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4 Models for Re-branding Your Meeting

Pushed to compete with high-profile events like TED and South by Southwest, these associations reinvented their annual meetings.

As the founder and CEO of 360 Live Media, a marketing and experience design agency, Don Neal has watched decades-old annual meetings struggle to stay relevant in the era of TED Talks and South by Southwest. “These association events are under a lot of pressure,” Neal said, “because commercial events are changing people’s expectations.”

Attendees want and expect more from live events than ever before, Neal said, and as a result, many groups have decided to rebrand their meetings, switching up old formulas and injecting more pop and sizzle.

Convene spoke with four associations that have done just that in the last few years, with catchier program names, ramped-up content, and more. For some of them, that’s meant TED-style talks and roundtable sessions; for others, it’s higher-profile speakers, enhanced networking opportunities, and even a rock concert. Some did it to reach new audiences, others to boost attendance. Some worked with outside agencies; others did everything in house.

These associations certainly aren’t the only organizations rethinking their meeting strategies right now. The main thing, according to Neal, is to move “from an event to an experience.” Otherwise, attendees may feel neglected or even duped. Conferences and trade shows “shouldn’t simply be boring education, a famous keynote speaker, a cocktail party, and a golf outing,” Neal said. “Those days are over.”

Convincing members of corporate boards of directors to circle extra dates on their already-packed calendars isn’t easy.

“Very time-starved” is how Henry Stoever, chief marketing officer for NACD, describes most of the association’s members. On top of that time crunch, most directors assume conferences are “for the management team,” Stoever said, so upping attendance at NACD’s annual Board Leadership Conference was challenging. “We needed to position it in a unique way.”

NACD started with losing the “conference” stigma. “‘Conference’ wasn’t a word that was relevant to what directors do,” Stoever said. “Directors attend summits.” Last year, the association renamed the event the Global Board Leaders’ Summit — and saw attendance jump from about 500 people to nearly 2,000. While Stoever doesn’t credit all of that to the new name, he says it was the starting point. Today, he said, the meeting is “a whole different product than it used to be.”

With its reworked name in place, NACD focused on developing new programming that would catch the interest of corporate directors and justify their commitment to four days of sessions. The Global Board Leaders’ Summit debuted at the Marriott Marquis Washington, DC on Sept. 26–29, 2015, and included a slew of what the summit website calls “Unique Experiences,” such as 75-minute “Ask the Experts” sessions and Convergence Labs, featuring three short keynote talks that each offer a different take on the same topic. Innovation Nation sessions spotlighted emerging business trends, including a company that makes plastic out of mushrooms.

NACD’s main goal is for corporate directors to leave the summit with new ideas — things they didn’t know that they didn’t know. And so far, Stoever noted, that’s exactly what he’s been hearing from attendees. “[People are saying,] ‘Wow, I had no idea that I didn’t know anything about that,’” Stoever said. “‘I now know a little bit about what I need to learn more about.’”

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