Library Association's Citywide Meeting Q&A Tool Enlightens Attendees

The American Library Association last year began using new communications technology for its citywide meetings to enhance attendee experiences, drive down staffing and related costs and increase promotion of seminars and breakout sessions during the show.

The association's use of new technology is part of a closer integration between its membership services and meetings teams, designed to bring the most value of an event to both members and non-member attendees.

At its 2009 Annual Conference and Exhibition at Chicago's McCormick Place, ALA implemented its "Text an Ambassador" program to broaden communications with the show's 22,762 attendees and 6,179 exhibitors through a mobile device text message-based service provided by Mosio and administrated by the association's volunteer "ambassador" member pool. The team answered 280 questions about directions to meeting rooms, registration and housing throughout the five-day event, said ALA director of membership development John Chrastka.

The program's success led ALA to continue its experiment at its 2010 Midwinter Meeting in Boston in January, which drew 8,526 attendees and 2,659 exhibitors. The Mosio mobile tool also will be used at this summer's Annual Conference in Washington, D.C.

The technology enabled the association to create a virtual information desk without adding on-site staff. The 180-member volunteer pool mans the physical information desk. Some volunteers handle the Text an Ambassador program through computer terminals at the information desk and are supported by ALA staff stationed at its Chicago headquarters. The ability to answer the volume of questions efficiently without on-site staff enabled the association to keep down costs without sacrificing service levels. "There is no way I could do this without a third-party service," said Chrastka.

ALA marketed the question-and-answer service in its pre-show emails, at registration, on volunteers' identification badges and in the show's daily publication.

A key element of the program's success was alleviating housing problems and questions at registration, which often created bottlenecks." If there was an error or situation we were able to help move that triage along very quickly," he said.

The text service enabled the association to answer questions about the host city, including directions to off-site events and restaurants. "For many of our attendees, this may be the only professional travel they do for the year," Chrastka said. "They are in a new city, and you need to have the host behave in a responsible way for their comfort."

While ALA is using a more advanced short message service system, the association has used text-based messaging since a 2006 citywide in New Orleans, after Hurricane Katrina, where the service was implemented to assure attendee safety and communicate emergency information alerts if necessary.

In 2008, ALA began testing handheld meeting scheduler technology from Boopsie, which provides attendee-scheduling data to the meetings team. It also enables users to search for sessions by keyword and time. "Being able to put an interactive search into somebody's hand is a real big deal," Chrastka said.

ALA regularly rotates the Annual Conference among eight cities, including Anaheim, Chicago, New Orleans and Orlando. Its Midwinter Meeting, which draws about 10,000 fewer attendees than the Annual Conference, rotates among such cities as Boston, Philadelphia, San Antonio and San Diego. The association also holds annual symposia, learning events and professional development courses throughout the United States.

A seven-person planning team handles logistics, housing and exhibits and manages meetings. The two-person member services team has worked more closely with its planning counterparts in recent years, Chrastka said.

The event attendee experience at events drives association membership and creates new recruitment opportunities through, among other methods, "join and save" promotions, Chrastka said.

"From a membership perspective, we have to figure out how to make it as compelling as possible to attend, because otherwise my recruitment is going to suffer and my retention is going to suffer," he said. "We have to work hand in hand in that."

He added, "It is absolutely critical for me to work with the meetings people as much as it is for me to work with our publishing people. The three legs of the stool of membership are publishing, participation and events. For this to be a functioning membership organization, I've got to work with the other parts of the association."

At events, the member services and the meetings teams have increased social interaction among attendees to enhance their overall experiences. ALA has developed a series of sponsored networking opportunities that bring together groups of certain attendees, such as first-timers or those who are traveling without colleagues.

Chrastka, who has been with the association for seven years, said, "I've taken on a responsibility that is now more for the social side of things, like sponsoring some additional parties and using a lot of the technology to make sure that the events you otherwise wouldn't hear about get exposed to as wide a group as possible."

Originally published March 1, 2010