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.