Hosting memorable events at your association can help create an excellent, enriching experience for members. An event, whether it’s a large conference or a fun, culture-building auction fundraiser, gives your members the opportunity to network, build a close community, celebrate and recognize one another’s achievements, and develop professionally.
In recent years, more and more associations have been adding virtual events to their agenda—and for a good reason. Virtual events provide many of the same benefits as traditional in-person events, all while allowing members and attendees to meet together regardless of their location. Hybrid events combine the best of both worlds, enabling members to attend either virtually or in person.
Planning a successful in-person, virtual, or hybrid event has many different components, and you’ll need to stay organized and find engaged members and staff to help. It’s important to spend time on each of these five event planning steps to create an event that adds value to your members’ experiences:
- Define event goals and create an event plan.
- Secure sponsors, speakers, and exhibitors.
- Recruit and train volunteers.
- Market the event.
- Evaluate event success and follow up with members.
Along with following these steps, your association should leverage an AMS platform with tools like registration management and form builders to simplify and streamline the planning process. But before you can do that, you’ll need to set goals for your event. Let’s dive in!
1. Define event goals and create an event plan.
First, your association should determine the purpose and goals of your event. Is the goal to share a new development or concern within your field? Is it to have an influential speaker present to your members? Or, is the goal to reach a certain number of prospective members? Whatever this goal or purpose is will shape everything else about the event, from the topics you cover to your marketing strategy.
Once you’ve chosen your event’s purpose and outlined specific goals, take the time to plan out key logistical and budgetary details. Here are some of the specifics you’ll want to map out in your “master plan” document:
- A date, time, and location
- The total event budget and how it will be allocated
- Staff and/or members who will plan the event as well as their specific responsibilities
- The event’s format: in-person, virtual, or hybrid
- An idea of the speakers or presentations you’d like to have
- A marketing plan, including the communication channels you’ll use, your target audience, etc.
At this point in the process, you should also ensure you have all of the technology you need to host the event. Research and invest in any specialized tools (like virtual auction software), and make sure your association management solution has event planning features to help make the day run smoothly.
2. Secure sponsors, speakers, and exhibitors.
Reference your master plan to understand which speakers, topics, or presentations would align best with the themes you want to cover at your event. Because it can be challenging and time-consuming to source presenters, it’s recommended that you start well in advance.
Here are some strategies you and your planning committee can use to find impactful speakers:
- Ask members. Send out a survey asking members who they would like to see give a presentation at your next event or conference. Not only does this give you plenty of ideas to start with, but you can feel confident that speakers from this list will excite and interest your members.
- Use online resources. Social media websites like LinkedIn are a great way to find individuals within your field who specialize in the topics you want to focus on—and you can quickly reach out to them with a direct message. Speaker websites like SpeakerHub are another helpful resource, and you can even publish a call for speakers on the site if you have special needs or requirements.
- Reference recent publications. Take a look at some of the publications within your industry and make a list of the contributors who you think would fit into your event’s agenda and goals. From there, ask members for their opinions and find a way to connect with prospective speakers. For example, before sending a cold message through a social media site, ask your board or members if they have any connections to a given speaker that you could leverage.
Keep in mind that you could open up the event to more speakers outside of your local area by making the event hybrid or virtual. This way, speakers can call in from anywhere, give their presentations, and answer audience questions without needing to factor travel time into their busy schedules. Just be sure to follow the best practices in OneCause’s guide to hybrid events like determining how many guests will attend in person to ensure your venue is large enough.
3. Recruit and train volunteers.
Setting up and running an event has many moving parts, making it nearly impossible for just one or two people to lead. So, you’ll need a team of volunteers to help you balance the many tasks and coordination efforts the event will require.
To recruit these volunteers, you’ll need to share an idea of what they’ll be doing at the event. Announce your need for volunteers in meetings and newsletters, briefly describe the jobs they might be assigned, and send out links to a virtual sign-up form. If you aren’t sure what responsibilities to give volunteers for an in-person event, check this list for inspiration:
- Directing parking
- Setting up and cleaning up the event
- Managing speakers
- Assisting with check-in and registration
- Overseeing refreshments, catering, and drinks
- Helping attendees (e.g., answering questions, helping them locate sessions)
- Ushering attendees to their seats
- Distributing maps, programs, and other printed materials
While these tasks mostly apply to events with an in-person element, you may need a few volunteers for your virtual event, too.
As Fonteva’s guide to virtual events explains, you should incorporate face-to-face engagement as much as possible and encourage active participation by accepting and answering attendee questions. Have a volunteer or two available to moderate the chat section of a video presentation, compiling the most valuable questions for the speaker to answer. You might also designate a few tech-savvy volunteers to run point with any attendees having technical difficulties so speakers can focus on delivering an engaging event.
4. Market the event.
Make sure you start planning early enough to market the event so you can fill seats with excited attendees. Depending on the size of your event, you’ll want to start promoting it anywhere from one to three months in advance.
After creating your event master plan, you should already have a general idea of the tactics, channels, and timelines you’ll follow during your marketing campaign. Some popular ways to market events include:
- Announcing the event during meetings. Your members are likely the most tuned-in to your communications during association meetings, so take advantage of this time by sharing information about your event. Make sure basic details like date, time, and location are finalized when you make the announcement. To drum up more excitement, you could even tease other details like a keynote speaker or a cutting-edge presentation you have planned.
- Sending email blasts. Include reminders to register in your regular email updates and newsletters. Be sure to create a short, enticing subject line, and make it easy for members to take action by including a link to your registration page.
- Leveraging social media. Make the most of your social media following by promoting the event on your various feeds. This marketing strategy is very cost-effective (if not free), and you can share mobile-friendly links to registration pages to make it convenient for followers to get tickets. Vary your social media feed by including photos, live and animated videos, and interactive content. Additionally, you can keep the social media momentum going by creating a custom event hashtag for attendees to use when they post about your event.
- Creating flyers. Flyers and posters are great if your association has robust local chapters. Post these in local businesses and universities, or even mail them out to potential attendees. If your event is virtual (or members are geographically dispersed), you could email or post digital flyers instead.
A common goal for many organizations is to grow their audience over time. Marketing your event outside of your existing pool of members through social media is one of the best ways to expand beyond your current membership base.
5. Evaluate event success and follow up with members.
Once your event concludes, you’ll still have some work to do. Most importantly, show appreciation to your attendees for taking the time to participate in your event with a quick thank-you email. To get important attendee feedback, include a link to a post-event survey along with the thank-you message. If you held a virtual event, you can use your AMS software to create a custom form for both virtual and in-person attendees.
Once you have received the results of the survey, you can analyze attendees’ responses to understand what they liked about the event and what can be improved. Then, the next time you host an event, you’ll be ready to implement attendee-suggested changes and create a memorable experience that boosts retention. After all, following up with attendees can help you form long-lasting relationships, particularly when you show that you value their participation and feedback about their experience.
Events are a great way to engage your existing members (and attract new ones) by building your organization’s reputation within your field. While planning an event is a large undertaking, you can mitigate the stress by starting well in advance and recruiting a skilled, dedicated team of volunteers. And with the right technology on your side, your organization can easily manage registration and other event planning activities within your association management platform.