I regret to inform you we did not find a mechanical bull we could ride at the karaoke saloon in Nashville this year for #ASAE22, the Association for Association Executives annual conference.
I did however:
- find a new Omni global sales rep while speaking with a new association executive friend at the Small Associations Happy Hour
- learn a practical way to create and implement a mentoring plan
- schedule three demos for new AMS and event tech platforms that I hadn't heard of before
- plant a tree while hearing how and why Multiview navigated their recent rebrand
And that was just on Sunday.
On Monday, I found a strategic approach to implementing diverse revenue streams, met a CTO who looks like James VanderBeek of Dawson's Creek who delighted us with his Sam Rockwell dancing habits while waxing poetic about his community management software roadmap, learned how to walk like an Egyptian while also learning where to find the new API documentation for an event app I love, and had a relaxing night out with new and old friends.
ASAE's annual event, for me, always lives up to expectations around why community is important and this year was no different. Those of us that work with and for associations always laugh, I think a little self-deprecatingly, when we try to explain the membership space to those that have never taken part. This year's conference reminded and reinforced for me that I shouldn't minimize the feeling of attending a show filled with "my people" and having genuine fun at sessions, on the tradeshow floor, and yes at the karaoke bar again.
Let's chat more in-depth about the 5 things I took away from ASAE22 that you don't want to miss.
1. How you curate and support In-Person Makes a Difference.
Interestingly enough, the term "can't miss those hallway conversations" was a phrase that I first heard at ASAE more than ten years ago. And while I'm as big a fan as any of virtual events (because they do and SHOULD have a place in your continued events, marketing, and sales strategy), the in-person conversations at ASAE this year were the lightning in the bottle.
In the hallway, in the pre-function space, in the tradeshow aisles, at the happy hours, at the after-hours, on the sidewalks of Nashville, and more, people were connecting, sharing, hugging, elbow bumping, gossiping, and absolutely delighting in being able to reach out and be with the people across from them.
ASAE and nearly every venue participant stepped in to ensure that those that joined the event in person felt safe, from the first moment they arrived at the convention center.
Starting with...if you hadn't completed your covid test, there was an area for you to quickly take care of that. All attendees were required to show proof of a negative COVID test within 48 hours of badge pickup for the ASAE Annual Meeting. This departed from ASAE’s previous policy requiring proof of vaccination prior to admittance.
An onsite event Covid testing site isn't as common as you think. I believe requiring a negative test is only going to become more status quo, especially for events with multi-national attendees. It was a recurring topic across nearly every reception I attended.
But back to the onsite testing. ASAE and Salesforce have been the only two organizations that ensured you could take care of it onsite (at no cost to the participant) in an easy, private, and uncomplicated way. From there, you stopped to pick up your badge with a color-coded neck strap to help other participants know your comfort zone. There was also a stated mask policy, indicating they were optional.
Aside from physical health and safety, it felt like ASAE was creating more opportunities to flock together and support everyone who is recovering from the pandemic.
Though there wasn't a shuttle from the airport to Downtown Nashville, once you got there, all of the conference hotels were within walking distance. There was additionally a hotel shuttle.
For those who brought children to the show, babysitting services were available with Nannies of Brentwood. This local company provided a babysitter for your hotel room or other space on an individual basis.
For the first time in many years, education and the exhibit hall ran concurrently. ASAE shared in their event FAQS that both attendees and exhibitors asked them to shorten the number of days the show is open, but lengthen show hours. In response to this, the Association Solutions Marketplace (Expo Hall) was open Sunday from 11:30 a.m. - 3:30 p.m. and Monday from 11:00 a.m.–2:30 p.m.
Though the event programming on the tradeshow floor didn't use the headphones/microphone option where attendees could listen and not be distracted by the tradeshow floor was to their detriment, the education agenda design overall was well-integrated and well-received in helping association staffers, no matter their role or seniority, find a topic that held their attention from breakouts to popups.
Another neat action on ASAE's part is the launching of a new initiative called Meeting Community Needs. Starting in Nashville, they will work with ASAE Annual Meeting host cities to impact positive change in the local community.
The gamut that is the Sunday night chapter and supplier get-togethers was smartly organized from a foot traffic perspective, where it appeared that sponsors and the host event organizers of all of the extracurricular events made it easy to flow from one space to the other while helping you keep the conversation going.
Personify, in particular, went above and beyond with staff on the streets literally directing traffic and helping not only the first-timers could find the places where we could gather, but those participants who were struggling with re-entry to an in-person event for the first time since March 2020.
ASAE CEO Michelle Mason shared in Monday's press conference that 4,912 people registered to attend in person, including association executives, exhibitors, and others, including consultants and media. That compares to the total attendance of 5,476 in Columbus. Yet Mason said the number of association executives registered for Nashville—2,699—was the highest since ASAE met in Chicago in 2018.
2. Transparency around the event design and pricing were welcome conversation topics and not taboos
Mason also shared that ASAE’s decision not to offer concurrent virtual options for the meeting was “very intentional.”
“We are 100% in person,” she said. However, she noted that some content from the meeting will be available online after the annual event concludes. Take a Byte ASAE22 features 18 on-demand educational sessions at a price of $399 for members and $499 for nonmembers.
This was an important event design note that I loved hearing the CEO talk about. Frequently, we as the event organizers or executives don't talk about the inside baseball of why and how we both design and price the event. But the fact remains that most of us don't have events out of the goodness of our hearts. We do it for an organizational goal...to make money, to strengthen customer or member loyalty, demand generation, etc.
One of the best outcomes from this pandemic in my opinion is that associations in particular have been so much more open about the hardships and pivots many have faced since the non-dues revenue their annual event typically provided dried up since March 2020.
The supplier partners on the tradeshow floor also seemed to find new common ground with association staff as their typical events strategy struggled too during the pandemic. Though the badges for suppliers were still red (just like a stop sign 👎), the barriers that typically separate the associations from those they vendor with seemed easier to surpass this year.
In-person attendance at the Nashville meeting cost $1,199 ($999 for those who registered by April 22) for U.S. association professionals who are ASAE members. The nonmember price was $1,499 ($1,399 early bird). Expo-only prices were $199.
Mason also said that despite rampant inflation, ASAE held those prices steady at their 2019 levels. At nearly every hallway conversation, happy hour, or after-hours I attended, event planners and executives alike were discussing the higher costs of holding and producing their own shows.
“The cost of doing business clearly has increased,” Mason said. “And so for us, it’s really important for us to watch our expenses. We were very committed to not increasing the registration fee.
“But as we think through this we also recognize (that) as we emerge, members are expecting experiences. And that’s why we partner with our (Nashville event) partners so that we can continue to deliver on our experience,” she said. “Members can receive the value of us watching our bottom line because they have one to watch as well.”
This decision was a controversial one. Many folks in the Association Chat Facebook group that I follow had strong opinions about not being able to attend virtually, largely centered around the fact that professional development budgets have been cut due to everything still being a hot mess economically or smaller teams in association staffs kept them at work instead on the road as their associations continue to recover.
From long-time faces you expected to see and newcomers to the space, there was disappointment that ASAE didn't design and implement a compelling online experience, especially after ASAE had been leading a charge around showing associations how a diversified revenue stream including hybrid events could be done. It will be interesting to hear how many take advantage of the post-event online recordings.
3. everything has changed but there are familiar faces in the new normal
Just like Connect Marketplace in Detroit, there were familiar vendor partners on the exhibit hall floor this year and there were also encouragingly so many new faces and vendors to talk with. The mergers and acquisitions that have been rocking the association space since 2016 seem to be cooling slightly and you could feel that across the tradeshow.
Many salespeople, especially in the software space, that we've all known for years have changed teams, but they're still a part of the fabric in which you can easily reach out for a demo or customer support.
The sales teams on the event destination team appeared to be struggling a bit more than the software space. I wasn't kidding when I said I found a new global sales rep at one of the happy hours. Most of my global sales partners were laid off or furloughed during the height of the pandemic, and many are now selling real estate instead of meeting space. Across nearly every hotel-hosted happy hour, it was the same story. Having the referral network in person was a welcome one for this event organizer for sure.
ASAE and the host hotels also did a wonderful job of helping us find the vendor partners many of us were searching for and unlike the Hyatt party I attended in Detroit, every hotel event I showed up to (Omni, Marriott, and Hilton) had at least two representatives that made an effort to chat with me.
Do the staffing and timing challenges mean the destinations can't handle your next event though? Absolutely not.
The teams that were part of the show were fantastic and filled with photos and stories of the renovations and new offerings from a destination perspective that happened over the last 18 months. There is certainly a sense of renewal and flexibility in the venue relationships that hasn't always been there over the last five years as the balance of power for contracting has swung back and forth.
However, nearly every venue partner said the same thing...timing and patience are key when sourcing and planning your next event. Most venues are facing an uncertain marketplace just like the rest of us. And their ongoing staffing crisis isn't just with the sales teams. Concerns about finding qualified housekeeping, banquet staff, and audio-visual teams abounded.
Anyone planning an event should keep that in mind, overcommunicate about expectations, and have another destination as a backup as you're working on your sourcing and procurement.
4. FOOD and beverage experiences...we can still do better
What we loved about the food and beverage experience at ASAE
First, let me tell you what I loved about the food and beverage experience this year at ASAE. At the convention center, they used local and regional partners to source the food AND granted them space to bring part of their farms on the floor. For instance, one of the vendors brought in part of his hydroponic lettuce operation and was giving mini-demos on how and why micro-farming matters. It was amazing!
The ASAE event organizers also showcased their commitment to sustainability by using recyclable silverware and plates at lunch (though it was plastic at most of the events + REAL glassware at a few receptions and the closing luncheon).
For beverages, the organizers staged open vending machines around not just the tradeshow floor but nearly the entire building. I never had to hunt for a caffeinated beverage or water plus there were some surprising delights like the healthy shakes offered in the pre-function spaces.
The convention center bars also opened at 9:30 am. Take from that what you will, though you could tell there was an appreciation for the bloody mary bar on Monday morning for several attendees.
Opportunities for ASAE and its vendor/chapter events from a food and beverage perspective
The cons of the food and beverage were that the organizers still haven't found a great balance in building participant connections in an awkwardly staged buffet line with limited and random seating. The portions were also bite-sized which meant you had to face the lines and food stations multiple times or go offsite for lunch on Sunday and Monday. Placing the food and coffee smack in the middle of the tradeshow floor helped some of the foot traffic and also created weird moments.
For instance, if you found a food station and you were just far enough from the actual eating tables at the back or on the sides, you ended up in a situation where you weren't sure how to tell the salesperson you didn't really want to chat, you just wanted to eat your brisket meatloaf in peace and needed their tabletop to lean against.
If you did make it to a table, you had to once again awkwardly insert yourself into a conversation with other attendees or sit by yourself. I'm as outgoing as the next woman, but on the second day of the show, I wanted to eat with people who wanted me there and couldn't find any of my tradeshow friends. However, since I can't stand the silence, I inserted myself into a conversation.
As I tradeshow for a living, I was lucky enough to guess correctly and find a table with other extroverts. But the issue of creating and staging a welcome networking meal for our fellow participant introverts remains. We have to do a better job of helping those lunchtime and happy hour conversations happen in ways that don't rely on alcohol.
There also was inconsistent food labeling. I'm one of the lucky ones with no allergies, but years of running around with folks like Tess Vismale and Tracy Stuckrath at events have made me sensitive, no pun intended, to the challenges those with gluten, dairy, and other sensitivities face.
Though ASAE records what allergies you have during the registration process, it was tough on the tradeshow floor and some of the onsite events to find listings and options that showed ingredients in the food that was being served.
It was even worse at the receptions, happy hours, and after-hour events. There has always been a high alcohol-to-food ratio at many of these events and this year was no different. Yes, technically there was finger food. No, there was never enough.
Additionally, when there was food passed or set up in a buffet, there typically wasn't any signage about ingredients. At one venue which shall remain nameless, the server couldn't tell us what she was serving (and yes, it was at a hotel partner).
The status quo leaned more toward not having food names listed, even with items that should have a heads up (like shrimp eggrolls, eat at your own risk!).
We can and should do more to ensure people are getting enough to eat, especially if we're serving that much booze.
We also can and should do better to ensure everyone, no matter what they eat, has food that meets their health needs and shouldn't have to find someone that works at the venue for a special meal that sets them apart.
5. Community wasn't just a buzzword
Out of all of the professional memberships I carry, ASAE as an organization has always been about the community and its love for its members. However, some vendor partners on the tradeshow floor and who speak at the event have sometimes struggled around that community-centric aspect, from overly transactional feeling salespeople at certain anchor vendors on the tradeshow floor to poorly constructed after-hour events or aggressive sales tactics coming through their conference breakout session.
This year, everyone seemed on the same page. Community meant conversations, collaboration, and being people-focused...not just conversions and demand generation.
Multiview, long legendary for their after-hours party decided to not host the event and instead made their reasoning why a talking point accompanying their company rebrand. I missed my annual balcony conversations with Jeff Baker but can't say that I missed the actual event itself.
Community Brands, after a mammoth acquisitions run seems to have settled into having many companies under one banner and leading a sales team that wanted to talk about the challenges your organization might actually be facing instead of just scanning your badge.
There were new vendors focused on community management like Mobilize.io and Joyn who exhibited for the first time, instead of only having Higher Logic lead the conversation.
At the education sessions, even when seated with vendor partners, you felt a desire for actual conversation happening rather than an immediate ask of "can I get your business card?". And though you could tell many folks, no matter their participation level, were rusty on the in-person networking, after the opening reception on Saturday night, the ice broke nicely for folks who previously only met via zoom to get into some wonderfully deep ideas around whatever table they were sitting or standing at.
The Social Offset Project
And that included the community that chose not to come because the event was being held in Tennessee based on social-political reasons. Kiki L'talien helped lead a dialogue for the in-person participants as well as gave space on her Association Chat platform around The Social Offset Project.
The goal of this project is to help associations, as they have faced a lot of heat if they continue to hold meetings in states with restrictive laws that target people’s ability to access healthcare. You can learn more about it here: https://associationchat.com/2022/08/23/the-socialoffset-com-experiment-in-nashville-during-asae-annual-2022/.
ASAE IN a nutshell
Disruption = Opportunity as the conference theme landed nicely. ASAE tried a lot and they succeeded a lot. Meg Denhardt, one of ASAE's long-time consultants, shared that every year the program and show design is focused on not just supporting members, but challenging participants to think differently.
In our humble opinion, the show knocked it mostly out of the park, especially given the staff and show leadership transitions they've faced over the last three years, and the chatter on the floor and online supports that premise.
The event was hosted in Nashville and headquartered at the Music City Center. Expovision was the official ASAE Annual Meeting & Expo housing provider. United and Delta Air offered specially negotiated discounts for all registrants. Hargrove was the onsite decorator. eShow was the mobile event app + lead retrieval unit and from what I heard from most of the exhibitors, they liked how the scanning and setup worked. EventFarm helped provide a community and health/safety network. Encore was the AV provider. Across the board, there was a focus on more sustainable and useful swag, and no room drops.
We're looking forward to next year in Atlanta. And yes, we've already started looking for a new karaoke bar that has a mechanical bull. Please send suggestions.