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The 6 Rs of Events: A Framework for Success
For many associations, the annual meeting or event is a barometer for the health of the organization. When the annual meeting – be it a conference, tradeshow, or expo – is healthy and strong, the association generally is, too. When it is struggling to meet its objectives, the association is probably underperforming as well.
“Your meeting is a proxy for everything else that happens in the organization. It is a microcosm of your culture, your values, your value proposition, and your brand,” says Don Neal, founder and CEO of 360 Live Media, a marketing, strategy, and experience design agency based in Washington, D.C. It’s imperative for boards to play an active role in monitoring the condition of their meetings to ensure they are flourishing. “They can do that,” says Neal, “by focusing on improving the “6 Rs” – reach, retention, relevance, reputation, revenue, and return on investment (ROI).”

The Super Bowl for the Association

Typically, the annual meeting accounts for, on average, between 20 and 70 percent of the association’s operating revenue, but it’s more than just a revenue generating opportunity. It’s a reflection of all that the association has to offer and how it serves its members and stakeholders. “It’s the Super Bowl for the association,” says Neal, “so it has to be operating at peak efficiency.”

To gauge its success, Neal advises association boards to focus on the meeting’s performance in terms of the 6 Rs. “Is the meeting reaching a large percentage of the audience in the industry or profession? Is the association retaining attendees? Is the meeting relevant to the various segments the association serves? Is the meeting building the association’s reputation in its industry or profession? Is it generating revenue? Is the association investing its time and money on the right things?”

To make it easier, Neal’s company has developed an online scorecard for the 6 Rs (found at After answering 20 questions, association leaders will receive a score that represents how the meeting is performing in each of the 6 Rs. He recommends that both staff teams and boards complete the assessment. Then, along with attendee satisfaction surveys, boards can examine the responses from all stakeholders and triangulate where the association stands.

Whether boards use this tool or their own internal processes, it’s important to measure the meeting’s performance in these six critical areas. Once the board has a “score” for each, it can begin the process of improvement.

Next, the board should set specific objectives for each of those 6 Rs. “Be audacious, bold, and provocative in putting forth a set of objectives,” says Neal. For example, a lofty but achievable goal could be to increase attendance by 50 percent over the next three years. With some meetings currently attracting less than 10 percent of the association’s membership, there's typically an upside opportunity involving increased reach. The question is: How does an association achieve this and other objectives? Outlining tactics to achieve meaningful objectives is the next step.

Insight, Inspiration, and Intentionality

To determine the right tactics, start by answering one basic question: What is the purpose of the event? Most events are focused on content, commerce, and community – that is, education, exhibitions and tradeshows, and networking. Neal suggests a more nuanced approach. Attendees need more compelling reasons than just education, exhibitions, and networking to attend because, increasingly, they can attain those things in other ways – and for less time and money – at local or regional events, online, or through various other alternatives. “You have to really rethink the purpose of your event,” says Neal. He encourages boards to view the meeting through the lens of insight, inspiration, and intentionality.
  • Insight is more than content, it’s taking data and information and delivering it in a way that shows professionals in the field how to do their jobs more effectively.
  • Inspiration is about provoking, stimulating, and elevating the attendee to take on new challenges and think and behave differently than they did before they came. When people are inspired by an experience, they are in some way transformed by it.
  • Intentionality refers to rethinking the idea of networking to create more intentional connections. Many people aren’t comfortable at a traditional networking reception, or see it as too random or not useful. But when an event can facilitate connections more directly and more intentionally – whether it’s among attendees or with sponsors and exhibitors – it will often be more valuable.”
It all comes down to creating more customized experiences for attendees and partners. “Most events are horizontal, one-size-fits-all, but that’s really the opposite of what we're used to in our lives,” says Neal. “We're used to customized everything and so the idea of going to a one-size-fits-all event that I have to navigate through on my own terms seems really outdated.” One way an association can do this is to journey map the event for different attendee cohorts, outlining the optimal experience for each of the various segments and building it from there.

Four Things Boards Can Do

While the tactics the association employs to improve their meetings and events is a function of staff, the Board of Directors can lay the foundation for success in four ways.
  1. Establish success metrics for each of the 6 Rs over the next three years. Maybe that’s increasing attendance by 25 percent or retaining 60 percent of the audience. Maybe that’s increasing attendee satisfaction scores, generating more exhibitors and sponsors, boosting revenue by 30 percent, or improving brand awareness. Whatever the metrics, they should be board-driven, says Neal. Staff and management may make recommendations, but they should be ratified by the board. “The board can't just have an arm's length relationship. It should contribute to the vision and purpose of the future state event,” he says.
  2. Make sure necessary resources are allocated to achieve the objectives. In pursuit of maximizing the 6 Rs, staff will develop new approaches and innovative tactics. The board must recognize that it needs to support new initiatives with additional funding and resources as necessary. Further, as important as it is to support innovation and new ways of thinking, boards must be willing to eliminate programs that are not working, based on the staff recommendations or their own evaluations.
  3. Be comfortable with risk. Not all new ideas in the pursuit of innovation and improvement are going to work. In fact, some approaches may not work. However, it’s important for the board to encourage and support staff to take calculated risks and promote a culture of innovation.
  4. Create a guiding stakeholder advisory group. It’s critical to have buy-in throughout the association – from the board to executive leadership to staff to volunteers – for improving upon the 6 Rs. A guiding coalition that includes representatives from each stakeholder group can help navigate the association through the changes that result from this process.
The annual meeting is an important asset — and for some associations, the most important asset — to leverage and support the association’s strategies. Boards will find that improving reach, retention, relevance, reputation, revenue, and ROI for meetings can have impacts beyond the meeting, says Neal. Improvements in these six areas will help an association achieve its full potential, whether that is by improving revenue generation, overall member recruitment and retention, or branding and reputation of the association.

If the association has a great event, not only does it create stickiness with existing attendees, it creates a platform for other members, outsiders and interested parties to participate. It’s also a construct for overall organizational change that can be employed in other aspects of the association. “Events are proxies for the viability of the association,” says Neal. “It’s really a virtuous cycle. But it all starts at the top.”
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Board Forward is published 10 times a year by SmithBucklin, the association management and services company more organizations turn to than any other. SmithBucklin has served volunteer board members for 70 years.


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