Just when the baby boomers thought they had Gen X figured out, along come the Millennials. With a population that rivals the size of their parents' baby boomer generation, the Millennials are often hailed as the future for associations — and their meetings.

The problem is that many Millennials, also known as Generation Ys, “are not wired for traditional meetings,” says Eric Chester, president, Generation Why Inc., Lakewood, Colo. Creating meetings that appeal to Gen Ys is one of the major challenges associations are facing today.

“If there are any organizations out there that are saying [connecting with Gen Y] is not an issue, they are lying or their heads are still in the clouds, because every well-established organization is going through this,” says Regina Barr, president, Financial Women International, Rosewood, Minn. Associations have to connect with Gen Ys now, or risk losing them later when they dominate the workforce — which means planners need to re-examine everything about meetings, from education to networking, and reinvent them to meet the needs of the 21st-century workforce.

Meet the Millennials (Who are These People?)

While the Silent Generation (ages 63 to 81) is still a vital force, baby boomers (ages 44 to 62) have been the lifeblood of associations for decades. Along comes Generation X (ages 27 to 43) — a smaller group (about 59 million compared to 80 million boomers) — and everything else being equal, the pool of potential conference attendees drops precipitously. That's why the Millennials (ages 26 and under) — all 80 million of them — are vital for an association's survival. And, like their parents, the boomers, they are prone to join, yet they are not afraid to blaze new trails if they are not getting what they want. In fact, they already are. So, who are the Millennials?

Millennials had the “most provided for and structured childhood in history,” says Sarah Sladek, president and chief executive officer, Limelight Generations, a Minneapolis-based consulting firm, and author of Rock Stars Incorporated. They were shuttled off to play dates and soccer practice and were awarded for participation. Unlike self-sufficient Gen Xers, they are very group-focused, and they like collaboration and interaction. Also, they expect a lot of structure, feedback, encouragement, and instant gratification. “The most defining workplace characteristic of Gen Ys is this hunger for instant gratification — they want ongoing communication and quick feedback,” says Jason Ryan Dorsey, an Austin, Texas-based generational consultant, author, and speaker known as “The Gen Y Guy.” That's no surprise, considering they grew up with everything just a mouse click or text message away.

Baby boomers and their Y children often have a complex relationship in the workplace — and the association world. On one hand, they often butt heads, yet, on the other hand, they are very close. After all, many Ys live at home well into their 20s, much longer than past generations. “We like hanging out with [boomers],” says Dorsey, a Gen Y himself, “but we just want a situation where we're not going to feel put down or talked down to, “ he says. “If [an organization] doesn't work for us, why not create our own?” adds Dorsey, author of My Reality Check Bounced.

Sladek says that the younger generations are forming their own young professional associations out of frustration with the traditional association format. These YPAs, which now number more than 300, are not trade-specific, but instead are organizations where young people of all stripes can get together and share their career development experiences. (See sidebar, left.) While they are more of a threat to social groups like the Elks and the Rotary Club, the growing YPA trend clearly shows that this generation wants to be part of an association community — although maybe not a traditional association community, like yours. To get them to see the value of belonging to your association, planners must invent new ways to tackle age-old concerns — how to relate, involve, engage, connect, educate, and promote to potential attendees.

Relate (What's in It for Me?)

Due to a major societal shift, what young professionals are looking to get out of associations may not be what previous generations wanted. “Gen Ys have never believed they were going to work for one company or one industry for 40 years,” says Dorsey. So, in addition to education and networking that will help them climb the company ladder, they are also looking to develop skills that are transferable to other jobs in other industries. For example, sessions that focus on career development — such as job-interviewing techniques — or self-improvement, are appealing to Gen Ys. Also appealing is any kind of training or program that leads to a tangible certification, perhaps a young leaders program or training in a new technology. “Something that we can put on our resume,” says Dorsey.

To help provide younger members with career-development training, Atlanta-based Research Chefs Association started doing speed-interviewing sessions for students, explains Jim Fowler, senior account executive at The Kellen Co., which manages the association. Students sit in circles while senior members go from one student to the next doing rapid-fire mock job interviews, grilling students with questions they'll face in actual job interviews. In the second year the sessions have been held, participation has doubled to 160. Some have parlayed the mock interviews into internships, but more importantly, they learned a tangible skill that they can use.

That's critical, says Sladek. “Xers and Ys have to know up front — ‘What's in it for me? What am I going to gain? What am I going to learn? What am I going to take away?’ The more tangible, the better.” That's because Millennials, as well as Xers, are more protective of their personal and family time, so the value in attending a meeting has to be high. They won't just come for the camaraderie.

That's something the National Athletic Trainers' Association, Dallas, discovered. “What we found is that our Gen X and Y members want to come in and learn, get their business done, and then move along,” says Teresa Foster Welch, CAE, associate executive director at NATA. “They don't want to go spend the extra days to have the social opportunities that some of our boomers wanted.” So, starting in 2009, the annual meeting will be cut back from four days to three.

Involve (Get on Board)

“Associations have been slow to bring young professionals to the table to ask them what the association can do to be more attractive to them,” states Dorsey. The International Association of Exhibitions and Events, Dallas, is rectifying that.

In December, IAEE launched an initiative designed to engage and empower young professionals. The initiative, called the IAEE Young Professionals Committee, creates a community for young members and gives them a voice in the organization. The committee chair, Jeanavive Marie Janssen, director of sales at Event Productions Inc., Alameda, Calif., serves in an advisory capacity to IAEE meeting planners, offering ideas on how to improve meetings.

The new committee is also creating a manual with best practices on how to plan multi-generational meetings. Janssen and her team will be out in the field attending association meetings and conventions, looking for meetings that engage young professionals. “We'll get the opportunity to meet people in the industry, maybe get some mentors, but also we'll review the conferences for multi-generational attractiveness.” Ideas will be posted on their blog at their own Web site, www.ypiaee.com, and eventually compiled into a guidebook that will be available to the meeting planning community.

Similarly, the American Association of Law Libraries, Chicago, has created a community called the Gen X/Gen Y Caucus. The group has its own Web page where members can connect, but beyond the social aspect, the caucus has working groups that conduct research and develop new programs and ideas for the annual conference. It also has its own annual meeting, which convenes during AALL's annual conference. And it helps with recruitment and developing the next generation of leaders.

Financial Women International created a “target market advisory” panel consisting of 15 young professionals which leadership seeks feedback from on all association-related matters. They convene by conference call usually once a month, explains Barr. “We get feedback directly from our target market, so we're not sitting in a room trying to guess what this next generation is looking for.” One idea they came up with was creating networking pods or “meet-ups” in various regions so people can meet outside of the annual meeting.

Creating these kind of opportunities for young professionals to give input is important, experts say. “They've got tons of ideas and are bursting to give you feedback,” says Chester. But it has to be taken seriously. If it's perceived as something slapped together to keep the kids happy, they won't participate.

Engage (Mentor Me)

Many association meetings feel less than friendly to Gen Ys, says Dorsey. “The experience of being immersed with a bunch of people twice your age can be overwhelming.” Mentoring programs are one way to welcome Gen Ys, who want to learn from senior members but are uncomfortable doing so in an unstructured manner.

Dorsey suggests assigning a one-on-one mentor or meeting coach to first-time attendees. The association could also give out ribbons or badges to new attendees that encourage members to introduce themselves to 10 new members. Or just have a new attendee orientation that covers everything — from what the acronyms mean to what to wear.

However, says Sladek, while Ys want mentoring, they prefer to network and socialize among their peers — which is why the young professional groups prosper. Large cocktail mixers also can be uncomfortable for Gen Ys. “There's a lot of pressure there with the mingling,” says Janssen.

Also, Janssen warns meeting planners not to “chase” certain technologies because they are popular. Don't get too involved with something that is going to evolve tomorrow, or is already passé. “If their moms are on Facebook and MySpace, [Gen Ys] have already jumped ship,” Janssen says. Instead, if you focus on what the technology is really trying to do — create a sense of community, young professionals will join, she says.

Educate (No Talking Heads)

Gen Ys like smaller, more intimate gatherings. Planners can accommodate that desire for peer-to-peer networking by creating young professional lounges or activities. And if the party is in one large space, experts suggest creating a variety of different environments — perhaps a band in one area, a lounge in another — so people can socialize in areas that appeal to them.

Connect (Facebook is so Last Week)

Gen Ys have grown up online, building communities, making connections, and interacting with others, explains Jeffrey Cufaude, founder, Idea Architects, Indianapolis. Meeting planners should be thinking about how to take those online communities and tie them to a live gathering in a way that might deepen those connections. For example, an association could create a listserv, message board, or blog specifically for the conference to get people talking about it and to establish connections, similar to what happens on other social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace. When the meeting rolls around, live networking will be much easier because people already have made the online connections and can skip over all the awkward introductions when they meet in person, says Cufaude.

Of course, creating a vibrant online community is easier said than done. Many people already participate in online communities and may not want to join a new one. You may want to think about establishing a presence on the social networking sites where likely attendees already congregate, Cufaude says.

One of Sladek's clients created a “Facebook Fiesta,” where, during a networking break, conference attendees could post videos and photos from the conference on Facebook. It created a place where attendees could visit after the conference to network and discuss the event. It also allowed attendees to interact in real-time with those who could not attend in person.

However, Janssen cautions associations not to be too shortsighted in establishing an online presence. Whether it's a blog or message board, it should be set up a year in advance so that the community has time to grow organically. It's unreasonable to expect people to use the site if it's slapped up a few months before the meeting.

She recommends a social networking site that includes photos of the participants so that people can put the face to the name at the live meeting. “When you get to the conference, it's such a big landscape; how are you going to find anyone?”

Also, Janssen warns meeting planners not to “chase” certain technologies because they are popular. Don't get too involved with something that is going to evolve tomorrow, or is already passé. “If their moms are on Facebook and MySpace, [Gen Ys] have already jumped ship,” Janssen says. Instead, if you focus on what the technology is really trying to do — create a sense of community, young professionals will join, she says.

Educate (No Talking Heads)

For Gen Ys, the best education fosters peer-to-peer learning, collaboration, and interactivity. “It's in line with this whole user-generated content movement,” says Stuart Mease, special projects coordinator for the City of Roanoke, Va., who works with the local YPA. Whether it's voting with your cellphone on “American Idol,” writing blogs, or spouting opinions on a message board, Gen Ys want a voice.

“If I'm at a conference and I've got the option of attending a breakout session where I can listen to some CEO talk about how he conquered such and such, or a session with 20 other people where we can all talk to each other, I might go for the smaller group so that we can interact more,” says Dan Rozycki, president, The Transtec Group, an Austin, Texas-based engineering company. Rozycki, a young executive who regularly attends big industry conferences like the World of Concrete, gets the most out of his membership in the Entrepreneurs' Organization, formerly the Young Entrepreneurs Organization. In each EO chapter, 10 or so young executives from the region meet monthly to share experiences and swap ideas on how to run their businesses.

Interactive learning can be achieved in other ways, too. IAEE's Janssen prefers “world cafe”-style roundtable discussions, where tables of participants collaborate to answer questions or solve problems. They are popular with YPAs. Instant polling or audience-response systems can be used to provide immediate feedback. Cufaude says speakers should think about ways to incorporate text messaging into meetings as a way to communicate and respond.

The use of video and visuals is also important. “Gen Ys are used to getting information packaged with high-speed graphics and an adrenalin rush,” says Chester. With the transfer of information being the primary reason for meetings, “the very core of how they are planned and produced must be reexamined.”

And whenever possible, couple education with entertainment, says Sladek. That could mean incorporating games into the session, doing role-playing, using video, or having a competition, like the Research Chef Association does. RCA launched an “Iron Chef”-style cooking competition at the meeting for student teams from universities with culinary arts programs. It's a highlight of the meeting, not only for students, but for attendees who gather to watch.

More advice: Kill the PowerPoint, lose the canned presentations, and keep the sessions to 90 minutes, tops. “The idea of us sitting through a session for two hours is a major turnoff,” says Dorsey. Janssen agrees. “I avoid the talking heads,” she says. “It just makes me shut down.”

Promote (Get Viral)

To get Gen Ys to come to your meeting, you need to create buzz — get viral.

To get people talking about your meeting, Janssen suggests letting members get involved with the selection of some speakers via the Web. The presenter or entertainer could submit a short video to be posted on the meeting's Web site so the attendees can decide, “American Idol”-style, which speakers they want.

Another way to promote the meeting is to set up “blogging cafes” where people can post about their experiences at the convention in real time. “They want the exposure, they want the publicity, they want to be recognized — if you ask them to participate, to somehow be in control of the content, they are more than likely going to be evangelists for you,” says Mease.

Dorsey agrees. “The first thing I do is send out an e-mail to my list or text message my friends — it's very viral. If associations can get a critical mass of young professionals to go out and be cheerleaders, to write about their associations in their blogs and promote the fact that they are members and enjoy the meetings — those kind of things feed off each other,” he says.

Some forward-thinking associations are even using YouTube to spread the word. For its meeting this June, the National Apartment Association, Arlington, Va., is going to create a two-minute video about the conference and post it on YouTube, explains Jeremy Figoten, vice president of meetings and expositions.

YouTube could also be used to gain exposure for a good speech or performance at the conference. Think of the “Evolution of Dance” video that everyone saw a year ago. One of the most popular videos in YouTube history, it was performed by a guy who works the convention circuit.

Text messaging is also being used at conventions to appeal to Gen Ys. At last year's NAA convention, a large sponsor held a contest where participants would text responses to a given number to win prizes and discounts. They marketed the contest by having staff wear shirts that said: “Got Text?” explains Figoten.

Whatever the medium, the marketing message should be simple, to the point, perhaps irreverent, to appeal to young professionals. Dorsey suggests sending a postcard that lists five reasons why a young professional should come to the meeting. Don't be afraid to use humor and spell out concise, concrete benefits of attending.

While Gen Ys are inclined to join associations, association leaders should not assume they will. “Those that go after young members will thrive, while those that don't will struggle,” says Sladek.

But if you take the time to understand what Gen Ys want and reach out to them, they will be enthusiastic members. “They are really hungry for it,” says Dorsey. “Gen Ys have all the characteristics of loyal association members,” he says. “It's a golden opportunity for associations.”

By the Young, for the Young

There are more than 300 young professional associations in the U.S., according to Molly Foley, lead consultant, Next Generation Consulting, which runs the Young Professionals Summit, a national meeting for young professionals. Most have started up within the last five years, she says. In that period, for example, the Boston YPA has attracted 10,000 members and the Milwaukee version, Fuel Milwaukee, has gained 5,500 members.

While many are regional, some have gone national. The Young Nonprofit Professionals Network started in 1997 with one chapter in San Francisco, but it has since added about 20 chapters in the U.S. Three years ago a national office, and a meeting, were launched. The organization now has about 10,000 members, says Josh Solomon, co-chair, YNPN National.

The association grew out of the sense that there weren't a lot of defined career paths or professional development opportunities in the nonprofit sector for young professionals to move from entry-level to mid-level or from mid-level to senior-level positions, he says.

“Young people in the sector want to associate with each other, both socially and in terms of career development and learning. A lot of the draw is that it's all by and for young professionals, so there's that sense of buy-in and belonging,” says Solomon. “There's a tremendous desire to learn from each other because we feel like we're doing something new and so, in some ways, we're one of our own best resources,” he says.

YNPN has never surveyed members to find out if they belong to other associations in the nonprofit world, says Solomon. It's also not known how many have “graduated” to other more established associations that represent nonprofit professionals once they reach a certain career goal or age.

All he knows is that growth has been explosive and that YNPN is filling a need. “People will hop on every relevant listserv they can find and it'll spread by word of mouth.”

Change the Music

A warning bell went off for the leadership at the National Athletic Trainers' Association, Dallas, when they realized that for the first time in 50 years, membership numbers were declining.

It wasn't much, but it was enough to make the brain trust at the association stand back and wonder why. They started by looking at their membership base and realized that the average member was in their mid-30s. So they asked: “Are we delivering the benefits that the younger age group wants?” says Teresa Foster Welch, associate executive director.

They started re-examining everything — including their meetings — in an attempt to make the organization more relevant to younger members. “Like most organizations, our meeting was pretty baby boomer-centered, because that's who had been running the organization,” says Welch. “So we looked at this as a great opportunity to revitalize our meeting. We want to make sure that our students and young professionals, not only want to come, but when they get on site, they feel welcome and they see activities that they want to participate in.”

The association has already made changes to its governance structure to expand opportunities for young members to serve on boards and committees, and it is in the process of making changes to its 2008 meeting.

In the meantime, leadership is communicating the message out to the established members informing them of the changes on the horizon. “We credit the success of our association to the baby boomers, and we tell them we are building on their success,” she says. “If we don't, we're not going to be able to move forward and be successful as an association. So we tell them, ‘Thank you for bringing us to the dance, but now we have to change the music.’”

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