Faced with several years of declining attendance, the Air Conditioning Contractors of America decided it was time to reinvent its annual conference. Among the many changes instituted at the 2002 conference, there is one that really captured the essence of what ACCA leadership was trying to do. They decided to step out of the box and create some controversy with the keynote speaker, so they hired Democratic strategist James Carville. The decision, not surprisingly, riled the conservative-leaning membership.

“We said, ‘Wow, when was the last time people were talking about our conference four months out?” recalls Kevin Holland, vice president for communications, membership, and corporate development, at the Arlington, Va. — based trade association. Carville was part of an overall strategy to bring a fresh perspective to a meeting gone stale. “We really wanted to hit people so hard with [a great experience], that they went home and talked about the meeting, and that's exactly what happened,” Holland says.

The buzz created by the new and improved annual conference precipitated a 20 percent increase in attendance at the 2003 conference, Holland says, adding that each year since, attendance has climbed 10 percent to 20 percent further. (The 2005 convention at the Renaissance Austin Hotel in Austin, Texas, earlier this year drew 1,600 registrants. ACCA has 4,000 member companies.)

“That 2002 conference was kind of like throwing the flaming spear in the ground and saying, ‘We're here. You may not like everything, but you're going to hear from — and about — ACCA,’” Michael Honeycutt, ACCA's senior vice president, explains. The idea was to make the annual meeting a must-see experience, like a favorite television show viewers make time to see each week, he continues.

If Holland and Honeycutt could bottle and sell their formula for success, they would. The truth is, there is no magic pill for anemic attendance. Logistics, marketing, content, and production pizzazz are all parts of the equation. But a successful strategy starts with understanding the contingencies that have altered the business and social landscapes in recent years. Dwindling marketing budgets, increased competition from proprietary events, shifting demographics, and more demands on people's time have forced many associations to rethink the way they plan their meetings.

Here's a look at how ACCA accomplished its meeting makeover, taking into consideration these types of factors.

Content Is King, If It's Relevant

The Carville controversy aside, the rejuvenation of the ACCA annual meeting was really built around the idea that content is king. “There used to be a time when our association tried to build the conference around the destination,” Honeycutt explains. But as attendance slipped, ACCA came to the realization that times had changed. “If members want to go to Disney to be entertained, they don't need us to get them there,” he says. “If you're asking them to take four days away from their business, invest in registration fees, airfare, and hotels, they want to come away with something worth their investment.”

ACCA's chief executive officer, Paul Stalknecht, started with the association in 2001, and he was the key precipitator of change. “Paul brought in a lot of new, creative staff members who were looking at our conference through new eyes,” Holland says. “He has a terrific understanding of the importance of symbol, and he knows that the symbol of the conference looms so large over the organization.”

Holland was one of the new staffers brought into the fold in 2001. Honeycutt, who has been with the association for 11 years designing the educational program, saw Holland's impact immediately. “I remember that the first year Kevin was here, he had the idea of doing some person-on-the-street interviews with member leaders [at the meeting],” Honeycutt says.

That was just one aspect of restructuring the 2002 meeting on a foundation of superior educational content, buttressed by flashier audiovisual production. “Give them the intellect,” as Holland puts it, “then hit them with the emotion in the right ways by focusing on the overall experience.”

So, they nearly doubled the number of educational sessions previously offered at the annual meeting — from about 25 in 2001 to about 45 in 2002. “In our industry, ACCA has come to be known for having too many choices at the meeting,” Honeycutt says. “We'd rather have people saying they didn't take advantage of everything than saying they were bored by the second day.” They added a variety of topics for all level of attendees, increased the number of workshops, addressed management and technical issues, and put together a diversity of speakers including controversial ones such as Carville.

‘We're competing with people for their time,’ Holland continues, “particularly the younger business owners who are very focused on striking a balance between work and their personal life. They need to walk away with some very tangible benefits. If they don't, they won't come back.”

Forums for Change

Holland and Honeycutt also created a contractor's Town Hall, where contractors are invited to voice their opinions on hot topics. Town Hall launched with a bang in 2002, when the invited speaker was a CEO whose manufacturing company had implemented a new policy that upset a lot of ACCA contractors. The town hall gave the CEO the opportunity to explain the controversial policy and contractors the chance to ask questions. “It showed the attendees that we were going to give them value and we weren't going to shy away from the tough issues,” Honeycutt says, noting that CEOs have continued to speak at these forums, which have become a big hit with attendees.

Another new forum at the annual conference is called “Boy, Did I Make a Mistake.” Contractors tell tales of things they've done that didn't work so that others can avoid making the same missteps. It's been a big hit. “Overall, we want to create content that challenges perceptions and introduces new ways of doing business,” Honeycutt says.

Putting On the Glitz

Besides controversial content, Holland and Honeycutt enhanced the meeting by adding razzle-dazzle to the general sessions, introducing elements of lighting, sound, staging, and multimedia production. The idea was to create an atmosphere, a sense of community, “to give people the feeling they are part of something special, something powerful,” Honeycutt explains.

ACCA has also changed its view on networking. “When people say networking, they usually mean parties,” Holland notes. “I think networking is more than just throwing people in a social event and expecting them to meet and build business contacts.” While the ACCA meeting still has parties and receptions, the main networking events are roundtable lunches, where each table represents a topic and people sit at the table that reflects their interest.

Theming the annual meeting is also very important to Holland and Honeycutt. Each year the program is built around a theme with an edgy tone, such as “Out of the Comfort Zone” or “Feel the Fire.” “We want to send the message that this isn't your father's convention,” Holland says. Members come to expect something different each year, and that puts pressure on the meeting staff to take it up a notch. But the buzz of anticipation makes it all worthwhile. “We can send all the pre-meeting faxes and e-mails we want,” Holland says, “but to get that word of mouth, we have just one shot each year to give these people a really good show.”

So far, the Holland and Honeycutt strategy has worked to boost both attendance and exhibit sales. Exhibit space at the annual meeting has sold out months in advance, Holland says, and the size of the show has grown from 29,000 square feet of exhibit space in 2002 to about 43,000 square feet this year.

The 2006 conference will be held at the McEnery Convention Center in San Jose, Calif., March 28 to 30. Holland expects to sell out the same space. “Break the Rules” will be the theme. “We want to get people to think that you cannot copy your way to greatness, so we're trying to make innovation the overriding message,” he says. They're going to have sessions such as, “Rules for Rule-Breakers,” and issue “Go to Jail Free” cards for innovators. The association expects at least a 10 percent attendance increase in 2006.

Honeycutt acknowledges that investment in the conference has increased some 30 percent since 2001 as a result of producing a meeting with more content and added glitz. On the other hand, the meeting is now generating significant revenue, he notes, as opposed to losing money, as it had prior to all of the changes. But the impact of the reinvented ACCA annual meeting goes well beyond revenue-generation.

“It has revived our association,” Honeycutt claims. “It has reinforced the benefits of belonging, raised our profile in the industry, strengthened our relationships with manufacturers, and made people proud to be part of our association.”

When Two Are Better Than One: The Co-Location Trend Continues

In 2004, the Painting and Decorating Contractors of America, St. Louis, and the Society for Protective Coatings, Pittsburgh, Pa., merged their meetings, and the results have been positive. In just two years, attendance went from about 3,000 (2,000 for SPC and 1,000 for PDCA) to more than 4,000 registrants this year.

Like many groups that have decided to co-locate events in recent years, economics and an overlap in membership drove the decision to join forces. “Businesses were not sending as many people to the conventions,” says Annette DeLorenzo, director, meetings and expositions at PDCA, “so each association had to look at ways to show more value to their members. We felt that with the economy the way it is, having one meeting to satisfy everyone's needs would be the most beneficial,” she says.

The event was rebranded the Paint and Coatings Expo (PACE Expo) and was marketed as an industry trade show. However, each association was responsible for bringing its own members to the show. “We wanted to make sure that each association didn't lose its identity — that it was still their meeting,” DeLorenzo explains. Because the 2005 event was held at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, a noted boxing venue, PACE planners decided to theme the event around boxing, tapping Sugar Ray Leonard as the keynote speaker. “That was something that had never been done before in the history of either association,” she says. In 2006, the former chairman of Harley-Davidson will be the keynote speaker, and branding will revolve around motorcycles.

The name was not the only thing that was different. The educational content was broader, incorporating the technical strengths of SPC and the more business-related content PDCA in known for, DeLorenzo notes. Planners also developed a young-contractors program to spur interest among younger members, and they are now developing an educational program targeted at Hispanic contractors.

11 Ways to Boost Attendance

You don't have to completely overhaul your meeting to attract more attendees. Sharon Collins, director of meetings and expositions at the Kellen Company, an Atlanta-based association management company, offers the following tips to get your numbers up.

  1. Price bundling for attendees

    To get companies to send multiple attendees, bundle registration fees so that they get sliding discounts for every person they send beyond one. The first person pays full price, but if they send two, three, or more, they won't pay full price for those individuals.

  2. Piggyback your meeting

    Plan your meeting directly before or after another industry convention. Exhibitors that work both shows won't have to break down their booths, and the arrangement may provide attendees with interest in both conventions greater impetus to attend.

  3. Price bundling for exhibitors

    If you have multiple meetings per year, give vendors the opportunity to exhibit at more than one. They may appreciate the chance to have a tabletop exhibit at a smaller meeting in addition to the booth they normally have at the annual convention. The smaller exhibits can be sold at a discounted rate or given as a bonus. Vendors get to sell in a more informal setting while the exhibits add value for attendees.

  4. Make travel easy

    If the bulk of your membership is concentrated in one part of the country, hold your meeting in that geographic area, preferably at an easy access gateway. “Make it easy for them to get there. Don't give them excuses not to go,” says Collins.

  5. Get free publicity

    Publicity is important before, during, and after the event. Extend free registration to the trade press and increase your chances of getting coverage of the event, not only leading up to it, but during, in the form of a meeting recap, and after, if a reporter follows up on a story from one of the sessions. Also, issue press releases before and after the event to maximize coverage.

  6. Advertising exchanges

    If your association publishes a trade magazine, consider doing an advertising exchange with another industry trade publication to promote the meeting.

  7. Extend your early-bird rate

    Build in some wiggle room for your early-bird rate and then, as the date approaches, extend it by a few weeks. “We usually see this huge surge when we do that,” says Collins. People tend to jump when they think they are getting a second chance.

  8. Couple membership dues and meeting fees

    Let members know that if they come to the annual meeting, they get a percentage off their membership dues. Or give new members a percentage off their annual dues if they attend the annual meeting.

  9. Use graphics

    Whether it's a “save the date” postcard, a direct mail brochure, or an e-mail blast, use colorful graphics to grab attention. For postcards, put slogans and graphics on both sides because there's a 50/50 chance the postcard will land face down on a desk. For e-mails, use an industry keyword in the subject line so it doesn't get flagged as spam.

  10. Use the Web

    A Web site is an essential tool to provide members with up-to-date information on the event. It can also be used as a one-stop resource for conference registration, accommodations, and air travel.

  11. Branding

    It's important to brand your event with a specific theme and slogan around which the entire event is built. Clichés that don't really pertain to the meeting won't suffice. Make sure the brochures and materials trumpet specific take-aways for attendees, not just a general list of sessions and speakers. Also, it's critical to have the brand and slogan emblazoned on all promotional materials, such as tote bags, lanyards, notepads, and badges. Ask your exhibitors and vendors (convention center, hotels) if you can add your logo to their signage and promotional materials about the event.

Escaping and Experiencing

Whatever you do, avoid the routine at your meetings, author James Gilmore advises.

“Rather than getting better at marketing the event, you need to make the event itself more attractive,” says James Gilmore, founder of Strategic Horizons, an Aurora, Ohio — based consulting company. And therein lies the challenge. Gilmore, who co-authored the book, The Experience Economy, (Harvard Business School Press, 1999) along with his business partner, Joseph Pine, says there are four elements to an engaging experience or event: entertainment, education, escapist, and esthetics.

Entertainment doesn't necessarily mean hiring Jerry Seinfeld to be your keynote speaker — it could happen while people are waiting in line. He gives an example of how an organization used a routine explanation of new products by an executive to entertain guests. While the executive goes around the room talking about the products, an Austin Powers look-alike pops out and provides running commentary about his presentation.

While entertainment is passive absorption, education should be active absorption. “Often, it's not active enough,” he says. “A good educational experience should have attendees building, doing, interacting, and reaching outcomes that they can take home and use.”

An event with an escapist quality means that attendees are transported from one sense of reality to another. “They are so immersed, they don't want to check their voice mail or e-mail or do the things they normally do,” Gilmore says. One way to accomplish this is through creating a theme. Most conferences have a theme, but if the theme is not the organizing principle for every aspect of the meeting, it doesn't mean anything.

Esthetics concerns the overall design of the event. Gilmore believes conferences should have more structured breaks and less formal programming. “A lot of learning happens in those informal breaks.”