By Norman E. Wallis, Ph.D. President, PAI Management Corporation Bethesda, Maryland, USA (from A&A: Assembly and Association
Research in the US has shown that the major stimulus to attendance is the quality of the educational program and what can be learned by attending. Members and non-members will travel significant distances and will pay reasonable fees if the program is recognized as an investment in their professional or personal development. However, for many business and trade associations the annual convention is seen principally as an opportunity for social interaction, with the quality of the program a secondary consideration.
Similarly, many scientific and professional societies ignore the potential for informal or unstructured education, and tend to overschedule formal presentations. The phenomenal growth of ‘poster’ sessions at scientific meetings demonstrates that more informal methods of presenting complex information can be readily accepted.
The program content of the meeting must be on the cutting edge of the discipline. While scientific meetings can usually retain the same format for a number of years, since the main stimulus for attending is to learn about the latest research or clinical findings, featuring the ‘same old crowd’ of speakers each year will eventually drive away bright newcomers, who will move on to develop their own meetings. And an annual meeting of a trade association will attract a larger attendance if keynote speakers who can ‘draw’ are engaged.
However, a balance must be established between paying for a ‘name’ and the quality of the rest of the program. A well-known authority or exciting plenary speaker can be an attraction at a food function. And recognize that breakfasts are fast becoming more attractive than heavy lunches or boring ‘banquets.’ Small break-out sessions and workshops providing an opportunity for personal expression and ‘hands-on’ experience are also sure-fire attendance boosters for all associations. No one likes to listen to other people talk all the time. Also, carefully planned social events provide ideal opportunities for informal ‘networking’. Meeting others who are willing to share ideas to improve a member’s business or hobby often will
be remembered as a valuable part of a meeting. So allow plenty of unstructured time between formal sessions.
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