Associations World Congress Review: It's good to talk

Strategy /  / 
Delegates seated at AWC in Lisbon 2022 Delegates at AWC2022 in Lisbon Photo Credit: Image supplied by AWC

James Lancaster reports on the in-person return of Associations World Congress (AWC), held at Altice Arena, in Lisbon, 5-7th September, where less, it seems, was more…

Before the pandemic it was widely held that delegate attention spans were plummeting and there was very little meeting organisers could do about it but structure their content accordingly.

A programme might be broken down into six parallel tracks, packed with sessions lasting no longer than 40 minutes. Our smartphone addictions meant we could cope with little else – or so the theory went.

Most of this bite-sized content was easily transferable to webinars, of course, and during two years of virtual conferencing it became clear that a lot of delegates quite liked the remote version.

Which presented planners with a problem: how to get people back in the room? One answer has been to radically simplify conference programmes and provide more deep-learning experiences.

We just don't know what our events are going to look like, in terms of numbers

This was the strategy employed by organisers of Associations World Congress, held in Lisbon, who pared the number of streams back to just three - with four half-day sessions per stream.

Whether or not the strategy paid off, depends on your point of view.

For while numbers were down on the previous in-person AWC (Gothenburg 2019) - there were maybe 80 associations in attendance in Lisbon – the level of engagement was clearly up.

This, no doubt had something to do with the content, which was bang on trend.

Topics included dealing with major disruption, online event pricing, sustainability, change management, member engagement, and improving innovation, amongst others.

But the format clearly had an impact, too.

Having the time to discuss an issue in-depth gave people the confidence to talk more freely and to float ideas that might not have been fully formed but helped, nevertheless, to move things along.

From the organiser’s perspective it meant far fewer speakers and moderators to manage – and those leading the sessions had clearly been briefed to encourage audience interaction.

I sat in sessions by Sasha FriezeJennifer Jenkins, and Dan Torjussen-Proctor and all three did a great job engaging their audience, less 'talking at' - a lot more peer-to-peer learning.

Jane Cziborra, head of events at Alzheimer's Disease International, told AMI: "I really enjoyed the conference and it has provided the knowledge and impetus to implement new strategic ideas for our events. Having focused more in-depth interactive sessions provided greater learning opportunities and the ability to learn from other delegates of real case scenarios, made the content even more relevant and 'real'."

Another change meant the event was free to delegates. In return they were committed to three one-to-one appointments a day with the meeting industry suppliers who sponsored the event.

This flips another orthodoxy on its head – the notion that you must charge a fee to ensure high levels of engagement, to attract people who really want to be there. Of course, the free model could be said to have the same effect, in that delegates have nothing to lose financially by dropping out last minute.

Delegates at AWC in Lisbon 2022 Photo Credit: Associations World Congress


Some associations were bruised by the experience of going virtual or attempting perhaps attempting hybrid for the first time. But some voices were wondering why associations even use the 'h' word. After all, from a delegate perspective you are either in-person or you are attending an event remotely (virtually). Not both. Its function is to instruct the organiser. It doesn't mean much to delegates. Is this why organisers struggle to explain the value proposition of hybrid to delegates?

Elsewhere delegates were noting a changing relationship with venues, treating them less like suppliers and more like partners. One audience member said his association wanted maximum flexibility on pricing from venues, because ‘we just don’t know what our events are going to look like in terms of numbers’. In return for their flexibility, ‘we will promise them more business in future’.

And in another session associations were mulling how to add value to membership, with some extolling the virtues of personalised and bespoke packages, and others not so sure. Data was the key tool for personalising membership, but how you analysed it depending very much on your budget. So highly sophisticated CRM system or manual spread sheet? Both could do the job. But as one delegated opined: “If you have 40,000 individual members, how bespoke can you make their membership - and how do we know they want it anyway? Are we in danger of over-thinking this?’

James Lancaster
Written By
James Lancaster

AMI editor James Lancaster is a familiar face in the meetings industry and international association community. Since joining AMI in 2010, he has gained a reputation for asking difficult questions and getting lost in convention centres. Proofer, podcaster, and panellist - in his spare time, James likes to walk, read, listen to music, and drink beer.


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