Archive for the 'Best Practices' Category


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 – August edition

Heidi Letzmann

Heidi Letzmann, education and programs manager, American Association of Law Libraries

Q & A with Heidi Letzmann, education and programs manager, American Association of Law Libraries

Q: If you had to choose another career path, what would it be, and why?
A: My mom always tells me I missed my calling as a meteorologist since I’m endlessly fascinated by the weather.

Q: What movie best sums up your life, and why?
A: Whoa – I’m not prepared to “sum up” my life just yet, but themes of whimsy, courage and destiny really appeal to me in “Amélie,” “Antonia’s Line” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”

Q: If you could spend the day with a famous person, who would it be, and why?
A: It would be wild to spend a day with Dorothy Parker.

Q: Let’s say you had a locket. Whose picture would be in it?
A: Another tough one. Probably why I don’t have a locket.

Q: Are you a night owl or a morning dove?
A: I’m turning into a reluctant morning dove, wishing I could stay up all night, but realizing that I perform better in the morning.


Left brain vs. right brain: Which wins the event planning game?

Brain hemispheres sketchSo apparently I’m right brained. At least according to this test.

I guess that’s not surprising considering I’m a writer. But I’m also extremely detail-oriented and analyze everything, so I think I’m a good mix. Yeah. I’ll go with that.

While most people think with mostly their left side or mostly their right side, it’s crucial to have a bit of both.

And so, I encourage you to take the aforementioned into account after reading this sentence: New research by London and Partners, the official convention bureau of London, and indicates that event planners aren’t as creative as they thought.

Yep. Research suggests the event management industry is filled with left-brained thinkers.

Samantha Whitehorne recently wrote an enlightening Associations Now blog post on the research. And I encourage you fellow right-brain thinkers to get a chuckle from it.

For the study, more than 400 event planners had their brains analyzed to see if they’re more “rationale left brained” or “emotional right brained” thinkers. And while most felt they performed their jobs creatively, only 39 percent were indeed considered creative thinkers.

Maybe that’s because, according to the study, only 34 percent of respondents said they’re given time to think out of the box and only 32 percent said creativity is rewarded. Furthermore, more than half of the respondents said the budget just didn’t support risk taking.

2000px-Rubik's_cube.svg“Ours is an industry within which logic and in-depth planning are absolutely critical to successful outcomes,” said Tracy Halliwell, director of business tourism and major events at London and Partners. “Creativity and innovation are growing ever more important as clients demand event activations that set them apart from their competitors and deliver enduring memories for consumers. The experience itself is now what drives the event, but it’s only by combining pioneering ideas with concrete solutions that we can truly surprise and delight.”

So what does the right brain vs. left brain debate mean for event planning?

Here’s a good summary from Cathy Key in a recent Event Manager blog post:

Left-brained people tend to be detail oriented and thrive on data. So event ROI is important. Also, they don’t like to take risks, so most likely, they’ll create a road map for events.

In contrast, right-brain thinkers bring to the table a flare for ingenuity and creativity. They look at the big picture and thrive on feedback and emotion to measure success. Event ROI is less important to right-brain people, who are willing to trust their gut instinct.

“While we need the analysis and fact-finding powers of the left brain, when it comes to motivating our team, ourselves and our attendees, we need right-brain thinking,” Key wrote. “We need to have an emotional connection to our events if we are going to really enjoy our work. When we are connected to WHY we are involved with an event, working late nights and pulling out all the stops is natural. Without the WHY all you have is hard work.”

Another way to look at it: The left side of the brain sets the goals and the right side finds the purpose.

creativity2But a good event planner needs to think with both sides of the brain. While creativity reaps huge rewards, we need left-brain thinkers to keep us in check. And so, event management teams should comprise both types of thinkers.

“While time constraints and restricted budgets can sometimes hinder creativity, a balance is always needed between the creative and the logical,” said Chetan Shah, founder and CEO of “Great teams bring together a mix of personalities, approaches to work and creative or logical attributes. Whether someone is left or right-brained, their attributes and strengths should be encouraged and nurtured to ensure their events are spectacular, both rationally and emotionally.”

Take the test and let us know. Are you left- or right-brained?


Bonus content – Event Garde e-news May edition

Bonnifer BallardQ & A with Bonnifer Ballard, executive director, Michigan Section, American Water Works Association

Q: If you could have any question answered, what would it be?
A: I like that we don’t have all the answers. I like the process of discovery. But if I could choose to read just one answer from the “back of the book,” the one thing I would ask is, “Is time travel possible?”

Q: If you could have one wish, what would it be?
A: Wow, this is tough. So much to wish for! I guess if I only had one, it would be that everyone on the planet has a safe place to live and not be hungry. What a different world it would be!

 Q: If you could invite four famous people to dinner, who would you choose and why?
Albert Einstein, Maya Angelou, Eleanor Roosevelt and Neil deGrasse Tyson. What amazing conversation we could have!

Q: If you could learn any skill, what would it be?
A: There is still so much I need to learn. And I like learning new things. So those that are really important to me are already on the list. However, the one skill that seems to elude me consistently is the use of tools. Power tools, manual tools, it doesn’t matter; I just don’t seem to have the knack for hitting a nail on the head, drilling a screw into wood or turning a bolt. It’s a struggle every time I pick up a tool. My brain understands but my hands don’t follow. It’s very frustrating.

Q: If you could live anywhere in the world, where would you live?
A: I like living in Michigan. We just moved back last year after living in Chicago for 15 years and I’m loving it. I guess if I could move my family with me, and money were no object, I would choose a beach with warm water, cool nights, no mosquitoes and no hurricanes or tsunamis. Is there such a place?


Bonus Content – Event Garde e-news – April edition

Jeff Hurt

Jeff Hurt, executive vice president, education and engagement, for Velvet Chainsaw Consulting. Photo courtesy of Jeff Hurt.

Q & A with Jeff Hurt, Executive Vice President, Education and Engagement, Velvet Chainsaw Consulting

Q: It’s a Saturday night. What would we most likely find you doing?
A: Catching up on a favorite series like “House of Cards,” “Orange Is The New Black,” “Scandal” or “How To Get Away With Murder” before I go out with a few friends for a quick dinner.

Q: If you had to title a book that best sums up your life, what would it be?
A: “From The Mixed Up Files of Windomere Ave.”

Q: What’s the one thing you couldn’t live without, and why?
A: Family and friends. We are wired to connect and I need their support, love and hugs often. I travel so much and give so much of my life away that I return home tired and emotionally drained. I need people surrounding me who will love and support me, even with all my cracks and imperfections.

Q: It’s a beautiful summer day and you’re relaxing in the park. Who do you hope sits next to you on the park bench, and why?
A: A total stranger who is willing to share something amazing and beautiful from his or her life.

Q: Tell us a little known fact about you – what makes you, you.
A: My waters run deep and I’m an introvert who has learned to be extroverted when needed. That being said, I spent four months as a rock and roll roadie running audio visual and sound for an unknown regional band.


Your next event needs its own War Room

This month’s guest blog post is by Jordan McArthur, content marketing manager and event tech specialist at Guidebook Inc., which specializes in providing app technology for events. It was originally posted on the Guidebook Resources blog.

Jordan McArthur

Jordan McArthur, content marketing manager and event tech specialist at Guidebook Inc.

As we discuss ways to make events extremely personal and give our attendees true experiences that exceed their expectations, it’s hard not to wonder, “What do the actual logistics of something like that that look like?”

That’s where the concept of The War Room comes into play. That’s right – we’re talking about a central command center where all hell can break loose if it needs to. Just like in the movies.

A war room might be metaphorical at your next event – the name of your emergency game plan, for instance – but we’re suggesting you strongly consider an actual room. Choose somewhere out of the way – a utility closet, a hotel room, a conference room in the next building over – where a team of first-responders can work without the distractions of the event floor.

You’ll also want to make sure you’ve limited access to (and knowledge of) the room itself. This is not the place for the CEO – that will only cause major distractions and may entirely derail the whole operation.

Let’s be clear what we’re creating here. A war room exists at your event for the benefit of your participants. It is solely focused on making sure that the product you’re providing them is seamless, meaningful and tailored to their specific needs. A war room is a nerve center that can immediately and efficiently address the needs of your attendees and/or exhibitors, and it has grown out of an ever-growing expectation that events and meetings will be engaging, dynamic experiences.

Let’s take a look at the type of war room you might want to set up at your next event.

The Social Media Command Center

Your event will be social whether you plan for it or not. The fact of the matter is that people talk about their experiences on social media – all of their experiences.

Establishing a Social Media Command Center means that you’ve embraced social and taken a proactive role in guiding the conversation, rather than falling victim to it.

Talk to your participants

Conversation tracking can be done as simply as establishing an event hashtag to as robustly as using detailed visualization software (such as Buzz Radar). The key, however, is staffing people who are primed to respond no matter the circumstances.

Negative social conversation can alert you to a small problem before it becomes a big problem. For example, your attendees are likely to be the ones to tell you first if it’s too cold in the keynote. People may be discussing confusing traffic patterns or a lack of trash cans – all things that can easily be remedied.

But just as important as tracking the negative is responding to the positive. Liking, commenting on, favoriting and retweeting sentiments from your attendees will create a positive feedback loop and encourage more and more of your attendees to join in on the love fest – and that’s good for you, your brand and your ROI.

PrintCustomize your content

Now here’s where you can really take things to the next level. What if the social conversation started shaping the content of your event? With your Social Media Command Center in place, you have the ability to start dynamically integrating your attendees’ real time conversations into the event itself.

Knowing what’s being said means that a mainstage presentation can suddenly become interactive with immediate audience feedback – or that you could actually start shaping content on the fly based on what people want to hear about. Let your attendees vote on a session’s topic, or really live on the edge and leave a blank spot in your speaker schedule to develop a day-of session based on hot topics at the event. At the very least, curate the best of your social shares on a large screen in plain view so that people are inspired to join in.

The Crisis Management Center

There are going to be mistakes and mess-ups. Let’s all just admit that now and move on with figuring out the best way to handle them.

A Crisis Management Center is the most covert of all the war rooms. Its existence is known to few, and some of your most trusted people are there to make sure that anything that goes wrong is immediately taken care of in a way that draws little to no attention.

A Crisis Management Center will need a direct line of communication with the show floor. (May we suggest the app Voxer?) Once they’ve been linked in to monitoring the most important aspects of the event – time, flow, social, etc. – they should have the authority to make judgment calls as incidents arise.

One of the most powerful responsibilities of the Crisis Management Center will be the ability to actually change the program of your event. It may be as simple as a session time change, but it could be as complex as scheduling a completely new session and alerting attendees of its existence.

For this reason, it’s imperative that the Crisis Management Center has access to updating your event app. By doing so, attendees will always have the most up-to-date information and the team can send push messages as necessary to alert folks of the changes.

The Concierge Center

War rooms aren’t just for immediate reactions and handling problems – they’re also great for making the experience of your event excellent for everyone involved. A proactive mindset can go a long way toward making sure your participants are receiving the personal, experiential treatment.

Happiness on-demand

One possibility for a Concierge Center would be to create an on-demand service for your exhibitors using your event app. It’s inevitable that someone’s going to forget his or her charger or need a roll of duct tape. Allow yourself to save the day by being the provider of such things. Create a feedback form within your app where exhibitors can request commonly misplaced or forgotten items.

You could even take a cue from Uber and deliver fun items for a much-needed mid-show reprieve. Uber made headlines with its insanely popular kitten delivery and on-demand ice cream. Just imagine the wave of positive feelings that instant chocolate delivery would induce in your exhibitors, all at a relatively low cost to you.

banner_customer_serviceContests with purpose

Contests are a great way to get people engaging as well. You might try gamifying your event app in order to get people to follow a particular pattern around your show floor. Another option is to gather prizes beforehand that you know you will give away during the event. Then use your Concierge Center to identify certain objectives you would like people to complete and offer prizes for doing so. Use this to bring foot traffic to a dead area or engage with a sponsor that’s not getting enough love. It’s all about flexibility.

Unparalleled experience

The bottom line is that personalized events take resources. It’s going to cost you a little time, money and manpower to pull off any sort of hyper-personal experience. The payoffs in participant happiness and ROI, however, will be well beyond the upfront costs. Consider the war room structure at your next event and you’ll be looking at unprecedented satisfaction.

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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