Faced with a membership of government employees under travel restrictions, executives at the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International were concerned about attendance for their 2010 annual meeting in Houston. Relying solely on traditional marketing didn’t make a lot of sense because for many members it wasn’t a lack of awareness keeping them home, it was lack of available funding. So APCO officials decided to take a different approach to marketing—they decided to go grassroots.

“When I think of grassroots, I think of political election campaigns, where people go door-to-door for the candidate,” says Lindsey Coburn, marketing and communications manager, APCO International, Daytona Beach, Fla. She had the idea of applying the same strategy to meetings—sort of. Instead of the association promoting the conference to members, the members, who are 911 call operators and dispatchers, would get involved by promoting the meeting and raising their own travel funds to attend.

With the help of association marketing company Frost-Miller Group, Bethesda, Md., APCO developed its grassroots strategy. “We put together a campaign that allowed us to provide our members with ways that they could raise money to get to the conference, and then we made a contest out of it,” Coburn said. The campaign was called “Get Your Agency to Houston,” and it was plastered on the APCO Web site, Facebook, and Twitter.

APCO’s list of fundraising ideas on its Web site included a fun run or walk, yard sale, car wash, bake sale, agency tour day, education seminars, to name just a few. The association also provided conference letterhead and a fact sheet of information that members could include in the letter to promote the conference within their agency or community.

Participants were encouraged to submit a video of the fundraising campaign to show everyone how they did it. For the 2010 conference, APCO received one video from the Lee County (Fla.) Sheriff’s Office Public Safety Telecommunicators, which can be found on Youtube. In the video, called “APCO Houston or Bust,” the team members documented how they raised about $15,000 to send 11 people to the conference. They held a yard sale, a chili cook-off, a barbecue lunch, and a rubber ducky race.

The Houston conference attracted about 4,800 people, which was on par with the previous year’s meeting. How big a role the grassroots campaign played was not known, since the association didn’t track participation, but officials believe it helped.

Because municipalities weren’t under the same pressure this year, APCO officials didn’t have trouble reaching attendance goals for its 2011 annual meeting in Philadelphia, August 7–10, attracting 5,400. Even though APCO ran the campaign again, it did not receive any video submissions. However, APCO will continue to employ the campaign in the future, says Coburn. “Even if they don't submit a video, it still gives them the tools to try and help raise money to get to the event,” she says.