Thoughts on ASAE 2011

Earlier this week I returned from the annual meeting of the American Society of Association Executives held in St. Louis.  Here are a few thoughts about the experience from a 20,000 foot altitude.  Others including Jamie Notter, Shelly Alcorn, David Patt, and Stefanie Reeves are diving into more micro play-by-play.  Even if you are not an association professional, there may be some lessons learned that can be adopted or adapted for your own efforts.

Play to your strengths
It seems so obvious, but sometimes hosts (and host cities) overreach, trying to be something they are not and ending up creating a karaoke-like experience, mouthing the words of someone else's style and not sounding very good.  St.  Louis wisely did not play that game.  The Opening Party was under the Arch.  The Closing Block Party featured a smorgasbord of local food and talent.  And in-between the two were endless examples of Midwestern hospitality.

Too bad the opening keynote Tina Brown didn't do the same.  She's most definitely not a keynote speaker who is ready for primetime, and she would have done herself a favor by insisting on an alternative format that would have shown her in a better light … or actually doing some serious preparation. 

Variety is valued
ASAE increased the variety of educational session formats this year, and we were the better for it.  People want to engage with content in different ways and a conference program needs to be more elastic to allow them to do so: deep dives, IGNITE sessions, self-organizing flash sessions all helped support a better learner experience. 

The experience can be exhausting
While the experience was exhilarating, it also was exhausting.  The schedule begins early and ends late. Getting anywhere in the convention center requires long walks.  You wake up to a daily conference newspaper and throughout the day a never-ending Twitter stream calls for attention.  More than ever before, I felt the need to check out in order to stay tuned in.  Not sure how I feel about that. 

Sustainability is still a sideshow
We talk a good green game, but the reality is any conference involving 5000 people still produces a significant amount of waste by design.  Until that changes, refillable water bottles and solar-powered signs are going to be our best achievements.  That's not enough.

Logistics still matter
An otherwise fine facility, the America's Center features woefully inadequate lighting in many of its meeting rooms, leaving participants in a somnambulant state or reaching for their iPhone flashlight apps in order to see what's being served for lunch.  That aside,  I'm beginning to think we've made an unwritten pact that crescent round seating is a presenter's nirvana all the time, and it is not.  The IGNITE sessions in particular should have been set all theater, a much more appropriate environment for the nature of that learning experience that also would have comfortably accommodated far more people.  And we have to find some happy medium between pre-setting a room for the entire day and allowing the optimal set for individual sessions.  Finally, speakers need logistics support.  When several things weren't correct in one of my session rooms, I was left to wander the halls in search of a staffer because I had not been provided any information about how to rapidly contact someone on-site.

The event still touches a minority of professionals
ASAE and St. Louis hit a home run with an overall great experience.  When the most significant complaints are about the rooms being too cold, you know life is pretty good.  But for the love of learning, the America Center folks really need to improve that lighting stat.  It was appalling.

But a minority of ASAE members had this great experience.  And an even smaller percentage of association professionals overall (counting non-ASAE members) were directly touched by it.

That's a problem, or an opportunity waiting for an innovative solution.  TED and other major conferences have a clear strategy to spread their ideas in order to affect change.  The conference experience is just one critical element in their overall strategy for doing so.

Too many other organizations, ASAE included, still treat the Annual Meeting as a learning experience for participants as opposed to an advancement platform for a profession.  Meetings and conferences serve a higher purpose and are a means to a much more meaningful ends: advancing a profession in order to advance a greater good for those the profession serves.

Doing that requires a more expansive and comprehensive design strategy from the onset, one that will be far more innovative than simply offering session recordings on CDs.  The meeting must be designed to enable the rapid and real-time sharing of key learnings, to facilitate and support the transfer and application of conference content into the workplace with colleagues who did not attend, to reach and influence a sizable majority of the practitioners of a profession regardless of whether they were meeting participants or are association members, and to sustain the energy and enthusiasm of the post-conference high months after the event.

So kudos to all involved with ASAE11.  It truly was a remarkable event.  Here's hoping ASAE12 and Dallas think even bigger and bolder about what the event eventually can achieve.


Joan Eisenstodt said...

It is always gratifying, Jeffrey, when you speak for me! Thanks for this. There have been some other blogs that I'm enjoying reading also on follow up. During the meeting, I wrote at and will do a final post, linking to yours and others .. soon.

All this said - YES and:
- Kudos to the ASAE staff. I know how exhausting site management is and outdoor events in the heat don't add to energy. I hope they, esp. the meetings staff, are taking a well-needed rest.
- I hope too that they will read and evaluate comments that are everywhere and see where more can be done.
- Here and now and again, I offer - perhaps with you? - to do a session at next year's AM for suppliers only - and invite local CSMs and facility and AV sales people who may not be registered - to talk about meeting room set ups, lighting, and projection and what they mean to content, delivery, audience. If we don't get better, I'll have to run (or "scooter") through some convention center screaming I'm mad as hell!
- IGNITE - I never found them.
- Differing time frames for sessions would be a gift. I know it's tough for scheduling; it does add to the ability to explore more.

In tweets, I said I thought the closing session should have been the opening. What I meant was that something with substance about which we could talk more is always good for the opening. All I knew about the OGS was what I learned in tweets and conversations. Regardless of the not-great-content, we will need to do a better job of providing scheduled opptys. to talk about what's been talked about. So easy to do; still not done.

Many thoughts. I hope others keep engaging - to look at the AM and see what we can all contribute to it and to look at meetings/conventions/learning in general and see what we can take from what we learned.

Anonymous said...

I love your exhortation to take the focus off providing education for the relative handful of people (because that's always the case) who can afford (time & money) to attend our conferences and move it to what we can do to effect change in our professions, industries, and world. Would love to see associations address this more directly.

Jeffrey Cufaude said...

Thanks Elizabeth. What really got me thinking about it was Maggie's Acronym post about people unable to affect change when they go back in their workplaces. We're not going to achieve our missions if we don't broaden the mass of people who become inspired and enlightened.

Kitty Ratcliffe said...

Jeff, thanks for the compliments about America's Center and our Host Committee efforts. We had a lot of fun. As to the observation about lighting in the meeting rooms, we know that you are correct, which is why all lighting in meeting rooms and ballroom is being redone this winter during a slower period. We'll have new energy efficient lighting with better in-room controls. It will all be finished by the spring 2012. Glad you had a great time in St. Louis.

Jeffrey Cufaude said...

That's great news. The rest of the facility is so top-notch that the lighting quality is a (pardon the pun) glaring omission. I was particularly challenged by it in Room 227 where I presented. The bak half of the room was in significant darkness and the main section of the room was still too dim with the lights on full.

David M. Patt, CAE said...

Great critique, Jeffrey. Did you notice how more comments have addressed logistics and amenities, rather than educational content?

Perhaps we don't show up to learn, but more to simply exercise our brains (and to network).

In most associations, not just ASAE, major conferences only attract a small percentage of the audience.

That may not be a negative. Members all want different things from their associations, and big conferences (that are also expensive to attend) may not be on everyone's list.

How we use the conference to promote the profession may be more important than how many people actually attend.

Anonymous said...

You are one sharp guy, Jeffrey! Thanks for this post, especially the part about conferences needing to be much more than just learning opportunities for attendees. I'm sharing with my staff and volunteer leaders. I feel the very same about the work we are trying to do. Thanks. And you were FANTASTIC at the IGNITE session.

Jeffrey Cufaude said...

Thanks for the kind words Jay. I hope my comments are a catalyst for some additional good thinking with your staff.

BKS-STL said...

Really great review Jeff. . . we introduced Mobile Pro at ASAE and were very excited to meet so many great Event Profs. The best takeaway for me, came from Glenn Tecker during the AMCI sessions: “Everyone is for innovation, I mean come on, who wouldn’t be? The challenge is that not everyone is comfortable with experimentation, taking those lessons and moving forward . . . and that’s what innovation requires.

Eric Lanke said...

"Too many other organizations, ASAE included, still treat the Annual Meeting as a learning experience for participants as opposed to an advancement platform for a profession. Meetings and conferences serve a higher purpose and are a means to a much more meaningful ends: advancing a profession in order to advance a greater good for those the profession serves."

LOVE this perspective, Jeffrey. Hopefully we can make something like that happen with the WSAE event next month!

Jeffrey Cufaude said...

Thank Eric, but what's happening next month? LOL.

The Summit is my primary to do list next week. Looking forward to it and being in your good company.