Reviving a Culture of Live Event Attendance

By Shane Johnson, JD, CAE, Chief Operating Officer, Cape Fear REALTORS®, N.C.

When I was a young boy, when school was out for summer, Thursdays were for lunch with Grandpa at the VFW Hall. After a flurry of handshaking in a sea of bobbing green garrison caps, we'd pray, salute the flag, and eat. One thing that had not faded through the years was the strong sense of welcome and camaraderie at each gathering. Grandpa rarely missed the weekly meetings. When they closed the lid on his coffin, his VFW cap was tucked under his arm.

What compelled a busy father of four and business owner to eat a ham sandwich and potato salad with the same group every week? Perhaps patriotism, but I believe it was more. Grandpa was equally adherent to regular calls by the Kiwanis Club and Zion Lutheran church. He was a joiner, "part of the Greatest Generation that regularly attended meetings as an accepted, almost dutiful, role in society. In large measure, associations were built on this societal norm.

Technology replaces in-person experiences

Baby boomers like me were influenced by our parents and grandparents, but then technology created an addictive alternative: the internet. Associations have struggled in recent decades with attendance at live events. Amid the digital onslaught, many questioned the way forward. How should nonprofits shift or evolve to remain relevant?

"Seven or eight years ago, in the face of declining attendance and new norms, industry leaders began looking at ways to address an apparent shift online for community-building," says Reggie Henry, chief information and engagement officer at the American Society of Association Executives. "Members appeared to be abandoning in-person experiences for digital touch. Many organizations adapted accordingly, with some overcorrecting, during this period."

I experienced this trend as an AE. At Cape Fear REALTORS®, N.C., our hosted annual events that once had strong attendance began to falter. Instead of regularly drawing 15 to 25 percent of membership as in earlier decades, by 2010 only 5 percent would attend.

Certainly, baby boomers and Generation Xers were busy, and the internet made it possible for them to network online with fellow REALTORS®, receive association information and services, and participate in elections, advocacy, and community outreach without attending events in person. Associations responded by investing more time and money into online engagement including social media, blogs, and online education.

But millennials (ages 22 to 37) have different ideas, and they're having an effect on the rest of us.

Millennials bring it back to basics with in-person participation

A 2017 poll of adults in the U.S., conducted by event technology platform Eventbrite (in partnership with Ipsos and Crowd DNA) found that millennials, often referred to as the "experience generation," continue to be the driving force behind the growing attendance at a diverse range of live events. Although millennials rely heavily on technology, they are also the strongest believers in face-to-face interaction: 9 out of 10 millennials have attended at least one live event within the past 12 months. Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) believe that attending a live event is the best way to show others what they are interested in, the survey found.

Similarly, while many people build their personal brand online, millennials view attending live events as a powerful way to express themselves, with 73 percent saying attending a live event is a form of self-expression, versus just 48 percent of other generations.

At the Charleston Trident Association of REALTORS®, attendance at the annual Residential Market Update has nearly doubled in the last five years since the association made an effort to attract millennials, says CEO Wil Riley. Riley notes that content is key to connecting with members and for millennials, the value proposition needs to include a philanthropic component and a business or personal improvement portion. "New-member attendance has increased, which I believe is a result of both an improved value offering and focused marketing."

Live events, "giving back" increases attendance

That same approach has allowed Cape Fear to grow a culture of attendance. Tapping into this desire for live events, and adding a dose of "giving back," Cape Fear launched REALTOR® Action Day in 2015. The first year͛s goal was 300 participants—we had 400. Each year the event has grown. This year, the goal is 750 participants, with 25 activities ranging from planting sea oats for stabilizing coastal dunes, to visiting senior centers.

Granted, the real estate industry has improved during that same cycle, yet an increasing percentage of event seats are being warmed by 20- and 30-year-olds. This is contrary to what many professionals have been led to believe about the "non-joining" generations.

"We͛ve found that younger generations are highly interested in participation," says Charlotte Regional REALTOR® Association CEO AnneMarie DeCatsye. "They do things differently than their parents, value time differently, and look for specific end results. We͛ve had a great response by listening to members of various generations and then creating activities that address these needs, sometimes together, sometimes separately. A couple of years ago, we began a 5K called Strides for Shelter to raise money for housing, and while most of last year͛s 450 participants were younger, it engages an important segment of membership."

The events millennials prefer—highly personal, short and focused, charitable and fun—are affecting associations' programming. "We just scheduled a two-hour TED talk-style YPN knowledge session at our next convention with a networking event in the evening," says Michigan REALTORS®͛ Communication Director Joe Kras. "Our state YPN committee suggested topics like how to prepare for filing your taxes, investing in your future, and establishing write-offs, rather than the typical topics such as sales and marketing tips."

At Cape Fear, we're launching a micro-volunteering program to provide members the chance to volunteer for an hour or two at a time on small projects or events instead of requiring a year-long commitment in joining a committee.

Keeping it current

Jenny Gailey, communications and professional development director at Rockford Area REALTORS®, Ill., says more younger members attend events because fellow young members are planning the content. "Our YPN is very active and the events they host—Epic Water Battle, Boo Bash, Rock the Block—are all very well-attended by [the general membership]. In fact, we've had other committees ask the YPN council to help promote or partner on events because they know how to draw crowds. Our YPN council members try to personally invite members to events instead of just relying on email blasts or Facebook invites. It͛s been really encouraging to see the spark back in our association."

Maintaining relevance is a balance of engaging online and in-person, says ASAE's Henry. "[Relevance] requires leadership to reevaluate its view of membership, offering new ways to engage with members beyond the old committee structure."

Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat will continue to be part of the membership equation. Clearly, both young and old understand that there is no replacement for face-to-face encounters. If you create the right environment, momentum will fuel an irresistible return of members to in-person experiences—with or without potato salad.

Millennials, often referred to as the "experience generation," continue to be the driving force behind the growing attendance at a diverse range of live events. Although millennials rely heavily on technology, they are also the strongest believers in face-to-face interaction: 9 out of 10 millennials have attended at least one live event within the past 12 months.

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