In Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass,” Alice ponders what exists on the other side of the mirror above her fireplace. Being an adventurous girl, she climbs onto the mantel and pokes at the mirror, and to her surprise, she finds out that she can actually go right through into another world, where she meets an array of characters and has some experiences that become life lessons for her.
I’m an adventurous girl, too – and though I didn’t go through a mirror to find an alternate reality, I am recently back from the biggest association meeting of the year, the annual Meeting & Exposition of ASAE (the American Society of Association Executives). It was a remarkable few days with a looking-glass feel to them, because I previously traveled through Worldwide ERC®’s meetings as a member, but now, as a newly minted association exec, I’m on the other side. I now have the responsibility to give a remarkable meeting experience to our own members. So here I was, a registrant at the grand poobah of association meetings, with the expectation that this meeting would do everything right, and I would find the perfect solutions to all of my conference questions.
I couldn’t stop thinking during my time there - and afterward - that this meeting was surprising in many ways. There’s no doubt that ASAE served up the information I was hoping for. I was drinking in data, and it was everywhere I turned. I know my experience was likely similar to a newcomer to our industry who was attending our meeting for the first time. But while the information was exceptional, as a first-time attendee, I was surprised that I was left completely on my own: no mentors were offered, there was nothing denoting my newbie status on my badge, and I received no special first-timer communications before or after the meeting about how I might maximize my conference experience. I found myself grateful for the way we reach out differently to first-timers at our meetings, and identify staff and mentors for any guidance they might need.
There were other differences – good ones – that made the meeting easier for people like me to handle the inevitable business that needed to be addressed and still pack in the important features of the conference. I’m considering the value of these differences to our own meetings, like the more open format: sessions were held early in the morning, then there was open time to network and catch up on work before the formal program resumed at 1:30 p.m., leading to another two-hour pocket of free time before the evening event. There was on-site leadership coaching for those who opted for it, and “mini-keynoters” in breakout sessions who provided smaller-scale but significant presentations.
I found that the association “mother ship” has the same set of issues we do: growing revenue, increasing the membership base, delivering applicable and pertinent content in person and online, and staying relevant to both seasoned practitioners and newcomers at the same time. And though I didn’t walk away with all the answers, there was a comfort in knowing what we do well, what we might change, and that, no matter what, even the head honcho of associations feels the same growing pains.
And that makes it even more interesting to look through and see what’s on the other side of the mirror.