Author Archive for Kristen Parker


Time to cut the fat

cutting-fat-thumb18752006Like most businesses, associations have a lot of bulk. Maybe that’s because it’s hard to trim the fat.

That said, eliminating wasted efforts and minimizing defects can lead to new products and innovations, according to a new whitepaper by Elizabeth Engel, CEO and chief strategist for Spark Consulting, and Guillermo Ortiz de Zarate, director of information systems for National Council of Architectural Registration Boards.

From the whitepaper: “Is there a process that can help associations achieve our missions, stay in business, find problems worth solving and make a real and meaningful difference for our members, achieving the sustainable, dynamic impact we seek? Your authors would argue that there is: lean startup methodology, as most fully developed and articulated by Eric Ries in his 2011 book ‘The Lean Startup.’”

Elizabeth Engel

Elizabeth Engel, CEO and chief strategist for Spark Consulting, LLC.

I asked Engel to break it down for us, and following is our Q & A. Thanks to Engel for her contribution!

Q: How would you simply explain lean startup methodology?
A: Lean startup is an innovation system developed by Eric Ries that came out of his experiences with lean process improvement, which is all about reducing waste and defects and working more efficiently and effectively. Ries had an insight: It doesn’t matter how quickly you’re moving if you’re headed in the wrong direction.

Lean startup methodology is designed to help make sure you’re going the right way and going there quickly and efficiently.

Q: Why is it important?
A: To quote Guillermo Ortiz de Zarate, my co-author, “There’s no bigger waste than investing resources working on the wrong thing.”

Lean startup methodology has been being used not just in startups, but also in more conventional for-profit business, for several years. And that makes it easy for associations to dismiss: “We aren’t a startup – or even a for-profit. This isn’t for us.”

Guillermo and I would argue that associations share a key characteristic with startups: tight resources (and by that, we mean human as well as financial resources). Those perpetually tight resources are precisely why this methodology is so useful for our community.

Q: How do you think associations, specifically, could benefit from practicing this methodology?
A: In associations, decision-making is often driven by anecdotes, untested assumptions and the HIPO (highest income/influence person’s opinion). “One of our board members talked to a member who said she wants X so therefore everyone must want X and therefore we have to go build X immediately.”

But are you sure you’re solving a real problem that’s important to at least one of your key audiences, in a way that’s useful and makes sense to them – and that they’re willing to pay?


Guillermo Ortiz de Zarate, director of information systems for National Council of Architectural Registration Boards.

That very situation was what sparked Guillermo’s interest in lean startup methodology. His association, the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, is one of the case studies in the whitepaper, and he relates two stories: one of a project that took place before NCARB starting using lean startup that was NOT the right problem, the right audience or the right solution; the second of a project after NCARB “saw the light” that was far more successful for them.

Q: Walk me through the build-measure-learn cycle…what’s involved?
A: The build-measure-learn cycle is the core of the methodology.

In lean startup, you build first. That means you’re trying to get the Minimum Viable Product (that is, the minimum version of the product you can build with the smallest investment of resources and effort that would still be real enough to let you start testing your assumptions) out to your audience as quickly as possible. No theorizing or speculating, no “stealth mode,” no working for two years on creating the absolute perfect thing (that you then discover no one wants). You build a prototype and get people using it and offering feedback as quickly as you can and with as small an investment of resources as possible.

Next, you measure. You’ve identified a problem you think might be worth solving, and you have a hypothesis about what the right solution might be. Now you have to test whether your hypothesis is correct. You have to identify and track a few key measures that will prove – or disprove – your theory.

That testing leads to learning. Did you identify something that’s a real and important problem? Are you targeting your solution at the right audience? Does your solution work and make sense for them, at a price they’re willing to pay?

The only way to reliably answer those questions is to let people use your product and find out what they think and how they act. That information feeds back to your team so you can get closer to where you should be going in your next MVP iteration.

Q: Change can be scary. So what do you think is the best first step?
A: First of all, the whitepaper is just a primer on lean startup methodology and is designed to introduce the concept to association executives and hopefully pique their interest in learning more. If that’s you, I’d strongly encourage you to read some of the more extensive treatments of lean startup we share in the bibliography, to get some formal training (and we share sources in the conclusion) or to join a local lean startup MeetUp group for peer-to-peer learning.

Beyond that, start small, with something that lies completely in your own area of responsibility and is relatively low profile. Once you have a few examples of how the methodology works, it’s time to start sharing your story.

Q: Let’s say associations are ready to start with lean. How do they achieve buy in from the board of directors? members? staff?
A: It’s all about being able to demonstrate that the methodology works, which is different from building the perfect product right out of the gate.

To quote two of the other key thinkers in lean startup, Nathan Furr and Jeff Dyer: “It’s liberating to recognize that no human being can guess correctly when you face uncertainty, and that part of the process is making changes to adjust to these inevitable errors.”

That’s what’s so powerful about lean startup: You are not going to get it right all the time. This methodology is built on that fact and structured to help you move as quickly and efficiently as possible from “here’s an interesting idea” to “here’s a program, product or service that we know – because we’ve been testing it all along the way – our audiences want, need, will use and will pay for.”

LeanstartupQ: And finally, what are two or three takeaways from your research that you’d like to share?
A: I’d strongly encourage people to download the whitepaper – it’s free – and read the stories of four associations we interviewed, all of which are using lean startup. It’s eye opening to see how this methodology works in real situations, where your peers are using it to help their organizations provide better service for their members and other audiences and invest their resources more efficiently and effectively.

Second, one of the concerns we’ve heard over and over from associations is: “What about our brand?” Again, quoting Guillermo: “In associations, we tend to worry that releasing a half-baked program will negatively impact the brand. I would argue that doing the same thing year after year without changing also negatively impacts your brand.”

Also, you have to realize that lean startup may not be suitable for every single initiative of your association or for every single audience – it’s hard to create a Minimum Viable Certification. Some of your members will not be O.K. with beta-testing a new product for you. But some will love that and leap at the opportunity to co-create a new service with the association. It’s up to you to find those people, who are your champions and allies in this.


A look back at 2015


IHS group

From left to right: Jenny Hill, Aaron Wolowiec and Cally Hill

As Thanksgiving approaches, it’s time for us at Event Garde to reflect on the many things for which we’re thankful.

From education to content creation, we’ve had a successful year and have experienced tremendous growth.

And we owe much of that to you. Thank you for trusting us to help you learn, network and transfer differently. (See more on this below).

This year end report is just a smattering of the successes we’ve achieved. It’s hard to quantify those day-to-day “ah-ha” moments, but we hope you enjoy this glance at our 2015.

We look forward to spending 2016 with you, and can’t wait to see what’s in store!

Here’s a look at 2015:

communication_strategy_01Marketing and Communications

In September, Event Garde held a marketing and communications retreat in which we discussed our communications strategy and marketing goals. With so many moving parts and pieces throughout the last year, it was time to reflect on our brand.

So we asked ourselves: What have we become? How are we different from our competitors?

Thus the birth of our new tagline: Learn. Network. Transfer.

Learn – We are educators and we are educated. As responsible contributors to our industry, we participate in professional development while also planning it.

Network – We plan events and programs with an emphasis on providing networking environments and opportunities for program attendees and participants. And individually, we belong to networks and organizations that enhance our personal and professional goals.

Transfer – We realize the needs and wants of an industry that experiences ups and downs and use our collective and individual experiences and knowledge to foster performance improvement.

As for personality, here’s a list of words we think describes us:

  • Authentic
  • Capacity-building
  • Client-oriented
  • Detailed
  • Knowledge-seeking
  • Leading-edge
  • Tenacious

Next month, we’ll be discussing how to implement our marketing and communications plan. So stay tuned.

airplane wing

A view from one of Aaron’s many flights

Speaking engagements

This year, Aaron spent many hours on an airplane for speaking engagements. From Atlanta to Florida to Michigan, Aaron spoke at 25 events on a range of topics. Audience size varied from three to 144, but in total, Aaron spoke to more than 1,200 people. Some of the topics: learning/how the brain learns; how to improve conferences and events; and membership.

And here’s what some people had to say:

“Aaron is knowledgeable and engaging.”

“This is the first webinar I actually paid attention to throughout the whole hour.”

“Very engaging, personable, knowledgeable, understood his market, well prepared, very good at herding cats, great content, well-presented. Kept us engaged and moving.”

EG relay for life team

The Event Garde Relay for Life team

Professional development and community engagement

As stated above, we’re lifelong learners, so the staff of Event Garde attended 28 professional development sessions this year, with topics ranging from instructional design to volunteer training to conference presentations.

At the same time, we value the communities in which we live, work and play. And we understand the importance of giving back. So again this year, Event Garde sponsored a Relay for Life team, walking 24 hours around the track at East Lansing High School in recognition of those fighting cancer, in honor of those who’ve triumphed and in remembrance of those who’ve lost their battles.


In 2015, Event Garde produced 50 blog posts. Kristen Parker contributed most of the content, but Aaron wrote posts at the beginning of each month and each month we featured guest bloggers.

On average, blog posts received about 220 views and the site averaged about 200 visitors per month. Topics of the posts varied, but the most popular seemed to be those focused on hotels – rates and room blocks, specifically.

In addition, Event Garde published a newsletter each month, with an average open rate of 600. As an education resource, each newsletter included links to stories or blog posts we found inspiring and informative. In addition, we featured “bright ideas,” in each newsletter and, of course, an Event Garde-ian of the Month.

Throughout the year, niche media publications re-printed blog posts from Kristen and Aaron, quoted Aaron as expert or included written pieces by Aaron. Key media hits include Michigan Meetings + Events, Naylor Publications, Associations Now, Biz Bash, MSAE Association Impact and TSAE Association News.

Here’s a look at some of the media hits:

Meetings and Conventions

Pure Reinvention podcast

Associations Now

Michigan Meetings & Events

new house

Aaron’s new home and Event Garde’s new headquarters

New headquarters
And finally… Event Garde got a new headquarters this year!

Aaron bought a new house in Kalamazoo, which will serve as Event Garde’s new home.


Bonus content – Event Garde e-news – November edition

Tracy King

Tracy King, chief learning strategist, InspirEd LLC

Editor’s Note: This is our Thanksgiving edition of Event Garde-ian of the Month!

Q & A with Tracy King, chief learning strategist, InspirEd LLC

Q: For what are you most thankful?
A: I am so thankful for my four beautiful children, family and friends – sharing love, laughter, good food and shenanigans!

Q: Are you a Black Friday shopper or sleeper?
A: Sleeper! I’m more of a Cyber Monday shopper.

Q: Which Thanksgiving dish do you most crave, and why?
A: Turkey, gravy and garlic smashed cheesy potatoes. I love to cook Thanksgiving dinner for my family and incorporate their favorite sides. These are our fundamentals!

Q: Tell us about one of your holiday traditions.
A: Our family likes to put up our Christmas tree Thanksgiving weekend, pulling out all of our favorite ornaments and the stories they represent. I pick up an ornament whenever we travel someplace special and each year I tuck an individualized picture ornament in my kids’ stockings. Our tree has become a photo album of memories celebrating our family.

Q: Looking ahead, what do you hope for 2016?
A: I hope to complete the first draft of a book I’m working on and take a “real” vacation!


Training truths be told

Can the color of a marker really make a difference in how we learn?

Yes, according to research.

But it’s not necessarily the color. Instead, it’s choosing the color.

“Research shows that giving learners choices – even seemingly trivial ones – can improve performance,” said Stephen Meyer, president and CEO of Rapid Learning Institute. “Bottom line: Embed choices into the learning process, even if they don’t seem meaningful. It’s easy to assume these choices don’t matter, but they engage learners and cost nothing.”

He recently released an e-book, “10 Truths about Workplace Training…that just ain’t so,” which debunks myths surrounding workplace training. Such training, Meyer says, correlates with the ways in which humans learn and the ways in which our brains are wired.

Back to markers (read: choice). Meyer lists four training recommendations regarding choice: Even small choices, like choosing time and location of a training session, will produce results; allow learners to personalize their approach to training; have fun – let trainees choose the kind of candy they get as a reward; and be careful – providing too much choice will backfire.

My other favorite “myth:” Not everything you’ve learned is forever etched in your brain. Case in point: I struggle to help my eighth grader with geometry!

Meyer points to research by neuroscientists about “encoding,” in which the brain decides what’s important enough to retain. And so, when it comes to training, your pupils’ brains will decide what sticks and what doesn’t. According to researchers there are four important cues: social context, activity, connection to existing knowledge and repetition. As such, trainers should integrate these strategies into their methods and curricula.

What does this mean?

Social – Human beings are social creatures, so by creating social situations – rather than just giving lectures and presentations – people are more apt to retain information. So…try role-playing.

Active learning – Rather than expecting your participants to simply memorize and recite lists, put them through a sample exercise.

Existing knowledge – Tie new ideas into familiar concepts and language.

Repetition – While no one wants to beat a dead horse, repetition is important. So, after you teach a lesson, incorporate key messages into following lessons.

training_1The eight other truths:

  • Assessments aren’t just for scoring; they motivate people to learn.
  • Complex concepts can be taught in small bites.
  • Learners who struggle remember more.
  • Sometimes people remember and learn more by watching trainers do things incorrectly.
  • You can train people to perform – and learn – under pressure.
  • People will change their minds if you get them to see the truth. Visuals, such as charts and graphs, work well.
  • Mental rehearsal works just as well as physical performance.
  • Reinforce concepts. Don’t let learners forget.

“When it comes to learning, there are a lot of misconceptions,” Meyer said. “People have different learning styles. Not exactly. Learners are either ‘right brain’ or ‘left brain.’ Nope. We sometimes forget stuff because we only use 10 percent of our brains, right? Wrong. A mix of myth and antiquated science leads us to believe a whole lot about learning that just isn’t accurate.”

At Event Garde, we educate ourselves on how people learn so we can effectively teach. If you’ve got other research to share, please email Kristen at


Small but mighty meetings

cwmeeting1.jpg.441x331_defaultThink back to your college days. Remember those massively packed, overwhelming lecture halls? Was it hard to pay attention? Did you feel like a minnow in a sea of students swimming upstream?

I did.

Then, think back to your smaller classes (even if that only happened in high school). Wasn’t it easier to focus? Didn’t you feel a bit more important when the professor/teacher actually saw your hand…and called on you?

Now apply those same scenarios to the workplace. How much do you really get done in hugely packed meeting rooms?

When it comes to strategy and long-term planning, small groups are much more effective. Confidence is higher. Communication flows.

And so, it makes sense that in a recent Successful Meetings survey on small meeting trends for this year, event professionals ranked strategizing as the best goal for small meetings. Training came in a close second and team building took the No. 3 spot.

Also in the survey, Successful Meetings members viewed meetings with 25 people or fewer as “small meetings.”

As for location? A city center took the top spot. Think place-based education, yes? Hosting small meetings allow organizations to showcase local hot spots – and yes, even a favorite eatery works. But resort and hotels nearly tied for second and third place favorites.

However, surprisingly, 46 percent of respondents indicated they don’t use social media for small meetings. Perhaps that’s because face-to-face interaction is conducive to small settings, but it seems social media should have a presence, regardless of size. At the same time, 70 percent of survey participants indicated they don’t offer online components.

That said, of those who indicated they employ social media for small meetings, Facebook was the most common platform. Members ranked LinkedIn and Twitter as second and third.

The biggest challenge to small meetings planning? Room negotiation rates. Finding available dates presents the second largest challenge, followed by securing suitable function space onsite.

So what do you think? What trends do you predict for small meetings in 2016?


Bonus content – Event Garde e-news – October edition

Kate Pojeta, conventions and exhibitions manager

Kate Pojeta, conventions and exhibitions manager

Q & A with Kate Pojeta, conventions and exhibitions manager, Event Garde

Q: What are you looking most forward to in your role with EG?
A: Event Garde has some amazing clients and I’m excited to be on the team to help conventions succeed. Conference planning was a part of my work experience for years, and then I took a little hiatus from it. I missed it, yet was able to work with some of my clients on small bits and pieces of their conferences. Now in the role of conventions and exhibitions manager, I’m looking forward to being involved in the full process and experience again.

Q: Give us one little known fact about you.
A: I earned my degree in deaf education from Michigan State University but never used it, as I was working in the association industry at the time. However, I have spent years teaching “Baby Signs” to families around Michigan, and I am an instructor for American Sign Language through Michigan Virtual University.

Q: Which season represents you best, and why?
A: Fall! It’s cozy (hot cider anyone?) and I love being cozy, and because it’s such a variety of colors. Fall speaks to the variety of skill sets I’ve acquired through some unique careers and job opportunities throughout the years.

Q: If you could spend the day with a famous person, who would it be, and why?
A: I’m going to extend the question to include “living or deceased” and pick Franklin D. Roosevelt. He would be incredibly interesting to converse with about the many political and societal changes he made while in office. I find his life work, and that of his wife, inspiring. Our third son was born with a birth defect that resulted in partial paralysis of his lower legs and overall weakness in the lower half of his body, so I would love to learn more from FDR about his experiences and struggles living with considerable physical challenges, especially given the demands of being president.

Q: It’s a Friday night…what would we find you doing?
A: My husband and I have four kids, 6 years and under, so Friday nights are often spent at home! We’re exhausted from the week and usually have busy weekends. Friday nights we try to lay low so you would probably find our family watching a movie and snacking on popcorn until the kids go to bed. Then, depending on our own level of sleepiness, we might attempt housecleaning or some end-of-the-week work or we might just stay on the couch and relax until we fall asleep or one of the kids wakes back up!


Cool app! Now what?

5-steps-to-launch-checklist(infographic)It seems there’s an app for everything, right?

Meeting and event professionals are raving about event apps, which allow everything from registration to hotel check-in to real-time social media conversation.

But if no one knows about an app, it’s worthless. The trick, according to Results at Hand, is to promote it.

Results at Hand just released “5 Steps to Successfully Launch an Event App,” an infographic with tips for gaining loyal app lovers.

The five steps: email marketing; website; publications; social media; and venue signage.

Think about these “steps” as touch points – the vehicles through which you reach your event attendees. While text can be different depending on the audience – you probably want fun text for social media but serious for your website – the goal should be the same: promote.

Email marketing

Email is an effective way to reach a large group of people, and with email, you can provide event participants with directions about how to use the app. Start with your registration list, but also, when you email people about attending an event, make sure to plug your app.

Thanks to Google, a company’s website is probably the first place event attendees looking for details will visit. So create a new section with details about the app. Or, better yet, let them download it from the website.

All written communications should include information about the app, especially program materials. For event guides, explain to attendees how to get the event schedule via your app. Or write a feature story about the app in your trade magazine.

Social media
Messaging may be different across social media platforms, but leading up to the event, use social networks to share app tips and submit feedback.
Tip from Results at Hand: Remember to have fun with your posts! Run a contest, start discussions, share setup pics and shout out to your speakers.

Venue signage
Signage should be placed around the venue and should display download instructions for the app as well as QR codes.

meet aaron

Association learning strategist & meetings coach. Founder & president of Event Garde. Passionate about cooking, running, blogging, old homes, unclehood & pet parenting (thanks to Lillie the pup).

meet kristen

Writer, editor, public relations professional. Digital content manager. Proud mom of three. Total word geek. Spartan for life.

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