The Death of Association Meetings (of boredom)

Today was officially hot. I mean, hot like the Midwest in the heart of summer hot. Scientists estimated the humidity to be 2000%. Even under the umbrella on my patio, everything about the day screamed hot and miserable.

In the distance, through the shimmering air, I could see my wife, Martha. Despite the heat, despite the humidity, she was diligently weeding. As I glanced at her, I could see her wipe the sweat from her brow, take a deep breath, and bend down again to what was clearly an arduous task. Nothing is harder than keeping your garden going when it’s this hot.

Without further ado, like any good husband, I rose from my chair and went inside to enjoy a cool drink and the air conditioning and write this blog.

Today’s topic? The death (again) of association meetings through long, drawn-out, excruciating boredom.

Consider the following from association executive respondents to Looking Forward Impact, Association Laboratory’s leading environmental scan of the association sector.

  • 79% indicate they are very or somewhat concerned about their face-to-face meetings, conventions, or tradeshows.
  • 64% indicate their most significant barrier to success is “creating a compelling attendee experience.”

I go to a wide variety of association conferences and trade shows of all sizes.  For better or worse, I also receive a wide variety of literature on “advances” in meeting planning and production.

The common themes?

  • “We are innovating.”
  • “We have learned lessons from the pandemic.”
  • “Meetings are back’”

Really? Where?

Nothing. Is. Different.

I could take virtually every meeting I’ve attended over the last two years and place that same meeting in 2015 and not know the difference. As far as I can tell, there is no innovation. Associations are just playing on the margins.

Apparently, in meetings land, the pandemic didn’t happen.

  • Multi-year contracts based on history, not future needs – check
  • 11-month program planning cycle with a group of rando volunteers or staff – check
  • Rooms that may or may not be large enough set for rounds or theatre seating – check
  • Lav, podium, or table mic – check
  • Audio Visual from 2010 (and hilariously expensive) – check
  • Putting their speaker, oddly named Dean, in crappy rooms overlooking the parking ramp and not considering his unique needs and desires at every turn – check
  • Canned Big-Name Keynote Speaker (not Dean, of course – well worth the money) who wrote a book about “Top 4 blah blah blah and who costs more than your car – check
  • Site of your most important non-dues revenue source selected based on where the chief volunteer or program committee chair lives – check
  • Luncheon buffet on exhibit floor w/ long lines (and hilariously expensive) – check
  • Reception with cheap wine, cheaper booze – check

The current (forever?) state of association meetings is not the “fault” of our fine meeting planners and hospitality colleagues.

They are great folks working hard at their job. The mistake is confusing what they are trained to do and often excel at with the needs of associations, their members, and attendees.

Hospitality salespeople are real estate agents.

Don’t believe me? Compare the following Home Listing to a common Hotel Property Description.

Home Listing Hotel Property
Welcome to your dream home! Nestled in a peaceful neighborhood, this stunning property offers the perfect blend of spaciousness, comfort, and modern living for a growing family. Allow me to paint a vivid picture of this remarkable 3500 square foot home with three bedrooms, two baths, a finished basement, and an outdoor patio.

Enjoy cooking? The heart of the home is the stylishly appointed kitchen. Boasting high-end stainless-steel appliances, sleek countertops, and custom cabinetry, it’s a culinary enthusiast’s dream.

The main floor also includes a cozy family room for relaxation and quality time. The master suite is a serene retreat featuring a spacious layout, a walk-in closet, and a luxurious en-suite bathroom.

This remarkable home is a haven for a growing family. Its thoughtfully designed layout, stylish features, and versatile spaces provide the ideal backdrop for creating lasting memories and enjoying a comfortable lifestyle.

Welcome to our [INSERT PROPERTY NAME] Situated in a prime location just 15 minutes from the airport, this remarkable establishment offers a grand experience with 300 spacious rooms and 20 suites.

For those seeking versatile event spaces, our hotel features an impressive 50,000 square feet of exhibit space. Whether you’re hosting a conference, trade show, or gala event, our state-of-the-art facilities can accommodate your every need. The flexible layout and modern technology ensure a seamless and successful event for all attendees.

Your attendees will enjoy the relaxing pool, adjacent golf course, and access to our world-class spa.

With impeccable service, a wealth of amenities, and a prime location, our hotel is the perfect choice for discerning guests. Whether you’re visiting for business or leisure, we invite you to experience the epitome of luxury and hospitality.

Not much difference, is there?

Our colleagues in the hospitality industry can only sell what they are given. In addition, they are trained and incentivized to be “real estate agents.”

The good ones understand your needs a bit better or have access to more or better properties, resulting in better service and selection. Like your real estate agent, you’re someone else’s problem once you’ve bought the property.

Meeting planners are logistics professionals.

Why do we ask our meeting planner, a logistics professional, to design experiences? Why would we do that to them, and why do we think it’s fair to them?

Below, I’ve listed a meeting planner CMP prep course published on the PCMA website.

Have fun and look for “instructional design/education,” “community development,” or “attendee experience design” –essential components of a successful event. I’ll wait.

Week 1

  • Course introduction
  • Developing a personal learning plan
  • Identifying personal knowledge and skills gaps as you study
Week 7

  • Domain G, Skill 15 | Food & Beverage
  • Domain G, Skill 16 | Design Environment


Week 2

  • CMP Domain A | Strategic Planning
  • CMP Domain F | Stakeholder Management


Week 8

  • Domain G, Skill 14 | Speakers
  • Domain G, Skill 17 | A/V & Technical Production
  • Domain G, Skill 18 | Attendee Movement
Week 3

  • CMP Domain B| Project Management
  • CMP Domain G, Skill 13 | Develop Program


Week 9

  • Reviewing the exam format and structure
  • Exploring your exam anxieties
  • Practicing and applying test-taking skills
  • Applying your studying and learning plan to address your knowledge and skills gaps
Week 4

  • CMP Domain C | Risk Management
  • CMP Domain D | Financial Management
Weeks 10

  • No classes or content | Self-preparation and studying for practice exam
Week 5

  • CMP Domain E | Human Resources
  • CMP Domain I | Marketing
Weeks 11

  • No classes or content | Self-preparation and studying for practice exam
Week 6

  • CMP Domain H | Site Management


Week 12

  • Live virtually proctored practice exam
  • Live class with instructor to review practice exam, examine results, discuss anxieties, and answer questions.

While I’m sure content and community are touched upon somewhere, why is it shortchanged when content is “King” and curated community essential for success?

It’s because when you stuff boxes in a truck, you don’t care what’s in the boxes, only how many you get in – logistics. To a hammer, every challenge is a nail, and it doesn’t matter how experienced or customized the hammer is.

Association Laboratory’s industry-leading sector research provided via the Looking Forward Dashboard tells us that content is king.

70% of association executive respondents identified “identifying or producing more relevant content” as one of the strategies most important to their association.

Creating an attendee experience that incorporates compelling content is barely or rarely covered in the training of the people who produce association conferences.

Then we wonder why association conferences are

  1. all the same regardless of the association and,
  2. no different in 2023 than in 2013 (or 1913).

As a result, associations fail to meet the needs of attendees, exhibitors, sponsors, volunteer leaders, and staff. Sooo much work. Sooo little progress.

Reimagining the future of successful association meetings and conferences.

Soon, the rules-based aspects of meeting planning and hospitality sales are likely to be replaced by AI.

Don’t you think so? Here’s a quick example. When I started a research company in 1999, it was routine to have a statistician. This statistician eventually got replaced by software because, at its heart, statistics is just math – and computers LOOOOOVE math. Now, for most research, the statistician’s role is fulfilled by software. I don’t have a statistician and can’t remember the last time I spoke to (or needed) one. Except for fun of course.

Imagine all your meeting requirements and the property’s parameters under the Big AI Roof.

Our happy little meeting planner will input the meeting specs (number of people, type of event, desired interaction, etc.), and AI will spit out the space and logistics requirements. The person will then synch them to the property’s AI (if it isn’t already the same system). Then, AI will show you the optimal setup, suggest modifications, highlight risk factors based on higher/lower attendance, etc.  No. People. Needed.

Voila (it’s French for voila), many of the tasks necessary for identifying and selecting a property and planning and adapting a meeting to the property go away.

Within this environment, associations won’t need planners but producers. Producers who understand how to use the event to tell a story (of education, motivation, scientific discovery, etc.). Producers who can integrate the event with other association activities (membership, tradeshow, etc.)

We’ll need the following to reimagine how to use meetings as a platform for attendee success.

  • Experience-based competencies – Planners and hospitality professionals must evolve into producers with content, community, and attendee experience design competencies. You aren’t selling real estate or planting butts in seats anymore.
  • Audience-based planning – Modern associations will fundamentally understand the audiences they are trying to serve, their needs, and the role of meetings (relative to alternatives) in helping meet those needs.
  • Content and community planning – A reimagined conference will develop an educational, informational, and commercial experience, then worry about sites, space, and logistics.
  • Investment mindset – A reimagined conference will have a 3 or 5-year business plan identifying how the association believes a successful meeting will evolve. A greater share of financial and intellectual investment will engage researchers and instructional design experts, not meeting planners, to inform strategy.
  • Engagement mindset – Meetings are just one avenue for participation with an association. The pieces of the puzzle of association engagement need to fit together. Modern associations will figure out how to integrate meetings with other aspects of association engagement – conferences shouldn’t be one-offs.

Last Call

The worst slur you can apply to a meeting is the old “I learn more during discussions in the hall than during the sessions.”

What a terrible thing to say.

Consider all the time, money, and effort spent on planning and producing an event, and some rando conversation was what the person valued.

I have been reading about the “death of meetings” for many years, basically since 9/11. It’s not that meetings are dead; it’s that terrible meetings should be dead.

We deserve better for all the time, money, and attention they demand from attendees and all the resources invested by associations.

The problem with meetings didn’t start with the pandemic and don’t worry that the next meeting will fail; these things take time.

But if the meeting planning and hospitality industries don’t rethink their role and competencies relevant to association attendees’ needs, CMP will just be shorthand for obsolete.

Just some thoughts from my seat at the bar.

Huh. I wonder if my wife’s done weeding.