At the 2014 Midwest Society of Association Executives (MSAE) Annual Meeting & Expo, a full day of education and networking with over 400 attendees and exhibitors and a tradeshow with 100 booths, those in attendance were challenged to “Think Forward, Change the Game.”
According to Angela Kisskeys, marketing and communications manager for MSAE, the theme for 2014, “Think Forward, Change the Game,” was a play off sports and strategy… doing things differently and thinking differently. And it really hit the nail on the head for their idea to add a new element to the Annual Meeting & Expo.
Melanie Wilen, account executive at Mystic Lake Casino and MSAE committee member, saw a charity give back program at an event and the committee was in agreement to incorporate something like this into the Annual Meeting & Expo.
The committee decided they wanted to give back to children and adults alike. Through the Minnesota Shopping Center Association, they were connected with the Kids in Need Foundation (KINF). This 501(c)(3) charitable organization ensures that every child is prepared to learn and succeed by providing free school supplies to students most in need.
When it came to giving back to older generations, the committee decided on the Minneapolis VA Medical Center. The VA Center accepts family comfort bags for family members of hospitalized Veterans facing medical crisis or those needing end of life care.
As with any new endeavor, this proved to require a learning curve for MSAE. That learning process began with figuring out how exactly to get involved with these organizations.
“There were several conversations between MSAE and KINF,” said Melissa Philibert, manager of special projects, Kinds in Need Foundation. “But MSAE did most of the work on the back end and their dedication to this program at their event not only made it simple from my perspective, but helped to make it a success.”
MSAE committed to filling 150 backpacks for the Kids in Need Foundation and 150 tote bags for the Minneapolis VA Medical Center. Each organization provided a list of items needed and the committee determined this list would be provided to the tradeshow exhibitors. Each exhibitor could decide which item they would like to donate and MSAE’s plan was to have attendees fill the bags with those items. Attendees would have to visit every booth to fill their bags.
Participation from the exhibitors would be crucial to the success of this give back component, according to Kisskeys. “This had never really been done before by MSAE,” said Kisskeys. “And I think because of the unfamiliarity, exhibitors were hesitant to get involved initially. Many had already purchased give-away items for their booths as well.” Even with the guarantee of increased traffic at their booths, response from exhibitors was slow at first. There was an initial solicitation for participation and then continued reminders throughout the process - booth purchases, etc.
The committee thought that perhaps the initial requests may have been lost in the many emails exhibitors received from MSAE regarding the Expo. “Once committee members contacted exhibitors, rather than emails from MSAE, and caught their attention, we were inundated with confirmed participation,” said Wilen.
Kisskeys praises the giving nature of the exhibitors at this year’s MSAE Expo, “We rarely heard no.”
From folders and notebooks to markers, crayons, pencils and everything in between for the kids and blankets, toiletries, word search/puzzle books, snacks and more for the Veteran’s families, exhibitors were able to find the best prices for the quantity needed. As mentioned, attendees were given a backpack or a tote, both of which were generously donated by MSAE members, and a list of items needed to fill that bag.
Filled bags were deposited into bins near members of the charity organizations, giving everyone a very real sense of the impact this was going to have.
“I’ve been to conferences both as an attendee and an exhibitor and have had the experience of the booth being busy so you say you’ll go back later, and you don’t,” said Philibert. “What MSAE was able to do, creating this direct connection between exhibitor and attendee with more interaction than I’ve ever seen, is really quite unique and I was trilled to be a part of it.”
“I’ve been to, and struggled with, tradeshows in the past that include the treasure map ice breaker, if you will, that somewhat forces contact between exhibitor and attendee,” said attendee Mark Salter, CFA Society Minnesota. “It can often be counter productive.
“This year was brilliant,” Salter continued. “Every year MSAE tries to find a worthy cause to support and they have an excellent track record that I applaud. To be able to make these essential contacts and support two worthy causes was wonderful.”
Exhibitors were also encouraged to donate any of their leftover promotional give-away items they had brought along, if they chose. KINF and the Minneapolis VA Medical Center found themselves leaving with much more than they anticipated, including hand sanitizers, playing cards, puzzles and other miscellaneous items. If you aren’t able to include a give back program at your next event, consider adding this at the end. There are organizations across the country that could truly benefit from some of the items exhibitors give away.
From here, the committee will take valuable lessons with the hopes of continuing this program. “Hopefully this is a trend that takes off,” said Kisskeys. And as any planner knows, once you get one under your belt the process becomes much easier. MSAE has learned lessons in communication and timing and saw ways to improve the process to be more efficient.
“This was a wonderful example of associations truly making a difference,” said Kisskeys. “Whether it’s at the Annual Meeting & Expo or another event, we will try to incorporate this again. The sky is the limit!”