Innovating a Better Conference: Part Four – Using Design Thinking to Enhance Association Conferences, Meetings and Events

Graphic saying Design is Creative Thinking

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Molly Marsh - AMR Management Services


Design thinking has emerged as a major force for transformation in the association industry (don’t believe me, see how pervasive it is in industry publicationsconferences and research). When you see the results, it should be no surprise that this is where we’re headed. Applying principles of Meeting Design to conferences can transform a meeting from a list of activities on an agenda to an immersive experience that drives learning, professionalism and ongoing engagement.

Incorporating design-inspired steps, questions and considerations into conference planning empowers organizers to innovate new and better conferences. Each part of this series will explore a different aspect of the design process, demonstrating how the conference experience is enhanced by one simple shift in planning methodology: do everything with the end in mind.

View Previous Entries In This Series here: Part 1Part 2Part 3

Part Four – The Lesson

The conference has wrapped up, everything went smoothly and everyone has gone home after having a great experience. It’s time to kick off those uncomfortable conference shoes, recycle your name badge and celebrate a job well done, right? Not quite. While it’s always smart for association meeting professionals to take a break to reenergize after all the time and energy that goes into an event, just because things are over and the evaluations are complete, doesn’t mean your job is done.

Post conference evaluations or feedback in some form is standard practice for association meetings and conferences, and most associations do at least look at the evaluations to determine what people liked and what they didn’t. But what are the real lessons learned from your conference? Did you meet the needs of your audience? How are the attitudes and behaviors of your audience changing? Most evaluations aren’t going to give you the rich information needed to enhance your conferences in an ongoing way and meet the challenges of a new generation of members.

Formal evaluation feedback IS an important tool conference organizers can use, but the value of the information is highly dependent on the questions you ask. This is where the original goals and objectives of the conference come into play (see part two!). If you’re waiting until the end of the conference planning process to write evaluations – and the evaluations are mostly questions like “how satisfied were you with the keynote speaker?” – you’re likely to get only information that tells you whether or not people liked the event. Instead, draft evaluation questions as soon as the conference goals and objectives are set and tie them specifically to those goals. For example, if (as referenced in part three) one of your conference goals is for each participant to make three new connections during the conference, make that an evaluation question. Be sure to add follow-up questions like “what would have make the conference more conducive to developing connections with fellow participants?” or “what conference activity or event offered the greatest opportunity to build these connections?” Not only are you gauging the success of the event on how well you supported participants in achieving their goals, you’re also getting detailed feedback on how the design of your event contributed (or didn’t contribute) to that success.

But, formal conference evaluations aren’t the only tool available to you as you consider the lessons learned from an association event. Monitor the attendance at different sessions or activities to determine what events motivate participants to engage. Review the demographics for all registrants to identify trends in your audience. Observe the attitudes and behaviors of participants on-site so that you can see, in real-time, how the energy of your group ebbs and flows throughout the day. You could try a focus group of different participants that represent segments of your audience and drill down into more specifics that can help you develop and understanding of the impact of the conference experience. Social media, usage of the conference app and other meeting technology can be illustrative feedback as well. How participants engage on social media or their time using the app can tell you how they’re consuming content at the conference and drive decision making for future technology innovation.

Finally, in order to integrate design thinking fully into your conference planning, it is essential to document the lessons learned in a usable way. Full post-conference reporting that reflects the goals and objectives of the event and establishes recommendations for the future provides the background information you need to know your audience and set the vision for the future of your association’s conferences. Then you start the cycle again, time to start planning for next year…

Molly Marsh Cropped Photo
Molly Marsh

Degrees and Credentials:
Certified Meeting Professional (CMP); Bachelor of Arts, Transylvania University

Association Management Professional Since:

What inspires you about your work?
I have a passion for the world of professional associations and the essential support, resources and connections they provide for members. I am an adult learning and meeting design nerd –I am continually inspired by the chance to design face-to-face meetings and innovate content strategy with new techniques, technologies and ideas.

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