Innovation is hard to define, but easy to recognize. For our first AM Innovators project, we sought association professionals who were recognized as forward-thinking by their peers. Earlier this year, we reached out to readers, colleagues, and the members of a specially created advisory board to develop a universe of nominees.

The innovators featured here stood out as professionals who, even in the deepest down cycle most of us have ever seen, were able to look at their meetings with fresh eyes and find new ways to drive attendance, create a better educational environment, and use technology to deliver a better experience for attendees and exhibitors.

We hope the following profiles provide both ideas and inspiration, so that you might think differently about the design of your own events and trade shows.

Selling Out the Show Floor

The Innovator

Stacey Chandler

Director, Expositions, American College of Rheumatology, ATLANTA

The Innovation

When the American College of Rheumatology decided to manage its annual exhibition internally after years of outsourcing, the association handed the reins to a staff member with no professional experience running exhibitions. During her four years at ACR, Stacey Chandler had worked on developing content for the association's smaller education meetings. As it turned out, however, Chandler was a stellar choice.

With the new Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) Code on Interactions with Healthcare Professionals restricting marketing practices, one of Chandler's main objectives was to create more of an education environment in the exhibit hall. “There have been a lot of changes in terms of what medical meetings can and can't do,” says Chandler.“Bringing [the exhibition] in-house allowed us to have more control over it, but also to introduce innovative ideas that our third-party vendor might not have.”

How to Make it Happen

First up: “Innovation Theater.” On the show floor, ACR will build a 100-seat, hard-walled theater with a stage and two plasma screen monitors. Companies can purchase 30-minute time slots for presentations on new products or services. ACR offered six time slots: Five have already been sold.

The second new idea was the “Clinical Scenario Challenge” promotion, designed to give companies more education-oriented sponsorship opportunities, since they are restricted in terms of giveaways. Here's how it works: The sponsor publishes a clinical scenario, either in the show dailies, on the Web, or somewhere else on site. To get the outcome of the case, attendees have to go to the sponsoring exhibitor's booth. “It adds more education to our meeting and drives people to our exhibit hall,” says Chandler. ACR offered one Clinical Scenario Challenge per day of the show: They're already sold out.

Another focus is improving customer service and exhibitor relationships. To that end, Chandler now uses an interactive online floor plan that allows exhibitors to see which booths are sold, which are available, and how they are configured. It also allows Chandler to change layouts as necessary. Attendees can access the floor plan as well, via ACR's Web site, so that they can locate exhibitors in advance of the show.

And to help attendees navigate the actual show floor, Chandler launched ACR Concierge, an information desk that will include a seating area.

Finally, she plans to appoint an exhibitor advisory council in order to get feedback and ideas for new ways to create opportunities that conform to the new guidelines.

What's Next

After just one year in her new role, Chandler has had a major impact. At a time when most associations are struggling to fill exhibit halls and are experiencing revenue declines, ACR's hall is almost sold out for this year's meeting, well ahead of last year's pace. And few, if any, are downsizing their booths; in fact, many are upsizing. As a result, revenues from the exhibition are expected to be up in 2009.

And Chandler doesn't plan to stop innovating any time soon. Next year, for example, she may add touch-screen kiosks to the show floor to give attendees exhibitor information. “I've got a list for 2010 that we'll start to go though pretty soon to see what is feasible and what we think will be successful.”

Innovation Takes a Team

Chandler is a part of a three-person corporate relations team, which is constantly thinking about initiatives that will appeal to exhibitors. They also keep an eye on what other groups are doing to see if they can adapt ideas or tweak a concept to fit their show. “It's definitely a team effort,” she says.

when Members Make the Agenda

The Innovator

Holly Ross

Executive Director, NTEN: The Nonprofit Technology Network, PORTLAND, ORE.

The Innovation

Since Holly Ross joined NTEN five years ago, she has always encouraged members to submit ideas and feedback. But this year, she took the concept of member involvement to another level, allowing the NTEN community to create the agenda for its annual meeting, held in April. The move reflects the changing role of associations, she believes. “We're in the information age and up until this point, the role of the nonprofit and the association was to be a place where people could turn for information,” says Ross. Now, people have an incredible amount of information at their fingertips. “So our role,” she says, “has shifted from being knowledge centers to being conduits of knowledge and helping our members connect to each other, share information, and share experiences.”

A member-created agenda also engages members in a new way, giving them a sense of ownership and creating a buzz for the meeting. The result: In the first year of the community-driven agenda, NTEN welcomed 1,450 delegates to San Francisco, an increase of 35 percent — “the single biggest jump in attendance ever,” Ross notes.

How to Make it Happen

Using Surveymonkey.com, NTEN staff asked members to submit session ideas for the 2009 annual meeting. They received an amazing 200 submissions — more than enough for a three-day conference that usually features 90 sessions. “We got high-quality submissions,” says Ross, including some topics that had never been covered.

With all the proposals collected, Ross and her team put them into categories by topic and asked a steering committee for input on subjects that were missing. For example, Ross says, “Lots of people submitted social-media stuff, but no one was talking about security. But that's important. We identified the holes and made up some sessions to fill those holes.”

To determine which of the submissions would make the final cut, staff sent them back out to the community for a vote, again using Surveymonkey.com “There was a lot of discussion on Twitter and Facebook, with people lobbying for their sessions and getting people to vote,” Ross says. Generally, the sessions with the most votes appeared on the agenda. However, Ross notes, NTEN staff also included some necessary topics, even if they weren't top vote-getters.

What's Next

Just after this issue went to press in July, NETN was scheduled to have a community call with the membership to get feedback — good and bad — on the 2009 meeting, as well as ideas for the 2010 event.

And Ross never knows what kinds of ideas might arise. This year, for example, NETN tried a community suggestion for better networking: They created 10 different laptop stickers and gave each registrant 10 copies of the same sticker. During the event, attendees traded stickers with other delegates until they had each of the 10 different stickers. Once they did, they could turn it in for a gift. “That came from an open community call where people started to riff off each other,” Ross says. “That kind of forum really bubbles some great things to the surface.”

Innovative and Useful

Ross doesn't take complete credit for the community-driven agenda. She developed the concept after attending the South By Southwest Music and Media Festival in Austin, Texas, where portions of the program were community-driven. She recognized it as an idea that made sense for NTEN. “When it comes to our conference, we hope that what we implement is a marriage of innovation and utility — a new way of looking at things, but also something you can use right now to make your organization more effective at meeting its mission.”

Taking CUES From Radiohead

The Innovator

Dawn poker

Senior Vice President and Chief Learning Officer, Credit Union Executives Society, MADISON, WIS.

The Innovation

With the financial industry melting down last fall, Dawn Poker was more than a little concerned about pulling off the Credit Union Executives Society's CEO Network Conference in Las Vegas last November. By September, registrations had slowed considerably and the association was looking at low attendance and high attrition penalties. It was a big problem that called for a big idea. So Poker and her colleague, Christopher Stevenson, professional development manager at CUES, got together one day to brainstorm ways to boost attendance. And suddenly it hit them: Let attendees pay what they can.

The idea to have attendees set their own price for registration actually came from alternative rock band Radiohead. In late 2007, Radiohead released its album “In Rainbows” on the Web only, telling customers they could pay whatever they liked to download it.

Stevenson floated the idea for CUES, and Poker ran with it, having just been at a leadership conference where Radiohead was featured as a case study. They brought the idea to CUES CEO Fred Johnson, who gave his enthusiastic stamp of approval. “Our association is about professional development and we felt that at this difficult time people needed to come together more than ever to network with their peers, talk about what's going on, and be part of the discussion,” says Poker. Instead, many were staying home because they couldn't afford the registration fee — that was not good for members, or CUES.

How to Make it Happen

With the CEO Network Conference barely eight weeks away, Poker and her team sent e-mails and made phone calls to communicate the pay-what-you-can pricing to members. CUES even informed those who had already signed up at full price, saying they could pay less if they liked. (All of them declined.) The new offer led to an immediate spike in attendance. About 39 people took advantage of the deal, paying less than the set fee. Five people opted not to pay anything. The rest paid full price. “We were never fearful that everyone would take advantage of this, because the credit union movement is all about helping one another,” Poker says. If they can afford it, people will pay for things they think are worth paying for, she says.

The conference attracted 200 attendees, with close to half signing up after the promotion. Poker estimates that attendance was probably 35 percent higher than it would have been otherwise. All told, CUES got an average of $100 less per attendee registration. That's not bad, considering it's only about one-tenth of the registration fee. And the benefits far outweighed the relatively minor revenue hit. “We were able to fill our hotel block and meet our food-and-beverage minimum, so we didn't have attrition,” she says. Beyond that, the initiative generated a lot of positive public relations. And more important, it created member loyalty. “We've gotten a tremendous amount of value from the program,” Poker says. “Our members really appreciate it.”

What's Next

For the upcoming 2009 CEO/Executive Team Network event in Orlando, the pay-what-you-can scheme is back by popular demand. “Just today, I had three people call me about it,” Poker notes. She doesn't know if the offer will continue beyond 2009, but there has been discussion about rolling it out every year. “This may be the way of the future,” she says. “We need to look at it.”

When the Going Gets Tough, Innovate

“We wish we could say it was one of those ideas that we thought and thought and thought about,” jokes Poker, but that wasn't the case. The bolt of inspiration was a solution born of necessity that required immediate action and decisiveness to bring to fruition.

Times are tough for associations nationwide. And in Poker's view, that makes it precisely the moment to embrace new ways of thinking. With the economy struggling, attendance down, and people reluctant to travel, the rewards of innovative ideas outweigh the risks.

Directing Traffic

The Innovator

Tom Shimala

Director, Technical Exhibit Services, Radiological Society of North America, OAK BROOK, ILL.

The Innovation

For the past 12 years, Tom Shimala has overseen technical exhibit services for the Radiological Society of North America's annual meeting, the largest medical meeting in the country, with nearly 60,000 attendees. Held at McCormick Place in Chicago, the event has grown steadily over the past decade, even in the current recession. RSNA 2007 set records for revenue, exhibit space sold, and total attendance, while RSNA 2008 set a record for professional attendance and marked only a 4 percent decline in exhibit space sold.

With so much growth, RSNA has been bursting at the seams. More exhibitors, larger booths, and the flood of attendees have created traffic jams on the show floor. “Our goal was to eliminate the congestion, but even more important, to get the traffic evenly distributed around the halls,” says Shimala.

Tackling the problem meant rethinking the show's whole configuration. First, RSNA hired a company called EthnoMetrics to analyze traffic patterns. Video footage showed that crowds were jamming up at some larger booths and not moving to other aisles. EthnoMetrics recommended creating two main “highways” running north and south to let traffic move more freely between the front and back of the hall. (Two east/west highways were added as well, to accomplish the same objective.) Video recordings after the changes showed that traffic was more evenly distributed. “So when people say, ‘My booth location is too far back,’ we can verify to them that the area received as much or more traffic than the front,” says Shimala.

What's Next

For RSNA 2008, Shimala introduced another big change. He booked a third hall at McCormick Place. While total exhibit space sold was down 4 percent, the decision to move from two halls to three was made in order to improve the customer experience. Some exhibitors were concerned that traffic wouldn't flow into the new hall; however, RSNA used RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) technology to monitor attendee movement, and was able to show that, in reality, the third hall did not receive less traffic. Receivers were installed at entrances and exits, and attendees had tags on their badges that recorded when they came and went. (Wearing the tags was voluntary, but Shimala reports that very few opted out.)

And there was another new twist: restaurants. RSNA 2008 debuted a food outlet called Bistro RSNA in each hall. These buffet-style eateries with many menu choices offer large seating areas where attendees or exhibitors have the option to reserve tables.

Last year, the new dining outlet resulted in 20 percent more people eating in the halls. “If we can move people to the floor to find good food and quick service, everyone is benefiting,” Shimala says.

Innovation is All about the Customer

Widening lanes, adding exhibit space, and investing in technology are expensive propositions. But if they improve the experience for attendees and make the show more efficient and effective for exhibitors, then they're worth it. That's Shimala's bottom line.

The New Show Floor: Replacing Sales With Science

The Innovator

Alvin Lever

Executive Vice President and CEO, American College of Chest Physicians, NORTHBROOK, ILL.

The Innovation

Considering his degrees in architecture and his history of designing medical facilities, it's not surprising to find Al Lever spearheading a redesign of the ACCP's exhibit hall. It's a redesign that was very much needed. The updated Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America Code on Interactions with Healthcare Professionals, which went into effect January 1, 2009, bans promotional giveaways typically offered at exhibit booths. In July, medical device companies began facing similar restrictions under the Advanced Medical Tech-nology Association's new code.

But the need to rethink medical conventions and exhibitions goes beyond what some call the “tchotchke rule.” Lever sees today's regulatory challenges as an invitation to transform the exhibit hall into an education center.

How to Make it Happen

With input from exhibitors and members of ACCP's Industry Advisory Council, Lever and his team offered to several companies exhibiting at CHEST 2008 (ACCP's annual convention) an alternative to traditional booths: clinical resource centers. Staffed by scientists, not salespeople, these centers were set up like lounges, with seating, product information, and educational resources.

While some companies have set up medical information desks separate from their promotional booths before, Lever's concept is different, as the clinical resource centers will actually replace the marketing booth and put the medical scientific liaisons in an environment that allows real peer-to-peer exchange.

While exhibitors paid ACCP the same fee for a 20-foot-by-30-foot clinical resource center as they would have for a traditional 20-by-30 booth, they potentially save on costs for shipping, setup, and take-down of promotional displays. In addition, they're not taking salespeople out of the field.

Both are critical considerations given the current economy. “We are giving companies a better environment to discuss the scientific and clinical aspects of products at a lower cost,” Lever says.

To further expand the trade show's educational aspect, ACCP offers simulation centers in a ballroom outside the exhibit hall, where attendees can try out new equipment and procedures.

What's Next

Lever and his team plan to improve and expand the clinical resource center concept for CHEST 2009 this fall in San Diego. Centers will be arranged in clusters organized by theme, such as disease state or technology, making it easier for attendees to navigate.

Innovation Means Education

Lever believes that it's of paramount importance for meetings to provide as many educational opportunities as possible to attendees. “We're just scratching the surface of the ideas that we're developing,” he says. “These are exciting times.”

And the Honorees are…

STACEY CHANDLER
DAWN POKER
HOLLY ROSS
TOM SHIMALA
ALVIN LEVER

AM Innovators Advisory Board

CORBIN BALL, CSP, CMP
President, Corbin Ball Associates

MARY BOONE
President, Boone Associates

CINDY BUTTS, CAE
CEO, Maine Association of Realtors & Maine Real Estate Information Systems

JEFFREY CUFAUDE
President, Idea Architects

JEFF DE CAGNA
Chief Strategist and Founder, Principled Innovation LLC

JOAN EISENSTODT
President, Eisenstodt Associates

DAVE FELLERS
President, EthnoMetrics

SUE TINNISH
Assistant Professor, Management and Meetings, Kendall College