Revolutionize Event Engagement

Discover how one association reimagined its approach to spotlighting start-ups in order to better connect them within their ecosystem.

By Nikki Golden, CAE

revolutionize event engagement

Over the past several years, the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) has featured something at their annual event and tradeshow called Start-up Alley. This brought together numerous small start-up companies within the food technology space. Post-pandemic, the organization wanted to provide more opportunity for these start-ups and elevate innovation, which led them to rebrand Start-up Alley as Start-up Pavilion. The shift significantly grew the number of available slots on the tradeshow floor for these companies.

“IFT is focused on connecting food system communities, and that’s everyone from start-ups to academia to government to large industry,” says Mandy Zaransky-Hurst, IFT’s Senior Vice President of Marketing, Communications, and Business Development. “And when we think about the future of food, it’s all about innovating and connecting people and ideas. To safeguard the future, start-ups are a great example of innovation, and it made sense to offer them a greater platform. No doubt, they are also an incredible source of innovation and inspiration for nearly all who attend our annual event.”

And what was that larger opportunity? A pitch contest.

The revised format brought the community together during the trade show. The contest featured four initial rounds of 90-second pitches, with three start-ups from each round advancing to a championship round. Seeding The Future Foundation, who partners with IFT for the annual Seeding The Future Global Food System Challenge, provided prize money for the winner and two runners-up.

Throughout the competition, IFT selected nearly 25 judges and trained them on the scoring rubric. To maintain transparency, the rubric questions were also shared with the participating start-ups.

Additionally, these start-ups had free access to two coaches and an introductory webinar that outlined how the competition would work.

To participate in the event, start-up companies registered to exhibit in the Start-up Pavilion for less than $1,000. They received two event passes and the opportunity to participate in the pitch competition.

The initial rounds took place over two days at a small stage within the Start-up Pavilion. Overall, there were nearly 60 pitches in those two days. At the end of Day 2, attendees got to listen to pitch tips and strategies from Bob Jones, the author of the book “The Start-up Starter Kit,” which kept the attendees in the pavilion to hear the announcement of who would move forward. The event concluded with a fireside chat with the founder of
Seeding The Future Foundation,
Bernhard Van Lengerich, focusing on the impact start-ups can have on building a sustainable future.

These two talks were designed to keep people in the pavilion while the scoring was calculated to determine finalists and winners.

In 2022, IFT hosted 48 start-ups in the pavilion. In 2023, they hosted 86. Over the course of three days, the Start-Up Pavilion had nearly 9,000 people walk through. Next year IFT hopes to have 100 food and food tech start-ups in their pavilion.

Switching the Script

On some level, the past three years have changed our behaviors and decision-making matrix. Yet, most associations have not changed the way they plan events to respond to those changes.

For instance, most meetings start with logistics, when they should be starting with a question of “what are your goals and objectives and who are you serving?” emphasizes Shameeka Jennings, MTA, CMP, DES, CAE, owner of EventsNoire, a full-service event planning company. Reimagining an event can be challenging, especially if it has become routine or if your members have grown accustomed to specific participation expectations. In order to encourage participation—which requires time away from work—attendees need to feel their needs are being met.

So, where to start?

Post-event evaluations, Jennings says, contain some gems that are useful nuggets of information to inform change. If you have a committee whose charge is tied to planning a meeting, make sure you have a process to bring in new voices.

These voices may include diversity in seniority, attendee type, and demographics such as race and gender. Be sure to include other stakeholders such as exhibitors and sponsors while building your committee.

While members come to the meeting for education, networking is also a top reason to attend. There are many ways to incorporate more networking into your meetings, Jennings says. One suggestion is to incorporate more open time in the conference schedule.

In addition to encouraging organic networking, open time can also alleviate attendee burnout. “I have seen a lot of positive reactions to just having the time and space to go back to your room and say good night to your kids or take a phone call,” Jennings said. Furthermore, she has noticed that people “come back fresh and ready to be present in the space they’re in.”

Be sure the submission process mirrors any changes made to session types (see sidebar). You’ll want to outline those session types and what the requirements are for each, allowing submitters to choose a session type and speak to how they’d fulfill the requirements.

Another suggestion is to add a few questions that force submitters to think through their session in more detail, such as how the session will be taught, or submit an outline. She also suggests that creativity always be a part of the scoring rubric.

If you are changing your process in a big way—or trying to get new voices involved in presenting, Jennings suggests hosting a pre-submission call to take some of the mystery out of the submission process and to answer questions anyone might have.

“It’s a scary process,” she said, noting that this can be a barrier to new submissions. She urges organizations to make the process accessible, encourage creativity, and involve staff to help.

Exploring New Session Types

Unconference: Facilitate those “hallway conversations” by devoting separate spaces to topics brought forth by the community. These conversations are attendee-driven, though you might consider having a member facilitator to take notes and  keep the conversation going.

World Café: Association Forum used this format at its Women’s Executive Forum™ this year. Attendees are randomly assigned to small round tables. Each 20-minute session is either centered around different questions per session or questions that build over the course of all the sessions. Ask for participants to give a short report on how their table responded to the questions between each session or at the end.

Fishbowl: Set up chairs in two circles, with four to eight chairs at the inner circle. Those in the inner circle discuss an introduced (maybe pre-selected) topic, and as they wish, they leave, allowing someone from the outer circle to sit down and participate in the discussion. Those on the outside circle are observers of the conversation if they don’t wish to participate.

Hackathon: Introduce an issue that is common to the industry and split into teams to design an innovative solution, leaving time for each group to present their idea to the room. Make it competitive by introducing voting and prizes. Make it more interactive by allowing groups to “yes, and” to build on each group’s idea.

Exciting Start: Consider the registration area your first chance to impact attendees, who more than likely just traveled to get to your event. Jennings saw this idea from Connect Marketplace, a conference for meetings and events professionals, a few years ago. Use the registration space as a reception with music and some fun, unexpected activities. Jennings has served ice cream and has even brought in puppies. “Traveling is such a bear,” she said, “so just doing something to alleviate that within your first touch point of the conference ends up setting a really nice tone.”

Stay tuned for insights on the new ideas Association Forum is testing at this year’s Holiday Showcase® Incubate, including the Tomorrow is Now pavilion and the One Idea Can Change the World stage. We will report on how these and other changes were received, as well as the lessons learned to help further innovation within the association community.

About the Author

Nikki is a strategist at Association Laboratory. She is also on Association Forum’s Board of Directors and board liaison to the Content Working Group.

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