What It Takes to Plan and Host a Conference in Only 46 Hours

In how many hours? Yes, 46 hours, according to my calculations. Sounds impossible? It can be done. As a matter of fact, it happened this week after the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) had to cancel its annual Technology Conference.

The conference was to start on Wednesday with exhibitor move-in and pre-conference workshops, but DC was still under nearly two feet of snow from the weekend’s storm and was due to get one foot more in blizzard conditions on Wednesday. Airlines were already canceling flights. Some attendees and exhibitors got to town on Tuesday before everything shut down but many were still stuck at home. Even many of those based in DC were still snowbound due to impassable roads and no Metro or train service above ground.

On Tuesday morning ASAE announced via Twitter that it would make a decision by 3:00 p.m. as to whether the conference would be canceled. That’s when the member community started working on Plan B. Later ASAE announced their decision to cancel, the right thing to do considering the conditions. Immediately after, Maddie Grant and Lindy Dreyer of Socialfish blogged about UnTech10, Plan B, an unconference that a team of members had quickly started organizing.

On Thursday, 75 attended UnTech10 in person and 425 attended virtually via a live stream (live webcast) of the programming. I didn’t have the time or budget to go to ASAE’s Technology Conference, but now I was able to “attend” UnTech10 for several hours on Thursday. It was an intellectually stimulating afternoon, time well spent. On Friday, although there wasn’t an on-site component, a full day of webinars was scheduled for the virtual audience.

What do you need to pull off something like this? Here’s what I learned from Maddie and Lindy’s post about organizing it.

You need word of mouth (or mouse) marketing. Most of the marketing for UnTech10 was done via Twitter. A hashtag for the conference was created (#UnTech10) so members could follow that stream of tweets to keep updated. Keep your tweets short enough so that others can retweet them. Vendors also notified clients via email.

Create a Facebook fan page. Although UnTech10 didn’t do this, I saw several references to UnTech10 in my Facebook News Feed as friends shared the original Socialfish blog post.

Create a buzz-worthy email and ask your members to forward it to those they know in the industry or profession. Give clear instructions on how to register and compelling reasons on why they will want to participate. Don’t scare them off by using only technical lingo. This is user-friendly technology, like watching TV!

Contact affiliated or friendly organizations for help in spreading the word. Provide copy and links that they can use to share the news. If you create a sense of buzz and excitement about something, it will go viral if you make it easy for others to help you.

Create a central hub for handouts, schedule, instructions on how to participate and an archive of webcast segments. Content experts were asked to submit program ideas to a wiki. The organizers created a full day of on-site programming (that was live streamed) for Thursday and a full day of webinars for Friday.

Most importantly, you need a community – good relationships with vendors who can help you pull it all together – vendors that will contribute staff to work with you and free services and/or funding for other expenses. This organizing team will take charge and make it happen. According to Maddie, each company on the UnTech10 team had an area to oversee:

You can do this. You can do this if your event is threatened by weather or other unforeseen circumstances. You can certainly do this if you have more time than the UnTech10 team had. They were able to pull it off because they had relationships based on existing trust. Trust that everyone would work together and do their best for the right reasons. The team stepped up and made something excellent out of an unfortunate situation and provided a meaningful experience for our community — an experience that many of us would not have had otherwise.  Because of the generosity and hard work of my fellow members, now I had a chance to grab several hours of education and online networking with other members. This is what a real community does. Does your association have that kind of community?

A Community Model

My friend Mary Nations shared a video recently that really captured me. She included it in a post about an innovative program at the Southside Regional Jail in Emporia, VA. When you watch the video, you’ll see a program that deserves to be in all correctional institutions. You’ll also see an example of the benefits that a community can bring to its members and to its host institution. There are two versions of the Community Model video created by the Center for Therapeutic Justice5 minutes and 20 minutes.

What’s going on in the Community Model? Do you see similarities to association membership, maybe not membership as you know it now, but membership as it could be?

  • These prisoners volunteered to join this community. They’re ready for change.
  • They’re bettering themselves – growing and evolving. These are life-changing experiences.
  • They support each other while learning together.
  • They listen to each other.
  • They come from diverse backgrounds and often have differing viewpoints, but they deal with it. Everyone has a voice.
  • They relish being part of something positive. They’re watching their community get stronger because of their own efforts.
  • They sometimes fail, but they accept that. They learn from their failures and figure out their own solutions.
  • The senior members mentor the newer members. They help each other work out issues.
  • Members, not staff, are the leaders and group facilitators.
  • They’re a “self-regulating community that supports the growth of its members and makes a positive impact on the institution.”

This is a community of growth that provides a meaningful experience and value to its members — a model not only for jails and prisons, but also for associations.

Our associations provide a platform for the growth of meaningful communities. Some of our members already work together to further the mission of our organizations – to help make changes in society or in the legislature, to provide educational opportunities or to help each others’ businesses thrive.

Think about the benefits of being part of a vibrant community:

  • Satisfaction from helping others or serving an industry
  • Stretching one’s skills – managing projects, public speaking, recruiting, mentoring, building teams, delegating, writing, teaching, running meetings
  • Widening one’s networks and developing new relationships, both personal and professional
  • Belonging to something good

How many of our members truly feel they’re part of a meaningful community and derive value from the community that they can’t find elsewhere? Is it only those who serve on committees or the board? Those who are in the leadership clique? Those who can meet face-to-face? How can we help all our members grow and participate in their own communities – online, face-to-face or both?

Think about communities in your life that you cherish, perhaps it’s a mastermind group, church community, social media club, coffee group or book club. What makes it so meaningful to you? Let’s become community gardeners – providing the rich soil and nourishment that will help our member communities take root and grow.

The long version of the video ends with this quote from Sir Francis Bacon: “If we are to achieve results never before accomplished, we must expect to employ methods never before attempted.” We all know this. It’s time to experiment with new ways of associating, building community, working together, leading together. New ways of associating have the potential to not only benefit our members but also to give meaning and value to association membership.

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