It hasn't been a great year for meeting attendance at many associations, but not so for the American Society of Association Executive's Annual Meeting, which took place August 17 to 20 in Denver. The convention drew 5,810 registrants (including more than 2,700 association executives), falling less than 300 people short of the attendance record set in Orlando in 2000. “There were a lot of people who wondered if we could get this many people to Denver in this economic environment and with all that associations are facing,” noted ASAE President and CEO Michael Olson at an on-site press conference. He added that members needed to “meet and network after 9/11,” and he also saluted the Denver CVB for a “phenomenal” job of helping to market the convention through e-mail and telephone campaigns, among other activities. “If you wanted to define a perfect convention, this has been it,” Olson said.
Well, maybe not perfect for everyone. While raves were close to universal for this year's social activities — including an Earth, Wind & Fire concert at the Red Rocks amphitheater outside of Denver — and the association executive directors, CEOs, and presidents loved the education, the verdict on the M&E (meetings and expositions) Days held the first two days of the conference were mixed.
While some planners found the program to be a perfect fit — “It allowed me to find a place in the educational program I feel I can benefit from,” said one — other reactions weren't quite so rosy. “No takeaway value at all,” said one meeting planner of a panel discussion on the first day. And while it was interesting to hear how Westin put together its Heavenly Bed campaign during aand branding session, “This just has no relevance to my work,” said another M&E attendee as she scribbled a full page of comments on the back of the evaluation form.
“We acknowledge that we weren't able to pull it off the way we wanted to,” says Kellee Magee, director of member resources with the American Nursery & Landscape Association. Magee has been on the ASAE M&E Section Council for four years and chaired this year's council. “While we have the vision of what we want M&E Days to be, how to execute that vision is still a work in progress.”
Part of the disconnect some planners felt this year, she says, is due to the fact that the program looks and feels different from the education they're accustomed to. “But we felt there was no value in putting on programming everyone's seen before and is comfortable with. Also, M&E Days aren't for people who want to learn how to count coffee cups. There probably were some people in the room who didn't belong there,” she says, adding that there are other programs in the M&E toolkit that address meeting operations. “They're for teaching senior-level meeting professionals how to transition from being a meeting executor — who can be outsourced all too easily these days — to being a strategic partner in an association.”
Also, “ASAE should be the be-all and end-all of best practices in meeting planning. And this year, quite frankly, it wasn't,” Magee admits. “Next year, we're going to maximize the untraditional environment of Hawaii to create interactive and different learning experiences, to do a better job of showcasing best meeting practices while helping senior meeting professionals make the next step in their career path.”