Trade associations need to rework how they design their conventions to engage their membership base better in the 21st century, by developing more collaborative education and networking environments.

ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership, representing 21,000 association executives, is attempting to provide a model showing how to do just that. The organization announced last week during its annual Springtime Expo that it’s scrapping that event after 40 years, which brings together destinations, hotels, association executives, and association meeting planners.

In its place, the new Xperience Design Project (XDP) conference kicks off in May 2017 in Washington, DC. ASAE is promising a redesigned user experience based on the success of today’s growing stable of interdisciplinary business, tech, and creative industry events like South by Southwest, C2 Montreal, and Web Summit.

“The meeting planning industry has changed dramatically since the launch of Springtime in 1977,” said John H. Graham, president and CEO of ASAE, during his opening keynote. “Springtime has been a great event for the community, but the industry has evolved and how relationships are created and maintained has shifted. The community has asked for a new event.”

Large trade associations, which revolve primarily around education and advocacy, are encountering challenges with maintaining association membership, especially among Millennials. That’s due to a lack of innovation at both the live conventions and digital platforms in an age where expertise is distributed across myriad channels, and not centralized anymore with the association leadership.

The goal of the Xperience Design Project is to deliver a more agile platform for collaborative knowledge sharing and strategic networking.

The first day of XDP consists of The Lab, with six zones of roundtable groups in the same room following different tracks. Every 90 minutes, each zone will share their learnings with the entire group, so there’s going to be a continual micro/macro ebb-and-flow of information between the job-specific roundtable discussions and the full event assembly.

The second day begins with a wrap up of the industry thought leadership derived from the day before. That will be followed by the Business Exchange series of sessions for association executives and the tourism/hospitality companies to discuss business development strategy.

Washington, D.C.-based 360 Live Media is responsible for the event design and programming at XDP. The company specializes in working with trade associations and professional societies to align their meetings, conferences and trade shows to their business imperatives.

“So, one, it’s about making their ‘live media,’ as we call it, work harder for the outcomes of the organization,” said Don Neal, founder and CEO of 360 Live Media. “Number two, we’re repositioning their events and conferences as media platforms, so they can build the reputation and the relevance of the industry they represent. Number three, we’re trying to modernize and contemporize really outdated structures and systems and philosophies about how live events need to come into the 21st century and attract a larger audience.”

Following is our conversation with Neal about the strategy and contextual philosophy behind the design of XDP. The Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.

Skift: Your wrote on your blog that events are in desperate need of becoming experiences. That’s common today with many commercial and product-driven conferences, but not with the trade associations. So are you trying to change that by emulating South by Southwest and other similar events?

Don Neal: Well, the trade association model is built on three pillars: content, community, and commerce. So this is about delivering education, having a trade show to promote commerce, and cultivating a community. That’s really the structure of the traditional trade association event. And I think what you see in other events like C2 Montreal and the Aspen Ideas Festival, they’ve created an amazing, what we call a ‘freedom within a framework.’ So they have different micro groups around specific affinity groups and interests, and then they have this overarching message about the organization’s mission.

We’re looking at really all of these live events. Every organization today has a live media component to it, built on different foundations for thought leadership, advancing the ideas and insights of an industry or a group, entertaining, being more inspiring. We think the trade associations have an opportunity to, in a way, really leapfrog what’s happening with commercial events. So it’s not just about copying what commercial events are doing, but actually create a new position in the marketplace, because they already have this amazing base of engaged members and business partners.

There are a lot of assets and points of differentiation that the associations have, and just copying these commercial events isn’t enough. I actually don’t think they’re going to compete with C2 Montreal or Aspen. That’s not really the game to be won. It’s not to compete. I think it’s to use that as a blasting cap and a catalyst, if you will, for them to open their eyes, which is what XDP is for not only ASAE, but we think the association community at large.

Skift: Can you explain the six zones at XDP where everyone is going to be in one large room. What is the strategy, if say, I’m interested in the Location track relating to how host cities can attract events?

Neal: Part of the formula with the six zones is that we’re asking everyone to come as a team. We’re expecting four to six people from each organization. If you’re in the Location Zone, your marketing person is going to be in the Marketing Zone and your education and programming person will be in the Curriculum Zone.

The way it’s going to work, it’s a hub and spoke, so there’s going to be a stage in the middle that’s the hub of these six zones. Then there’s going to be a zone captain. Jim Gilmore, who wrote “The Experience Economy,” is already there. He’s sort of our first faculty member for the Experience Zone.

There’s going to be six to eight people at each table working on specific elements of designing an experience. The facilitators are going to help navigate that, and there’s a workbook that’s going to take them through the process, but each table is going to be working on a different challenge. It will be one-part problem solving, and one-part ideation and creation.

Every hour and a half there’s going to be a bell that rings, and we’re going to capture the best four or five ideas. Then they’re going to be communicated to the entire audience, so every zone is going to hear the best three or four ideas that have come out of the other groups. There’s going to be a listener in each zone who’s going to be capturing these insights, so that ultimately the best insights will be converted into a white paper and become a thought piece for an output of this event.

Skift: How else will XDP be different from other trade association events?

Neal: First, this event really is being curated and developed by the community. So we began almost a year ago talking to, we think, the smartest people in the trade association business, hospitality, event technology, education, and programming. We’ve talked to over 150 people so far, and I think we began this process with a blank slate. So we’re going to bring together all of the necessary people who can build compelling inspirational experiences. We’re going to seat them, essentially, in configurations that allow the right people to be talking. There’s not going to be any randomness. You’re not going to show up at this and halfway through the day figure out who you should be talking to.

Skift: How are you going to decide how to connect specific people?

We’re going to have a matching system in place that people are going to test into, provide questions and answers, and we’re going to make sure they’re sitting with the right people. We’re putting people who have similar size events, similar problems, similar issues, and adding into the mix people who have orthogonal, external, and disruptive ideas that are going to stir the pot a little bit.

We’ve used these 150 interviews to find out, really, what the 10 questions are that will inform what we need to know to put people in the right grouping. We’re going to use kind of a combination of a firmographic — I don’t want to call it an algorithm, but it might be an algorithm — to put the right organizations together.

So it’s one-part hackathon, because they’re going to basically hack their own meetings. It’s one-part user conference, where they’re going to bring their best practices and ideas. And then it’s one-part ideas festival, and that’s an important part of this model because the business community is going to be side-by-side, not selling, but really contributing ideas and insights around the future of association business development.

Tags: asae, xdp
Photo Credit: A rendering of the expansion at Gaylord National Resort in Washington, DC, which will host the inaugural Xperience Design Project. Gaylord Hotels