When the Society for Biomolecular Sciences, Danbury, Conn., and the Association for Laboratory Automation, Schaumburg, Ill., agreed to merge in July 2010, the new combined organization, the Society for Laboratory Automation and Screening, set out to merge conventions, too. It was a large undertaking to meld two meetings into one in less than 18 months, but when the new convention debuted this past February it exceeded all expectations. Here’s how the SLAS Annual Meeting and Exhibition came to be.
“Both organizations were extremely healthy and their meetings were doing fine,” explains Gregory Dummer, chief executive officer at SLAS, which is based in St. Charles, Ill. But there were certain commonalities that prompted the merger: specifically, the associations were in the same space, albeit in slightly different niches, had similar missions, and had annual meetings were within 90 days of one another.
The boards came up with nine principles that would serve as the foundation for the merger and one of them was elevating the quality and significance of one annual meeting. “The hope was that one united annual conference and exhibition would enhance the breadth and depth of members’ educational offerings and the products and services on the exhibit floor,” says Dummer.
Association leaders determined that that the new organization should have a new annual meeting, the SLAS Annual Conference and Exhibition, which would debut in 2012. SLAS brass thought it best to have a transition year in 2011 to have time to prepare for the new meeting as well as to honor existing. Both associations held their annual meetings in 2011 as scheduled. ALA’s conference was held in January in Palm Springs, Calif., and attracted about 4,400 attendees—the highest since 2008. The SBS annual meeting, held in March in Orlando, attracted 1,600 attendees—similar to past years.
Planning for the first ever SLAS conference, which debuted February 4–8, 2012, in San Diego, began immediately after the association became official in July 2010.
For the new event, conference and exhibition management was outsourced, carrying forward the model of one of the legacy associations. Consequently, some staff were cut. Marketing and branding for the new conference began 14 months out, starting with the launch of a conference Web site, SLAS2012.org. With a broader range of membership, the marketing team went into overdrive to get the word out, internally and externally, about the new convention. The team generated over 3 million pre-event impressions, which in the Web world means page views.
The association hired a director of education to oversee a scientific program that would incorporate the educational interests of both legacy associations. “First and foremost, the scientific program had to be correct,” says Dummer. “On this point there was no room for error.” Blending the content of the two legacy societies was a major strategic effort that was two years in the making and required the work of volunteers and the educational team.
SLAS organized its membership into two sections—a Laboratory Automation Section and a Biomolecular Sciences Section. This created two distinct delivery channels for scientific programming that was unique to each group.
This is an important when combining meetings, says Stephen Wernet, PhD, professor, School of Social Work and Department of Public Policy Analysis, Saint Louis University. “If associations are considering merging two discrete meetings into one, then the planning committee must retain and incorporate an important, meaningful component from each association meeting into the combined meeting,” says Wernet, who wrote a research paper for SmithBucklin on association mergers. “Losing your association meeting is losing an important, if not the single most important, component of the members' identity,” he says, so it’s important to acknowledge the past entity. “Rebranding will come as the new entity creates its unique identity, but in the early steps or years it cannot forget or ignore its ties to the past.”
After 18 months of planning, the new event debuted with 5,806 in attendance in San Diego and another 600 attending the new virtual extension. “The response was phenomenal,” says Dummer. “We were hoping for 5,000 participants, and to top 5,800 was truly rewarding.” The exhibit floor was sold out with 325 companies represented, and it had to be expanded twice because of the overwhelming response.
It was a tremendous first step in unifying the association, exceeding all expectations, Dummer adds. “We needed to be successful to set the foundation for future growth, and it's just extremely gratifying to see it all come to fruition.” Now it’s on to the Gaylord Palms in Orlando, January 12–16, 2013, for the second annual SLAS Annual Conference and Exhibition, where the exhibit floor is already 85 percent sold out.
“The merger process is a journey," says Dummer, one that not only includes the challenge of integrating two organizations, but creating, marketing, and branding a new meeting all while maintaining the existing events in the transition. But it's a journey that SLAS leaders believe will advance the association and benefit its members.