Drilling Down: Knowing Audience Demographics

Originally published in Successful Meetings magazine August 2006

Planning a convention over the Fourth of July weekend is akin to meeting during Christmas week—a sure loser for most organizations. But for the Little People of America (LPA), it is the best time of year for its nearly 2,000 convention-goers to get together.

"We like to have it in July because school is out and we like the kids to come," explains Dan Okenfuss, head of public relations for Hillsboro, OR-based LPA, which held its 2006 conference June 30 through July 8 in Milwaukee, WI. "There's also the benefit of having an extra day [off work] around the Fourth of July. We do a barbecue and watch fireworks; we try to maintain the Independence Day atmosphere. I've been in LPA almost all my life, so I've had my July Fourth in a few dozen cities."

Other associations are eschewing conventional wisdom about traditional survey techniques. The new focus is on enhancing the attendee experience through audience segmentation—namely, taking a hard look at what attendees want each year, and supplying fresh programming and experiences that are most likely to fulfill their needs. Any planner who thinks that her membership base is too specific to drill down any further should read about how LPA and two other associations with equally challenging memberships are getting it done.


Next-Gen Conventions

Every meeting planner lives and dies by "knowing your audience," and when the goals of the association are whole-life focused, that audience often extends to the youth market.

The Assembly of Turkish American Associations (ATAA), based in Washington D.C., handles children's programs at a local level, but has found success with a young adult seminar at the annual convention. Developed for members between 18 and 25, the educational programming teaches the future members of ATAA about political activism, how to build Turkish-American campus organizations, and how to combat negative images of Turkey, as well as more general information about résumé building and interview skills.

According to Nurten Ural, president-elect of ATAA, the value of the youth program stretches beyond strengthening membership. "I think it's important to feel a part of any community. For Turkish youth—and I think it's an issue for any foreigner—they feel left out, like they're not really fully American or fully Turkish. It's important to make the youth feel like they are a part of the community, and it ensures that they don't forget their culture and their heritage," she explains.

In LPA, the youth program has to run the gamut from daycare to young-adult cocktail functions. Over the years, LPA has increased teen workshops, recognizing the need for teenage members to learn about self-esteem, college, relationships, and driving-related issues. Based on the schedules of teen members, Allison Lourash, one of the 2006 conference chairs, says that LPA moved such programs from morning time slots to the afternoons to increase attendance.

"A lot of times an LPA conference is the first time someone has seen a person with dwarfism other than themselves. There is a level of peer support that is not spoken, it's just understood," says Lourash, so the conference becomes a hotbed for members to develop relationships, both platonic and romantic. The dances allow teens to mingle, and the banquet takes on prom-like status for many young people, who, Okenfuss says, ask one another to the event, dress formally, and present their dates with flowers.

LPA encourages younger members to build friendships at the conference with an arcade, the Fun Zone for "tweens"; the Attic for teens, offering music, a computer, and movies; and for members over 21, the Barty Club (named for LPA founder Billy Barty), which was created in 2004 after convention planners learned that members wanted a quiet place to have a drink and conversation. For older little people, relationship-focused activities and programming range from a gay and lesbian reception to a long-distance relationship seminar to a sensuality and intimacy program.

The National Association of Black and White Men Together (NABWMT), based in Pittsburgh, PA, also makes an effort to provide educational content with a relationship bent. The 25-year-old organization is composed of homosexual men working to eliminate racism and homophobia. One topic making its debut at the 2006 convention, held July 31-August 5 in Long Beach, CA, was an economic issues session, tackling topics like tax concerns for same-sex couples.

"We typically take a trident approach to programming: education, relationships, spirituality," says Ken Baron, co-chair of the NABWMT 2006 convention. Spirituality is "something that motivates people to feel good about gay interracial relationships," he explains. "Given the fact that we only meet once a year, we slip sometimes in one area and make up for it another year." If educational content is light one year, it will be more of a focus the following year.


Bucking the Trends

For each organization, the key to developing new programming is asking members what is missing, and counterintuitively, ATAA found an informal approach helped to cull the best ideas. "We ask our board of directors to ask around our membership to see what kinds of topics they are interested in," explains Ural. "I think the informal way gets us more information because it's person-to-person contact instead of going through a [telephone] list and making people uncomfortable.

"This year what they wanted is more information on association issues, so all day Friday we will dedicate to that—grant writing, 501(c)(3) compliance, how to be more transparent," she says. A session on investment opportunities in Turkey also developed out of member feedback.

LPA planners added a pain-management session based on attendee requests; organizers found that managing pain was a programming hole, even though medical consultations have been an important part of LPA's annual convention for years. A medical advisory board brings in a team of orthopedists, genetic counselors, pediatricians, and other specialists for annual consultations with members. "It's a win-win situation," says Okenfuss. "It helps [doctors] because they can learn more about people with dwarfism. It's also good for the member who can get a free consultation with a medical professional. Maybe they come from a rural community or an area where there is not a specialist in dwarfism. We've had people coming to our conferences not knowing what their specific type of dwarfism is, and they get diagnosed at the conference."


What the Market Will Bear

With airfares and gas prices reaching staggering heights, association planners have had to keep fees low enough for attendees to handle, while maintaining a consistent level of quality. For LPA, the answer is à la carte pricing. "We heard enough concern over the baseline conference fee that we decided this was the best approach," Lourash says. "For a lot of people this is quite an expense. We have a lot of working- and middle-class families who make an effort to come, and if they didn't have a child with dwarfism they wouldn't take a big vacation."

"Some people are content to sit in the hotel and chat with friends, others want to be tourists, and others want to cut costs," Okenfuss adds. Allowing attendees to pay per activity allows them to tailor the convention to their needs and interests.

ATAA chose a similar route, allowing attendees to purchase full conference passes inclusive or exclusive of the final-night ball, or day passes, and offering discounts for component organizations and students. Because ATAA welcomes not just Turkish Americans, but those interested in learning more about the Turkic world, some attendees arrive for specific sessions. "We try to educate not only Turkish Americans, but also the media and the community at large," explains Allison Block, who served as director of programs and publications for ATAA and planned the 2005 convention at Chicago's Palmer House Hilton Hotel.

"Instead of 'Play your own music and dance to your own music,' we're trying to get other cultures involved in ours. The only way we'll get other people interested in our culture is to be interested in theirs," says ATAA's Ural, who hopes that attendees will form intercultural relationships as a result of this year's conference, to be held at the Arlington, VA, Sheraton National.

"Saturday sessions will be an American and Turkish women's partnership conference. 'Women' is a big topic these days, especially in the Muslim world, so we want to showcase successful women in the United States and in Turkey, and give those women an opportunity to network. The Turkish businesswoman and the American businesswoman don't necessarily have an opportunity to learn about one another." Ural hopes that if this year's women's conference is successful, ATAA will be able to expand the program to have a conference in Istanbul next year, so American women have an opportunity to visit and experience Turkey firsthand.

According to Baron, NABWMT also uses its annual convention to deliver a message, as well as encourage attendees to have fun. "There are emotional issues and serious parts, such as when we honor people who have passed away, many of whom were HIV-compromised, though fewer lately because of medical advances," he says. "The key thing is that it's like a family reunion. Our goals are to reconnect people, and basically for the folks to have a good time."

In order to have a good time, attendees must choose to involve themselves, which can be harder at association meetings than at professional meetings. "It can be very overwhelming. At a professional conference you have a structure that lends itself to you not necessarily having to go out and be social. At this conference, you could not sign up for anything and spend the whole week in your hotel room not getting to know anyone," says LPA's Lourash. LPA hosts an annual newcomers' reception to welcome first-timers and encourage them to meet new people and participate in the week's events.

For these associations, segmenting the audience allows planners to determine the types of attendees and plan accordingly. Even if the convention is ultimately about education, understanding the needs, wants, and even hobbies of attendees leads to a better experience for everyone.

An understanding of LPA members led to a partnership with the Dwarf Athletic Association of America (DAAA). "DAAA secures space at a local high school or college and stages a competition for our members," says Okenfuss. "If you're coming here anyway for LPA, people enjoy the opportunity to put on running shoes and be active." New programs make for a tight schedule but contented attendees, who return annually. "We keep adding things, it seems," says Okenfuss. "We haven't really been taking anything away."

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