low response rate, they can be more misleading than helpful.) Also, because so many conversations are held with crucial stakeholders such as sponsors and exhibitors, there can be the impression that the depth of the relationship is well-explored, which may not be true.
  5. Conferences aren’t always integrated with the rest of the activities of the association – there are often organizational walls between, for instance, the conference and overall member services. This means the way the conference is run might not reflect the organization’s overall strategy or even tactics.
  6. Not all conferences have clear or shared objectives beyond just “making the event happen” or “make sure people say it was good.” For such a critical part of the life of the association, why would this be acceptable?
  7. Typically the Board members have a long history with the conference and are among the most dedicated attendees – so they may lack critical perspective on the event as a whole.

A neglected conference can expose the association to huge risks – financial, reputational, relationship, and strategic – and means an enormous missed opportunity, precisely because the conference is where so many streams of the organization come together.

I would argue that, given challenges conferences face, these risks should be increasingly unacceptable to organizations. In future posts, I’ll talk about how conferences can be managed more strategically. If you’d like to discuss in the meantime, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.