Risk appears to have shaken hands with reward at ASAE’s annual XDP, aka Xperience Design Project, held May 23-24 at Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center.

Two years in the making and replacing the association’s much larger, more traditional Springtime Expo tradeshow, which had completed a lifecycle that began in 1976, participants at XDP were constantly reminded they weren’t attending a tradeshow, but instead a radical departure for both ASAE and perhaps the meetings industry as a whole.

“It didn’t make sense until we did it,” said John H. Graham IV, president and CEO of ASAE, The Center for Association Leadership. “Did it feel like a risk? Yeah. How were we going to pay for it? How’s it going to come together?”

All of these questions were answered at the conclusion of the event, except on the financial side, as the inaugural event wasn’t planned to break even due to ramp-up costs that will be absorbed by future XDPs. But in the end, the time had come for a big change, as Springtime had seen its day and the nature of association meetings is changing fast.

“This industry needs to do something different, and ASAE needs to provide that different experience, so we need to take that risk,” Graham said of the decision to launch XDP, which brought together 250 people to develop the new format. “It was a risk worth taking. No regrets on that.”

ASAE partnered with 360 Live Media, a Washington, D.C.-based marketing and event experience design company, which was invited to attend what would be the last Springtime in a “secret shopper” role and report on its strengths and weaknesses.

That report resulted in blowing up the traditional tradeshow formula—a key revenue generator for associations—creating in a more-cerebral format that hinged on event design and collaborative learning, under the umbrella of the five core elements of an event: experience, marketing, location, learning and technology. These became the titles of collaborative Zones.

These Zones were the launch pad for the first day of the event. Participants gathered in The Lab, a theater-in-the-round, hub-and-spoke setup, where industry leaders and other experts delivered an opening address followed by short breaks where groups of five or six association executives and two or three industry partners analyzed and discussed solutions to common problems in each Zone subject.

Participants used radio-devices with earbuds to toggle into which Zone they were in, which was an improvement made after a run-through in December where the multiple presentations created too much audio cacophony. Organizers of XDP were initially worried that the radio units, provided by Hargrove, could malfunction, but the devices worked without a hitch.

The groups each picked three of the five Zones to participate in, with each Zone session lasting an hour and a half.

Two breaks in The Lab zone-learning format featured 15-minute pop-up speeches from motivational speakers Shannon Polson, a former Army Apache combat helicopter captain; and customer retention expert Kelly McDonald. The proceedings were emceed by Lisa Kay Solomon, author and managing director of Singularity University.

Evening entertainment, under the banner of “Connections,” was held at the new MGM National Harbor and headlined by rock band The B-52s.

Day two featured motivational entertainment served up by “freestyle” rapper SaulPaul, followed by “LabX” summaries of the previous day’s Zone presentations by the various Zone Leaders. The business, and primary revenue, end of the show was then handled in a Business Exchange in which buyers met with sellers for pre-scheduled 20-minute appointments—no drop-in appointments allowed—in six settings ranging from large suite areas sponsored by MGM Resorts International, Marriott International and event services company Hargrove, to smaller suites and table areas.

While the event won’t break even in its first year, Graham said that is not the primary driver of the effort.

“We don’t look at it as an entrepreneurial undertaking,” he said. “It’s a space for associations to learn how to make quality events for their membership.”

Amy Ledoux, SVP, Meetings and Exposition at ASAE, and a key player in launching XDP, echoed Graham’s remarks, with an additional emphasis on what differentiates XDP from the Springtime Expo it replaced.

“The tradeshow model is usually low-cost, high-return, but this is not a tradeshow environment,” she said. “The industry experts at ASAE had to take these risks, and the ASAE Board was entirely on board with the risk. We definitely have room to grow. Our goal is to be sold out in year three.”

In the end, radically changing what became a stale format for association industry tradeshows was certainly a risk, but one that the organizers felt was crucial to take.

“In the old days of associations, the way to success was to pursue a path of better sameness,” said Don Neal, founder and CEO of 360 Live Media.

XDP will be held at Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center through 2020.

The Numbers

The inaugural XDP event featured the following attendance and participation numbers:

  • 1,816 participants.
  • A 6/3 buyer-to-seller ratio and more than 1,500 people participating in The Lab, LabX and Business Exchange programs.
  • Approximately 2,000 pre-scheduled appointments in the Business Exchange, with 800 more in the works at press time.
  • Participants came from 28 states and the District of Columbia.
  • Two-thirds of the association executives, or planners, participated in the Business Exchange.
  • 31 percent of the association executives had not been to an ASAE event in the previous five years.