Meeting the Future of Associations at ASAE

The annual conference of the American Society of Association Executives is a good place to search for evidence of how associations are changing, especially this year as the ASAE Foundation rolls out its new foresight research program, ASAE ForesightWorks.

The Foundation released three action briefs with a summary of the 41 drivers of change from the 2017 research in Toronto. Did I see evidence that the three drivers of change shared in a conference education session (virtualized meetings, aging world and anticipatory intelligence) point to changes ahead for many associations?  Did I see signs of the rising importance of the other 38 drivers? Yes and yet all we imagine will be possible is not yet happening.

Virtualized meetings draws upon ubiquitous broadband and mainstreaming virtual reality and robotics to accelerate the capabilities of telepresence technologies. We did have Wi-Fi access throughout the conference center and a meeting app to organize schedules and social networking.  I didn’t see any livestreaming despite earlier ASAE experimentation.

The exhibit hall still featured aisles and aisles of booths where reps told their story to those willing to listen. Some exhibitors offered virtual reality tours more as a novelty than their primary means of selling. I wonder when traditional trade shows will prove too costly and ineffective to compete with virtual alternatives and other targeted and customized approaches.

Once again, a large number of participants (including me) experienced cancelled and delayed flights.  Apparently we are willing to put up with a lot bother and expense for the full ASAE annual conference experience. The virtualized meeting action brief does observe that the “social and experiential benefits of ‘real life’ may prove challenging to replicate”. 

The aging world plays out in associations through shifts in membership, workforce and HR practices. My boomer cohort was well represented among the ASAE audience, presenters and leadership. Some continue to attend and volunteer despite stepping back from full employment. A conference session explored the phenomenon of “freetirement”.  Boomers were thrilled to attend the ASAE social events, although we may have left our younger counterparts to party through the night.

Anticipatory intelligence uses big data, data analytics and artificial intelligence to anticipate needs, opportunities, and threats in an organization’s environment. While we might wish for a day when artificial intelligence expedites our personal conference planning, ASAE participants are still picking sessions using clues from interest tracks and program descriptions. People could add sessions to their calendars through the meeting app, but ASAE didn’t use this information to dynamically size audiences to rooms. We struggled to accommodate an overflow crowd in our education session featuring the ASAE ForesightWorks research. No doubt this mismatching of interest to space could be found throughout the conference. ASAE did offer times and spaces people could use to propose spontaneous learning experiences, yet the masses mostly relied on curated and preplanned programming.

This “field research” at the ASAE meeting simply confirms that taking full advantage of our emerging capabilities will challenge even innovative and well-resourced associations.  Meeting planners have time to learn, experiment and adjust their conference strategies to incorporate these drivers of change while giving conference participants the experiences they know and continue to love.