What the Association Sector Can Learn from Our Events Industry Partners: Part 1

By Danielle S. Russell, CAE • May 24, 2023

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend MPI’s the EVENT, hosted annually by the MPI Chapters in Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto. Event professionals are known for being warm, friendly, and welcoming, but as an Association Executive in a room full of MICE Industry professionals, I still sometimes feel like an interloper in that crowd.

This was my third time attending the EVENT as a speaker. To prepare, I challenged myself to attend not only every plenary session but also every breakout session. I wanted to experience all that the EVENT had to offer in terms of knowledge, education, and experiences from the perspective of an Association Industry practitioner.

Here is part one of top takeaways for what Association Professionals can learn from our friends and partners in the Events Sector, as observed at the EVENT 2023.

Common Challenges

Meetings and events industry associations face the same challenges as everyone else. They grapple with how to engage, motivate, and retain volunteers. They also strive to create safe spaces that foster feelings of belonging and community, both online and in real life.

Member Value and Volunteer Engagement

On day 2 of the EVENT, I stumbled upon a “Campfire” Session facilitated by Anita Carlyle, chair of the MPI Canadian Advisory Council. This session provided a forum for MPI members to provide feedback to Rob Adams, dedicated liaison to the MPI Global International Board of Directors, and Melanie Cook, immediate past chair of the Canadian Advisory Council.

Many member suggestions highlighted the need to tailor programming to the Canadian experience and enhance collaboration to increase efficiency. For example, instead of creating anti-trafficking programming from scratch, MPI’s Canadian chapters could partner with Sandy Biback and Meeting Professionals Against Human Trafficking to deliver such programs.

As I stood near the back of the room, an unexpected question/comment was directed not to the panel seated at the front, but to me. It became evident that MPI is just like any other industry association, as the query focused on declining volunteer availability and engagement. This issue is particularly critical in associations with highly active volunteers, as volunteer engagement closely correlates with member engagement.

Building upon the previously suggested ideas of relevance and efficiency, which can increase a sense of belonging and reduce volunteer burnout, I emphasized the importance of responding to declining volunteerism with more micro-volunteerism roles. Clearly defining the meaning and purpose of all volunteer opportunities is also crucial. It is vital to determine which metric is more significant—volunteer engagement or membership retention—to effectively measure engagement and belonging within the community and industry your association serves.

Physical and Psychological Safety, and a Sense of Belonging

One of the reasons that the Events Industry and the Association Sector are such close partners and collaborators, is that Associations hold A LOT of events. While these events and other offerings create opportunities for community and belonging among members and stakeholders, they also pose the risk of creating an environment that negatively impacts individuals’ physical and psychological safety.

As mentioned earlier, the industry has taken steps to protect itself and be responsible corporate stewards, as seen in initiatives like Meeting Professionals Against Human Trafficking. During the EVENT’s closing keynote, Courtney Stanley shared shocking stories of unsafe physical events. Ideally, we would live in a world where nobody could have anticipated that a conference attendee would send an inappropriate message to someone they had just followed to their hotel room. Unfortunately, that’s not the reality we live in. Women and minorities face physical threats, and it’s crucial to also check on openly queer and trans friends. Members and stakeholders can experience psychological threats such as online bullying, discrimination, and othering, which can have lasting and damaging impacts on self-esteem, mental health, and overall well-being.

During the height of the pandemic, the events industry had to lead the way in implementing COVID protocols to ensure safety and facilitate reopening. Measures included air purification, enhanced cleaning, stop-caution-go indicators, and providing clear and timely information to alleviate attendees’ anxiety. In Canada, proof of vaccination was required to attend the EVENT in Toronto last year.

Now, the sector’s focus is on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI), creating a welcoming sense of belonging and inclusion that can be translated across your association’s entire range of member engagement and value offerings. From closed captions and simultaneous translation, to eliminating physical and perceived barriers to entry; Associations can learn from our vendors, partners and collaborators on this expanding and important field of work.

Ultimately, it all ties back to the point I made during the Campfire Session. If the purpose of associations is to create a community around a common cause, ensuring that people feel safe and included must be a priority. We have much to learn from the world’s most welcoming industry: hospitality.

Stay tuned for part two where I discussed the shared connections that association leaders and meeting and events leaders have.

About The Author

Danielle S. Russell, CAE is a Canadian not-for-profit industry leader, college professor, speaker, consultant and YouTuber who proudly lives life as a practical minimalist. Danielle has worked in various roles in the association sector for over 15 years and is an active industry volunteer, including serving as a member of the CSAE Board of Directors. She hopes you’ll connect with her on LinkedIn or follow her on Twitter @dani_s_russell and become part of her professional community. Reach her at [email protected].