The association meeting is dead. Long live the association meeting!

The annual meeting is the lifeblood of most associations, providing a critical source of sponsorship and exhibit revenue and opportunities to gather the troops to discuss important topics, map out organizational strategies, attract new members and leadership, and provide networking and educational opportunities that are also the professional lifeblood of participants.

But the traditional annual meeting model, many believe, has seen its day, as a new generation of time- and attention-challenged attendees demand more peer-to-peer engagement and program content that is immediately applicable to their specific work roles.

 “One of the big things that may surprise people is in general, we’re seeing a decline in how many people are showing up in general sessions and concurrents, and the longer the conference goes, the worse,” said Dave Lutz, managing director for Velvet Chainsaw Consulting, a research and consulting company that works with major organizations on the format and content of their meetings. “People vote with their feet first and their wallets second. There’s a lot more people choosing not to attend, and even though they’re there, they’re not going in and sitting in a seat for 45 minutes or an hour in a general session.

“There is a huge leading indicator in our mind that the experience needs to change,” he continued. “We need to get them back in there and make it more valuable for them to choose from. Almost every association knows they want to do more interactive sessions, but it’s easier said than done.”

In short, it’s all about engagement, whether it be between member participants or with suppliers and exhibitors, whose revenue through sponsorships and tradeshow presence is an indispensable asset. But even the very word tradeshow can carry with it negative connotations to attendees, who, rightly or wrongly, are wary of feeling like the proverbial piece of red meat on a floor filled with lions.

An early adopter in massively reformatting her annual conference is Michelle Mason, president and CEO of Association Forum, a Chicago-based association that has been described as similar to a large chapter of ASAE, but is independent from the Washington, D.C.-based association of association executives.

“Our objective was to blow up the meeting format, to try something new and different and create a more engaging experience where our members can have a higher level of learning,” said Mason, who is entering into the fourth year of reimagining its annual meeting, Forum Forward. “We moved away from the traditional annual meeting format to a more engaging, learning experience for attendees. Our goal is to make sure we push the envelope for our members in designing learning experiences that our members can replicate in their environments.”

Although Forum Forward—which quite appropriately carried the theme “Construct. Deconstruct. Reconstruct.” for its June 28 annual meeting—is only a one-day event with a cap of 300 attendees, it serves as a learning lab of sorts for its association planner and supplier members.

“People are looking for what the next thing is, so we certainly want to be able to respond,” Mason said. “Forum Forward is more of a learning lab, where we can experiment and take risks. The core is a sense of community, so people can actually look across the room and see someone they want to make a connection with. It’s very experiential and hands-on, and the design seems to be working for us.”

The meeting has no exhibits, but instead offers a sponsors lounge with sofas, branded pillows, loveseats, chairs and tables, so sponsors can sit down and have a conversation with their clients and prospects rather than “sell them” in a more traditional exhibit environment. Mason said Association Forum does offer another event with an exhibit floor, but they have even shaken that up, moving from a linear format to a chevron configuration, with attendee engagement experiences available on the floor, such as a Digital Depot featuring virtual reality, and entertainment.

Mason’s advice to planners is not to be afraid to take risks and not to put up barriers between attendees, but instead create conversation opportunities between all delegates.

“People are looking for change and new experiences,” Mason said. “Look to enhance the event and meeting, but most importantly, focus on the community aspect of it, the human element and networking in addition to the education. Don’t move too far from the core of what your meeting is about, and in some cases, change can be iterative. You can test and learn.

Everything’s in beta. You can learn and grow over time.”