How a unique new partnership identified a hot issue and produced a sold-out, attendee-driven event in less than four months

"It was such a big issue, such a hot issue, we didn't have the time to do this meeting the normal way [that an association would,]" recalls Hugh Lee, president of the meeting production company Fusion Productions, Webster, N.Y.

He's talking about the recent "Associations: digitalNow" conference held in Orlando, November 2 to 4, drawing 250 top-level association executives from around the country. The topic? How nonprofits need to respond to "a new kind of predator, the fast-moving, streamlined, instinct-driven animal known as the dot-com," according to the meeting's brochure. (For an in-depth discussion of this issue, see AM's August cover story, "Internet Roadkill? Try Road Warriors.")

Lee, a longtime advocate of using technology to enhance a meeting's ROI, says that the subject of new dot-com and other for-profit competition "just kept coming up again and again" at the June retreat of the American Society of Association Executives' Fellows, a group of progressive- minded individuals who meet every spring. The group decided that the issue needed to be explored in-depth and quickly in a solutions-oriented meeting. Lee and another participant, George Aguel, vice president of the Disney Institute, volunteered to create and host the event. ASAE then fast-tracked the decision to partner with Fusion and Disney. It was the first time ASAE had agreed to support a conference marketed exclusively to its membership but owned and produced by an outside company. (The conference name is owned by Fusion and the Disney Institute, and all content and design is owned by Fusion.)

"[ASAE] should be applauded," says Lee, "for, in effect, testing a new way of doing business, utilizing partnerships to gain speed and expertise." Indeed, speed of governance has become the Achilles heel for many associations in the Internet age. But not in this case, where the ASAE executive committee approved the concept within two weeks. That left just four months to design and market the event, one that ended up including such heavy hitters as Fast Company magazine's founding editor William Taylor and futurist Jim Taylor.

Feedback Loops If the Internet has raised the bar in terms of expected speed of response, it has also helped supply the tools to act quickly. Says Lee, "We could not have produced the conference in this time frame without the digitalNow Web site." The Fusion team designed and launched the site within one week of the ASAE agreement to partner with the production company and Disney.

But the site was constantly evolving in that four month period based on visitor feedback. In the month of September, for example, it had 650 visitors and 130 responses on the discussion boards, many of which were suggestions for the meeting design and for improving the information on the site. "The real time-saver was that we not only have the technology in-house [to evolve the Web site continuously], but since we were also responsible for content, there were no delays in approval of looks, descriptions, and feature sets put up on the site." Lee adds that the digitalNow Web site was also very useful in shaping the speakers' presentations prior to the meeting.

"As Bill Taylor commented, 'You guys have the right idea--your customers are designing your meeting for you.' That totally resonated with me," Lee says, "because our meeting theme was 'It's All About You.' The Web site was a tremendous tool in allowing us to follow through with that [theme]."

Feedback loops remained an essential ingredient of the digitalNow experience. During the meeting, for instance, attendees were directed to on-site computers to give their evaluations and suggestions after each session, so that Fusion could modify programming even during the event--in one instance, for example, switching the times of two presentations to better accommodate attendees.

"I would introduce any changes from the stage and Disney would place new agendas with the evening turn-down service. This way, attendees knew we were listening to them, and they felt an unbelievable level of personalization," Lee says.

Moreover, the general sessions were webcast so that within two hours of each session, video clips of those presentations, along with presentation notes, were available from the conference Web site. Why did Fusion decide the presentations had to be on the Web site so quickly?

"That's a good question. So many people opt to use technology just as a gimmick," Lee states, "but in this case it was very useful for us to get them up in a two-hour time frame."

That's because many attending CEOs wanted to bring additional staff to the meeting (the conference was limited to three top-level executives per association). By putting the presentations up on the Web in something close to real time, the CEOs were able to teleconference with their staffs back at the office and consequently get more ROI from the experience, he explains.

The conference was designed from the start with webcasting in mind, so the stage was lit appropriately and the speakers were coached on how to deliver their presentations in ways that would translate well in the digital medium.

Interactive Formats With just a couple of months to pull together top-notch programming, Fusion relied heavily on its contacts with speakers from previous meetings it had organized, pulling in not only Fast Company's cofounder William Taylor and futurist author Jim Taylor, but Don Tapscott, author of Digital Capital: Harnessing the Power of BusinessWebs, who gave the opening keynote presentation.

Other presenters and panelists arose out of the ranks of ASAE. These included Pamela Hemann, president, Association Management Service Inc.; Larry Rosenthal, executive vice president, American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons; Deborah Hamlin, executive director, International Association of Plastic Distributors; and Wayne Gross, executive director, Technical Association of the Pulp and Paper Industry, among 10 other association executives. Joining them in panel discussions were several representatives from dot-com companies and for-profit subsidiaries.

Session topics included governance strategies, how to build online communities, e-commerce in the not-for-profit realm, and information liquidity--or how to leverage an association's various types of knowledge and expertise.

It was important to have formats that encouraged interactivity, so the program entailed a question-and-answer session with each speaker, two open floor discussions, and four "focused forum solutions," as well two networking receptions. There was also a multifunctional Resource Center (see sidebar, right).

"In the new model for meetings, for meetings in the digitalNow world, there has to be a strong value proposition for attendees. They want to know what is their ROI?" Lee says. "They want answers to their problems, and the events that can do that are the events that succeed."

Binding Online and Offline As the digitalNow meeting modeled, narrowly focused meetings (niche meetings) with short planning timelines will become increasingly necessary as associations try to be more responsive to the information needs of their members, Lee believes.

The digitalNow conference also reflects another trend: the extended shelf-life of live events. Two months after the digitalNow meeting, its Web site continues to serve participants and their associations by carrying conference video clips and presentation notes, and by providing forums for further discussion. The meeting may even be offered again, picking up where the first one left off.

"The association meeting is a microcosm of the association," Lee says. "And we meeting professionals have an incredible opportunity to be the integrators of face-to-face communities and online ones. . . . To quote Bill Taylor on the subject: 'meetings are what binds the bricks with the clicks.'"

Disney Steps Up to the Plate The mission of the Disney Institute, a 57-acre learning campus established in 1986 at the Orlando Disney complex, is to "really be a participant in the issues facing for-profit and not-for-profit enterprises," says George Aguel, vice president of the Institute, and an active member of the American Society of Association Executives. So it seemed natural to Aguel for the Disney Institute to partner with Fusion in bringing to life a meeting that focused on one of the most pressing issues facing associations today: how to deal with dot-com and other for-profit competition.

The Institute provided not only the setting for the meeting, but marketing support, ground logistics, and sponsorship of the main food and beverage events. Disney Institute's professionally trained facilitators also led discussion breakouts.

"It's a meeting that falls very much within our strategic mission," says Aguel, "and secondarily, it was an opportunity to have a group of association CEOs see first-hand that mission in action."

As an organization that not only provides top-notch conference and technical facilities, the Institute has other attractive options for "just-in-time" meeting planning needs: customizable programs on an array of management and business issues.

"Our key focus with any organization is to help improve their culture," Aguel says.

Beware Dot-Com Partnerships By Hugh Lee, president, Fusion Productions In the past year many for-profits have approached associations to partner with them. They offer free Web sites, portal platforms, directories, online education, and in some cases, they even include the word "association" in their name.

The benefits of such partnerships for associations are obvious: free services, already existing programs, and if you don't know anything about Web technology, you don't have to learn--just leave it to them.

But please keep in mind two points: No one does what associations alone are uniquely qualified to do: advance a profession or trade through a trusted brand, one that delivers unbiased education, research, and communication vehicles. A dot-com company's business model, on the other hand, is this: Get more eyeballs, create more customers, increase revenues and market share, and improve earnings per share in the area of 20 percent per year if not 100 percent.

What, then, are the inherent risks of a partnership between dot-coms and associations?

You are interested in quality content and delivering services at a level for which your brand has come to be trusted. Dot-coms are interested in content that gets eyeballs, and for them, speed is more important than your brand. The program or site may be a partnership, but at the end of the day, members, consumers, and suppliers will say it is your association's site. Your brand and trust are always on the line.

For-profits only want your content, community, and brand. Once they have it they don't need you, and as the leading CEO of one of the for-profit portals said at a recent ASAE event, "If associations are not able to change the terms of our engagement every six months or so, we will. . . make lousy partners and need to move on our way." And why not--since you have given them the keys to their success at that point?

Further, many dot-coms offer a one-set technology solution. Either you use their platform or you need to change. More important, technology never stays still and will it still be relevant in six months?

So what is my checklist for partnering with a dot-com? * Own the content, database, and data-mining capabilities. Give no rights to the content, databases, or information mined during and after your agreement.

* Ensure the site is under your name, server, and brand.

* Make sure you can add robust components, such as online education, seamlessly and cost-effectively.

* Understand their business model. How are they making money? What control do you have over how they use your assets to generate income?

* Check out their financial status and ability to sustain over a three-to-five-year horizon. Twenty-million dollars in today's world lasts about 2.5 year--if they are lucky. Most are probably losing $8 million a year.

* See a lawyer.

A Place to Work, Relax, and Learn The Resource Center, part of the digitalNow event at the Disney Institute, was a "critical and somewhat innovative meeting design element--where the high-tech merged with the high-touch," according to Hugh Lee, conference organizer.

The multi-functional center featured a planning area with tables, comfortable couches, and refreshments, so that CEOs and their volunteer leaders and senior staff could take time out to review the meeting.The "big ideas" from each breakout session were presented on large sheets of paper surrounding the planning area. There were computers for downloading e-mail and for reviewing webcasts of the conference.

Evening functions and refreshment breaks were held in the center. It was also used for demonstrations, explains Lee, for a handful of "attendee-requested, high-end" Web application programs and services. They were demonstrated by Fusion personnel--there were no vendor booths or vendors. "Even Disney declined a presentation table," Lee says, "recognizing their best selling was happening in real time through the venue and their facilitators."