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Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Blog: Association World Congress 2017

Last month, VisitScotland Business Events travelled to Vienna to attend the Associations World Congress (2-4 May) along with six Scottish partners; the AECC, VisitAberdeen, the EICC, Convention Edinburgh, the SEC and Glasgow Convention Bureau. Sharing one stand as ‘Team Scotland’, VisitScotland and partners were able to connect with association professionals, discuss new business and attend a wide range of development sessions. In this blog we reflect on some of the themes and messages that Scotland took away from the event.


The AWC is a gathering of associations professionals, from event planners to chief executives, research directors and social media managers. These professionals come together each year to share knowledge and learn. Associations are inherently reflective of the populations and professions they represent, so as society ages, transforms, adapts and changes so do associations. The challenges facing associations - technology, demographics and climate change - affect everyone. The AWC also brings together venues, destinations and business partners, key allies in the associations world, and allows for enhanced networking and learning. 


As a destination, Scotland has a strong interest in the associations world, and our large cities Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen all perform impressively in attracting and hosting association events to their conference centres and Universities. It’s vital that as a nation we are informed and can adapt to the changes and challenges that associations are facing – increasing involvement, suggesting new programmes and being innovative in our offerings to ensure that we remain relevant and stand out in the market.  


Sell Oxytocin…


Oxytocin is the love hormone, and is released when good things are happening to us - such as a sense of belonging. The AWC opening plenary focused on the need to discover and encourage ‘Tribe’ - for associations this means creating and stimulating a sense of belonging and unity. Belonging and unity make us happy and when we’re happy we are more creative, more trusting and healthier. Clearly these are important in all walks of life, but for associations there are further important ramifications.


Associations need to be aware of the changing demographics and the other competing oxytocin sellers in the world. Millennials are far less likely to want to sit in a plenary for three days, and other associations might sell what you sell, but better! By being aware of the experience on offer and the collective belonging this can foster, associations can ensure that what they offer is more than just learning and career advice, but a collective experience that creates a memory and encourages the delegate to come back again, and importantly, to tell a friend to come too.


Research into successful companies such as Google have found that the more successful companies have a policy of putting their people first and always remaining future focussed. It’s also been recognised that ideas are more important than age! Ensure that the next generation are consulted and their ideas are taken seriously. If not, they feel disengaged and don’t feel that they belong and won’t stay with the organisation. Being part of the tribe is vitally important for successful organisations to thrive.


As a nation, Scotland has to make sure it is marketing itself fully as the destination of choice, a destination that can offer the experiences that will keep members involved in their associations. 


Word of mouth is marketing…


What is marketing, and how best to engage with audiences are ever evolving discussions. Many of our own assumptions were challenged during AWC 17, and prominent among them were the ideas that word of mouth is marketing, and that knowledge is no longer the key driver for delegates to attend events. Perhaps these two ideas reflect a wider narrative that ran through the AWC, the rise of the millennials in the workforce and their impact on traditional events. Today, through social media and smart technologies, people are able to share positive experiences further, wider and faster than ever before, and these recommendations are powerful. Associations need to embrace the new, events need to be shareable, they need to be quality and pass high threshold tests of authenticity, and if we can achieve this, word of mouth marketing can take over!


We were challenged that knowledge is no longer the key driver for delegates attending association events – indeed with the power and availability of online learning, why travel thousands of miles to sit in a classroom? The modern delegate travels not only to learn, but to socialise. As discussed above, they travel to experience and to belong. A look at the most viewed sessions on the AWC17 mobile app quickly showed that of the top 10 viewed, six were for social and networking sessions, with the gala dinner firmly at the top! This isn’t to say knowledge has no part, as it is often the common thread that binds people together, but socialising, and engaging in knowledge in non-traditional formats could come to play an increasingly important role for associations… 


It’s all about the ‘why’…


As a destination, the session that really struck us the most was that held by Iain Bitran of the International Society for Professional Innovation Management. Iain talked about the potential for associations to collaborate and engage with their destinations, with national and city convention bureaux. He talked of his experience in working with Florence, the home of Leonardo da Vinci, who were keen to make the connection between past and present innovators and who worked in collaboration with Iain to connect with local innovation centres, research facilities and businesses.


As a country Scotland has a staggering legacy of invention and discovery, a legacy that continues to this day in extraordinarily diverse fields. From life sciences, energy, data, informatics, medicine and exploration – Scotland continues to be a country that is at the forefront of research and innovation. We can engage with associations and help them understand the ‘why’ – why come to Scotland? We have an informed community of scientists and professionals who will swell the ranks of these events, we have the narrative of an innovation legacy, and the local connections to challenge the normal running of conferences, to make events social, to make them unique and shareable.


Many destinations have impressive conference centres, and many more have good transport links and bed-stock, but the why of Scotland can be the difference that makes us. If we can learn from all of these lessons and stay current, Scotland can continue to be a leading destination for the great range of associations who choose to come here.


For all the challenges in the world we must never lose sight of what we truly and authentically are, our true selves. ‘Team Scotland’ ensured we stayed true to what is great about Scotland, and our presence at the event was noticed with our messaging, VisitScotland VR app being demonstrated and, drams of whisky being offered to keep the delegates from flagging during the learning sessions. The warmth of the Scottish hospitality was certainly enjoyed in Vienna!


Patrick Lamont and Fiona MacKinnon

Associations and Sectors Team

VisitScotland Business Events

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