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A Future-Focused Event Strategy
Technological, demographic, and societal trends are causing many associations to examine and evaluate their events to determine if they need to think differently about how they bring people together to learn, network, and exchange ideas. If these events are already exceeding expectations in attendance and revenue, should the strategy change or remain the same year after year? Are these events set up to continue to provide value to their stakeholders into the future?
 
Those were the questions faced by the Vacation Rental Management Association (VRMA) — an organization that serves vacation rental owners and operators. It was enjoying successful outcomes from its four entrenched conferences, but leadership was concerned about the future viability of the events. “Our conferences were growing and getting good feedback, but there were competitors entering this space that were getting a lot of buzz,” said Mike Copps, executive director of VRMA. “It seemed like the right time to take a fresh look at things.”
 
The board decided to revamp VRMA’s events strategy to be more future-focused and flexible to changes within its industry and profession while also meeting the emerging needs of its members. In two years, VRMA went from four conferences to eight. They rebranded current meetings, merged others, and created new ones. The changes resulted in attendance and revenue increases across the board.
 
Deep Dive into Data

Developing a new strategy started with data. The board moved forward with a plan to reach out to members, attendees, exhibitors, and partners to ask what they wanted from VRMA’s current slate of events — a large annual conference, two regional conferences, and a European conference. It conducted surveys, analyzed meeting evaluations and assessments, and held focus groups to zero in on what aspects of the event package was working well and what needed to be improved. “The feedback was loud and clear that the structure we had in place wouldn’t allow us to keep scaling and growing at the same pace,” said Copps. As a result, VRMA embarked upon a multi-year process to restructure its events.
 
Rebranding and Refocusing

VRMA first took a hard look at its signature event, the VRMA National Conference. While the organization was growing internationally, the conference was designed for and marketed to a U.S. audience. To reflect a broader audience, the event was rebranded as the VRMA International Conference. It wasn’t a change in name only – VRMA added an international-focused educational track and a general session designed for international attendees. A new reception invited attendees from the outside the U.S. to network and interact with their peers. In the first year, the rebranded conference attracted attendees from 23 different countries. The conference also set a record with 1,800 total attendees, beating the previous high by nearly 300.
 
The next step was to rethink and refocus the two regional conferences — VRMA Eastern and VRMA Western. According to feedback, these events functioned less like regional events and more like smaller versions of the annual conference. Also, both events were in the spring just a few weeks apart on opposite sides of the country. That was not ideal for exhibitors who wanted to exhibit at both. VRMA consolidated the two meetings into one, the Spring Forum. After removing the regional focus, the Spring Forum offers interactive, hands-on programming. It crowdsources its content, has less panels and presenters, and provides tangible takeaways. The first VRMA Spring Forum held in April attracted 800 attendees, which was 200 more than its highest-attended regional meeting.
 
New Conferences

VRMA leaders knew they had to fill the void left by dissolving the regional meetings. “The feedback said that members were looking for more localized content and opportunities to network with peers in their area,” said Copps. “That made us realize that we needed to get more granular with our regional events, so they were not just a smaller version of the annual event.” A new structure was required to meet those needs, so VRMA created four new regional events branded as VRMA Connect.
 
The VRMA Connect events are hyper-localized, one-day meetings where members can network with their local peers and discuss specific regional issues that do not get attention at VRMA’s other events. The event locations will vary throughout the U.S., focused on areas where there are large pockets of members or the potential for membership growth. For 2019, the locations included Colorado, North Carolina, and Massachusetts.
 
Each year, the fourth VRMA Connect site is co-located with another event. Last year, it was held in Hawaii, piggybacking on the tail end of an industry conference. This year it was in Whistler, B.C., Canada, as part of the Mountain Travel Symposium. The opportunity to partner with other organizations is another benefit of this new structure, said Copps.
 
While these VRMA Connect events have exceeded attendance expectations so far, attracting between 75 and 150 people, they are not intended to be revenue generators. Instead, their purpose is to help grow the awareness of the association and form stronger coalitions at the local and regional level. They also give VRMA the structure to do events that are not just regional in nature but focused on a particular topic — or even a particular segment of the membership.
 
Executive Summit

VRMA added an eighth meeting to its annual schedule – an Executive Summit – that debuted in the summer of 2019. Once again, VRMA leadership took its cue from the data, which revealed a desire for more C-level networking and focused education for executives. The Executive Summit remedied that by targeting content specifically to that group. The first Executive Summit was well received, generating valuable feedback and far exceeding expectations by attracting 130 executives.
 
As part of its strategic plan, the association is also looking at adding an interactive, virtual component for its eight events. This will help VRMA meet the needs of younger members who prefer online, video, or streaming content.
 
“Overall, we now have a good event infrastructure in place that gives us the flexibility to best serve our members,” said Copps. The new structure gives VRMA the ability to grow, adapt new learning and education styles, address regional issues, and drill down into specific topics.
 
The structure also gives VRMA the opportunity to change direction if the numbers and the feedback dictate. “For boards, it’s about analyzing the data, examining the trends, and looking down the road three, five, even 10 years and asking if your events are still providing value.”
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SEPTEMBER 2019 EDITION
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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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