By Greg Albright, Production Solutions
I have long been a member of two local, important professional associations – the Direct Marketing Association of Washington (DMAW) and the Association of Fundraising Professionals, Washington, DC Metro Area Chapter (AFP DC). For years I had attended each of the organizations’ annual conferences where I learned about best practices, cutting-edge innovations and where I developed professionally, networking with industry colleagues and building relationships with new supplier partners.
In 2000, both conferences started to languish. They were experiencing what all other associations were…with the rise of the internet and the close of the 20th century, suddenly it seemed like all that you needed to know was right at your fingertips. Couple this with the cost of travel, lodging and conference registrations fees, industry members started thinking twice about investing in conference attendance for themselves or their staff.
With the large overlap in membership between the DMAW and AFP-DC chapter, we found that instead of members attending both conferences they were choosing between the two to attend – if at all. The same thing happened with the service provider sponsorships and participation in the exhibit hall. It became increasingly difficult to recruit highly-regarded speakers because the conferences no longer had the gravitas they once did.
The Marriage of Direct Marketing and Fundraising
By 2005, recognizing that we could no longer subsist in this manner, a few innovative-thinking Board members and industry leaders had a once-in-a-lifetime stroke of genius. Could AFP DC and DMAW, two organizations with common goals and members, marry their two annual conferences into one?
Would pooling volunteer and staff efforts actually cut costs, optimize member benefits and deliver a better conference than either organization could fund alone?
After a lot of dialogue, number crunching and planning, the Bridge to Integrated Marketing and Fundraising Conference was born and continues to be a match made in direct marketing and fundraising heaven in terms of:
- The number of and quality of educational sessions;
- Sought-after speakers;
- Increased and more diverse networking opportunities for members;
- Exhibitors’ ability to reach many customers under one roof;
- Corporate sponsors’ chance to be seen and heard by key audiences in one place;
- Excellent use of limited budgets and limited staff time;
- The word of mouth reputation that the Bridge Conference has become “THE” conference in the industry.
How to Make a Joint Conference Successful
Like any good marriage, The Bridge Conference wasn’t an instant overnight success. There were challenges and politics, egos and disagreements and…you name it along the way. But there were also some great lessons learned that I, as a member and committee volunteer, want to share with you.
Here are my top 7 tips on how to keep the spark alive when it comes to building an efficient and effective “co-conference” with a partnering organization:
1) Trust: If that doesn’t exist, it’ll never work.
2) Keep your common goals in mind: Remember, it’s about providing your members, sponsors and exhibitors with the most bang for their buck.
3) Establish a conference hub: Agreeing on and hiring a third-party conference planning firm as your organizations’ central point of contact for logistics make things run much more smoothly.
4) Be accountable: As with any volunteer experience, pull your weight and don’t leave it to others to pick up the slack.
5) Great communication: Not to sound too much like Dr. Phil, but you need open and constant dialogue to keep things going and growing.
6) A solid marketing plan: Integrated marketing is the way to go: Print, digital, social and PR – all channels lead to success.
7) Leverage your volunteers: Last but not least, and possibly the most important tip of them all, select strong volunteers who “work well in the sandbox” with others, empower them to be creative, encourage them to tell everyone they know about the conference and, of course, don’t forget to thank them afterwards!
Eight Years and Going Strong
Over the eight years we have learned a lot, tried some new things (some successful, some not), but each year the conference gets better. Today, the Bridge to Integrated Marketing and Fundraising Conference will host their 8th Annual event at the Gaylord National Hotel & Conference Center in National Harbor, MD from July 31 – August 2.
We’ll have more than 70 educational sessions and New York Times bestselling author Cheryl Strayed (Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail) as the keynote speaker.
This year the Bridge Conference is reporting record-breaking results:
- Sponsorships are at a record high and opportunities are nearly sold out;
- The exhibitor hall sold out weeks ago and has a growing waiting list;
- We have sold our highest number of registrations ever before early-bird rates expire (June 16).
The goal of the conference leadership committee is to not only make this year’s conference one of the most valuable in its history, but for it to be unforgettable.
I don’t know about you, but when I see a marriage flourish and grow deep roots, it inspires me. This may be the marriage of two conferences, but it inspired me enough to write about its staying power, flourishing future, not to mention the exemplary dedication of the people involved in it. Mazel Tov!
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