The Power of Live Events (and Shuttle Buses)

By Hank Berkowitz • August 25, 2014

Hank Berkowitz
Hank Berkowitz, Association Adviser

As a triathlete and former marathon runner, I have a hard time rationalizing the shuttle bus when the walk between my hotel and the convention center is often faster and more pleasant when it’s nice weather outside and heavy traffic on the streets. But nine times out of 10, the shuttle ends up being worth the wait.

I’m not the most outgoing person in the world, but even when cabs are plentiful, I patiently wait in line for the shuttle, squeeze into a cramped seat with a random stranger and try not to spill my coffee on them or all the tchotchkes and brochures out of my over-stuffed tote bag. Why? Because the person sitting next to me could be the most powerful new connection I make all week. As rock legend Steven Tyler is fond of saying, “Life’s a journey, not a destination.”

More on that in a minute.


  • Some of the best connections you’ll make at a show are not always in the obvious places.
  • Show organizers must realize how much time and dollar pressure their attendees are under. Attendees come better organized and more focused than ever before and expect you to do the same.
  • Social, mobile, video and virtual should be considered enhancements to your show—not competition.


Jolley Trolley
Hold events in city centers where walking is feasible or where public transportation is readily accessible.

Even with travel budgets slashed and time out of the office more guarded than ever, industry trade shows and conventions continue to draw attendees and exhibitors at levels we haven’t seen since before the great recession and the General Services Administration scandal.

Case in point. Last week’s American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) Annual Meeting and Expo in Nashville—the Super Bowl of association gatherings—attracted nearly 6,000 attendees and over 700 exhibit booths, its highest totals since 2007.

“Technology, video and virtual attendance. All that is additive—not a replacement for the power of face to face,” said ASAE President John Graham.

See our leadership profile in today’s issue for our exclusive interview with John Graham.

So while the random stranger sitting next to you may be from a completely different industry, and from a completely different part of the world, you’re both here for a reason and likely to find some common ground or shared experiences. If not, the ride’s only a few minutes. It’s not like being trapped next to a banal chatterbox on a cross-country flight.

As our annual association communication benchmarking study recently revealed, live events continue to score higher in perceived value (4.68 out of 5) than any of two-dozen other commonly used association communication channels. That’s been the case every year since 2010 when live events scored 4.3 out of 5. It’s even more impressive since nearly 70 percent of the 1,031 respondents to this year’s study offer (or plan to offer) virtual attendance options for their live events

10 ways that associations events are better than they used to be

Professional education, peer-to-peer networking and best practices for membership development, non-dues revenue programs and all things digital, continue to be the most sought after topics at events that my peers and I attend these days. But several important trends we’re noticing to accommodate time-pressed attendees.

1. Exhibit hall hours are compressed. Instead of sparsely attended day long affairs, they’re densely attended and open primarily when learning sessions and social events are not taking place.

2. Learning sessions are being compressed into shorter segments of 60 minutes, 30 minutes or even 15 minutes bite-sized sessions—not several hours long with multiple breaks (and yawns).

3. The majority of presenters are actually putting their (finished) presentations online well before the conference start date—some start asking audience members in advance what they hope to have covered before the session actually starts.

4. More and more events are going paperless. According to our research, 35 percent of associations now offer mobile conference apps.

5. More and more events are compressed into single-day “fly-ins” or multiple day conferences that start on weekends to minimize time out of the office.

6. More events are using apps to capture attendee satisfaction in real-time—everything from evaluations of airport shuttle service, to convention center food, to check-in efficiency to quality of presentations.

7. Buyers and sellers are being deliberately matched with each other via pre-conference matching services or through formal buyer/seller exchange events.

8. Registrants treat their attendance as a privilege, not a right in these cost-conscious times. They’re capturing and tweeting key learnings (and asking questions) not only for themselves, but for their peers back at the office who couldn’t make the trip.

9. Sessions and events are being designed by (and for) young professionals—our research shows 26 percent of associations are using social media to drive attendance to live events.

10. Event organizers are asking (listening to) what sponsors tell them—our research shows 53 percent of associations now ask sponsors directly if they’re getting the ROI they expect from them and 60 percent incorporate that feedback into their pricing.

Key insights from the ASAE annual conference that you probably wouldn’t have learned five to ten years ago:

Better organizational chemistry

The modern workplace—whether for-profit or NFP—is made up of givers and takers according to Adam Grant, Wharton Business School professor and author of Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success. Ideally, you want as many givers in your organization as possible because they’re not only selfless team players, but when others see givers rewarded, they tend to become givers as well. Takers are the opposite. They take advantage of others, whether it’s personal credit for team success or assigning blame all around when it’s the taker’s own fault. They take favors (or information) without returning in kind and don’t think twice about throwing co-workers and rivals under the bus.

Obviously, you don’t want a lot of takers on hand, but here’s the kicker—the majority of takers are people who used to be givers or matchers, but got burned too many times. The answer? Check references carefully during interviews—not just the candidate’s supervisor, but peers and direct reports, too. Keep track of “I” vs. “we” references during interviews and foster a culture in which it’s OK, even encouraged to ask for help and build “reciprocity rings” in which groups of eight to 10 people from cross-functional teams are brought together regularly to help each other out. Each person, suggests Grant, should bring a problem to the meetings that they can’t solve on their own.

Sponsorship and non-dues-revenue

When it comes to sponsorship, take a page from the sports world and build year round engagement programs with original content—not just single event sponsorships, advised Elizabeth Warren of Kiwanis International. Also, ditch the traditional gold/silver/bronze sponsorship tiers. Warren said you really have to go out and talk to potential sponsors, understand what their business needs are, and customize a program that meets their business objectives by “bundling all of your association’s assets.”

Jennifer Williams of the Electronic Retailing Association agreed, saying “you really need to listen for what their pain points are” and if a deal is consummated, make sure the program fits within your organization’s mission.


Rafi Mohammed, renowned pricing consultant and author of The 1% Windfall said too many associations fall into the trap of setting a price that’s simply designed to cover the cost of the event—say $10,000 to sponsor a lunch because that’s what it cost us. Instead, you need to develop a value-based price that takes into account the “next-best alternative.” In other words, where else can a member go to get the same member benefit you’re offering? Don’t just think about rival associations, but Amazon, Google, your industry partners and LinkedIn.

For a more innovative workforce

Protect your quiet time, advised Paula Stefan Moeller from the Conference for the Advancement of Mathematics Teaching. Figure out when you tend to be most creative [time of day or day of week]. Set that time aside for problem solving and leverage that time. She also said you should allow yourself time to sleep on something” if you’re not 100 percent confident about your decision and sometimes it’s best to ignore arbitrary deadlines: “Let the solution come to you whenever that inspiration hits.”

Tracy Petrillo, chief learning officer of the IT education association EDUCASUE, said you can’t be a high performing organization when you have job descriptions that are five to ten years old. You need to update your job descriptions and organizational charts constantly. If there are mismatches between the job functions you have and the skills you need, then you have to get those people up to speed. In response to the question: “What if we train those people and then they leave?” Petrillo said the bigger concern is “what if we don’t train those people and they stay.”

Lessons learned from the bus

Here are some key takeaways from my random 15-minute conversations with fellow shuttle bus riders:

  • Everyone should spend some time in customer/member service according to Shannon Atkinson of LaGrange, GA-based Association Services Group. “The phone is not allowed to ring more than three times without being answered during normal business hours. It’s so important to speak live to your members. If you take the time to listen, they’ll tell you so much more than just the specific question that’s on their mind.”
  • Associations are extremely lax about their social media policies, procedures and ownership, said Gail (not her real name) an intellectual property attorney from the D.C. area. “They don’t realize how much liability they’re exposing themselves to and they don’t realize the value of the assets they’re creating.”
  • Many still crave the print version of the membership directory, said Nick Oliver, executive director of the Rhode Island Partnership for Home Care. “You can’t beat the thump factor” for constantly reminding them why they pay their dues.
  • Jay Iverson, executive officer of the Home Builders Association of Iowa, said the building industry is not back to pre-recession levels in his state, but it’s certainly getting closer. So is membership following suit? “Not really, but that’s OK,” Iverson said. In this kind of economy “we’ve weeded out the pretenders, the non-engaged members, and have a much better quality of membership.”
  • In convention centers from South Florida to Winnipeg, Canada, the air conditioning will always be too cold—men and women notice it equally but only one gender tends to verbalize their discomfort (or pack sweaters to summer time conferences).


Debra Zabloudil of The Learning Studio, Inc. said you have to keep looking outside your industry for both opportunities and competitive threats that could be happening on the fringe. “The minute you stop keeping your eyes open is the minute you’re going to get blindsided.” Same goes for the shuttle bus. Don’t take the first open seat that comes along. Walk down the aisle and sit next to someone who’s obviously of a different age, gender and body type from you. You might be surprised what you’ll learn—or what you have in common.

As rocker Steven Tyler quipped, “maybe life is random, but I doubt it.


Hank Berkowitz is the moderator-in-chief of Association Adviser eNews.