A few recent ASAE Collaborate discussions highlighted an alarming trend: a decline in conference attendance, both in-person and virtual. We all assumed that once lockdowns were behind us, attendees would be clamoring to return to in-person events, but for many associations, they’re not.
Identify the actual cause for the decline in conference attendance
Collaborate participants conjectured about the decline in meeting registration and attendance at their associations, but the only way you can find out why your members aren’t registering is to ask.
Don’t ask only your members—although they should be the primary focus—ask all audience segments: past virtual and in-person attendees, subscribers, and customers. You want to find out why they have or haven’t attended in the past and what their thoughts are on the future.
Use online surveys or polls that take a few minutes to complete. Convene online focus groups and schedule random interviews with people from different market segments. Depending on the targeted segment, ask them:
• Why do they plan to attend an upcoming conference?
• Why won’t they attend?
• If they’d like to go but can’t, what’s preventing them?
• What other virtual and in-person conferences do they plan or want to attend? (List competitor events.)
• What do they want to experience at an in-person conference? What would improve the experience? (List possibilities but provide an open-text box for answers.)
• What do they want to experience at a virtual conference? What would improve the experience? (Same as above.)
Once you know the cause, apply the right solutions
Once you know what you’re up against, you can devise solutions to overcome those barriers or engage the person elsewhere.
Travel and COVID
Sometimes a “no” is a flat-out “no” you can’t get around. Many companies are still enforcing employee travel restrictions. But even when a person has free agency, many are taking a wait-and-see attitude about meetings for a variety of reasons.
• Lingering discomfort about large crowds
• Uncertainty about the return of variants
• Status of meeting location as a COVID hot spot
• Meeting policies on vaccinations and masks
As you know, some people won’t attend meetings with vaccination and mask requirements. Some people won’t attend meetings without them. And others don’t mind putting on a mask to make a trip in and out of a store, but the idea of wearing one for an entire day and night is a big turnoff. There’s no pleasing everyone.
Professionals who work at home and meet on Zoom are out of the habit of traveling for business reasons. The hassle factor is real—but FOMO is too, remember that. Are they willing to put on dress pants and come to your conference?
Whatever you find out about the reasons for hesitancy or outright refusal to attend, some of these causes are out of your control. It’s possible by the time they decide, your room block is sold out and flights are too expensive. Offer a generous refund policy so people feel comfortable registering in an uncertain environment. If you have an engaging virtual option for them—and we’ll get to that soon—you don’t have to lose their business.
Many employers have cut professional development budgets, so even if someone could theoretically go to your conference, they’d have to foot the bill themselves. The decision to attend becomes a value question.
Inflation is causing havoc too. Flights, hotels, gas, car rentals—they’re ridiculous right now, especially if a prospective attendee’s employer isn’t paying. Is your conference worth it? You and your volunteer leaders might think so, but your opinions don’t count.
Demands and perspectives on time
We have logistical and philosophical issues to address here. Many companies are understaffed, so employees can’t get away to attend in-person conferences or long stretches of virtual conference sessions. Sometimes the employer or workplace culture makes that decision for them and sometimes the employee’s stress level is the deciding factor.
Attendees who used to attend conferences to work the room have since developed new habits. During the pandemic, they (and their employer) discovered they could get business done via Zoom. Your attendees found ways to meet and close deals with exhibitors too—without needing your conference to do it.
Many people have always had responsibilities that made it difficult to get away, like childcare or business ownership. But since the pandemic, the time issue has taken a philosophical turn. People think differently about time now. They’re not as willing to commit a few days, an entire day, or even a morning to something unless the value is super obvious.
The only way for your virtual and in-person conferences to compete with and overcome these barriers is to provide an experience and value that people can’t find on their own or anywhere else. You can’t just offer the same conference you offered before. Been there, done that. Ho hum. One in-person or virtual conference is pretty much like any another, so what makes yours special enough for someone to put everything else aside and attend?
Value and experience
Many people can attend virtual conferences, but Zoom fatigue is no joke. Sitting and listening to virtual presentation after presentation all day long is an exhausting mental endurance challenge. You’ve probably done it because you needed the CAE or CMP credits—same here. But did you really enjoy it? How excited are you to do it again?
Virtual conferences have so much potential, but you have to get out of the box and rethink the experience. Select speakers who know how to make learning enjoyable and effective. Provide opportunities for people to have structured conversations. Research inside and outside the association industry for possibilities, so you don’t keep offering the same predictable event. Professionals who don’t go to in-person or virtual conferences are finding other ways to get the information and education they need. For-profit organizations see this audience as ripe for capture and conversion.
What really matters to conference attendees? Which moments are the ones they remember because they took away something valuable? If you ask, you will learn it probably wasn’t a keynote speaker. The magical moments happened in sessions (or hallways) where peers described how they solved problems or created new opportunities.
People go to virtual and in-person conferences to listen to and talk with peers or wise professionals in other career stages whom they see or meet:
• At the front of the meeting room.
• In the speaker box on the Zoom screen.
• Around the session or luncheon table.
• In the hallways and at the bar.
• In a Zoom breakout room or chat box.
People can stay home to watch on-demand presentations. Take advantage of togetherness when you’re in person. Do things in groups that they can’t do alone. Schedule only interactive sessions and plenty of structured networking time.
Make virtual conferences irresistible for Zoom-fatigued professionals. Design shorter days with only interactive sessions—no speaker can talk more than ten minutes straight. Schedule structured networking throughout the day when people have energy, not just after the final session.
Your conferences are up against major barriers and challenges. If you can’t overcome a barrier, figure out another option for the group affected. What would convince them to spend some time and money with you and their peers? Maybe it’s not a two-day conference, but you can find creative ways to help them learn and connect in some other effective and enjoyable way—that’s your association’s mission.