Conferences of the Future: Trade Show

Last month I attended the 2010 ASAECenter Annual Meeting and Conference in Los Angeles.  As I reflect on that event, three ideas keep replaying in my mind:

  1. Industry partners (convention and visitor bureaus, hospitality, meeting planners, and association executives) want or seem to want to change the trade show model.  At an interesting session on August 24, the discussion danced, seeming to bob and weave around significant suggestions.  I thought of the elephant in the room:  many significant players are not happy with the current model. They do not want to walk away; they want to make things better, more 21st century, taking more to the bottom-line for all players.
  2. Association executives and business partners are seeking new, different experiences for their professional development.   Smartphones, iPads, small handheld computer-lites are ubiquitous.  Regularly attendees entered a session, took a seat, greeted fellow session goers (or not) then pulled out their smart phone:  texting, tweeting, processing e-mail.  Hashtags were noted in the official program but I often wondered if attendees were tweeting about the session or browsing news, financials, other sites.  F2f encounters were pleasant but digital pulled like a magnet.
  3. Learning as active two-way or multi-way interaction is alive, well, growing.  None of us really know how virtual will evolve but evolve it will.  And it will be survival of the fittest.  This aspect of 21st century life has seeped in and around our lives and our learning just like ocean waves.  As adult learners, we expect and look forward to the on demand, short form, mash-up, massively multiple-player nature of communications.  Will conferences survive in the face of this tsunami?

So what does this mean for associations in general and conferences specifically?  It is time to set up a straw man, take discussion beyond talk, jump start action, so here goes:  Straw Man One (of three).

Straw Man:  What if the industry partner/association relationship became a true partnership?  A real partnership:  working together for the greater good, tapping the complementary strengths of each partner to build a better conference experience for all.

The host association must take the lead in creative, future-forward ideas because they are the direct connection to the end user:  members.  Now – membership may not be long for this world if associations do not take aggressive steps to increase value.  But, for the sake of this post, let’s assume that membership remains viable.

Advisory committees are part of traditional practice.  Could these committees become work-teams which are much more crowd-sourced?  Engage all stakeholders in the discussion about the exhibition model.  Many conference goers like the exhibit hall primarily for the networking opportunities.  How could business partners mine these connections?  Are 400,000 square feet really required?  Could there be a combination of floor space, B2B (vendor to association) meeting space, facilitated virtual space, partnered presentations clearly marked as a vendor/client sessions, social tools fostering connections, etc.?  It is not one of the above but all of the above and more.

Suggestion:  Conference host association taps a third party to facilitate trade show or exhibition transformations.   Broad group of stakeholders (vendors, CVB, hospitality, association executives, other partners) create a dynamic master-plan or blueprint.  The master-plan must be fluid, responsive to changes even at the last minute (or almost the last minute), respective of partner business models yet keeping clear focus on the primary customers:   association members.  The facilitated conversation is critical because it can be hard to be honest with partners you’ve known and worked with a long time.  The third party facilitator organizes the work, guides discussions, introduces new perspectives and helps find common ground.

This sounds so ordinary yet has such open, ongoing transformative trade show planning occurred?