Associations and professional societies have an inherent contradiction. On the one hand, associations are a collection of members who share common goals. On the other hand, associations are composed of people or businesses who are all, in one way or another, competing against each other for jobs or customers.

But that sense of competition tends to disappear (or at least lessen) when members get the opportunity to reconnect with one another at a conference or event. When that sense of competition is lessened through the magic of face-to-face interaction, members often feel free to share best practices and resources with each other, and the sharing of best practices is often one of the biggest reasons why members attend your association’s conferences and events.

While that sort of sharing often happens organically, there are a few things your association or society can do to help foster value-added interactions between members.

1. Design sessions with the specific intent of sharing best practices.

One of the most innovative sessions we’ve seen occurred during a conference focused on middle-market automotive parts manufacturers. In plain English, that means this session happened at an event focused on businesses in a very competitive industry known for having sharp elbows. There was nothing touchy-feely about the individuals or the companies in this association.

Yet, one after another, several attendees at this conference stepped up to a microphone and shared a best practice, resource, or other bit of insight they had learned since the last event. Of course, they weren’t sharing information that would give away a competitive advantage, but this association had worked hard to create a culture of comradery, and as a result, members felt comfortable sharing information with one another.

It also wasn’t a coincidence that this event sold out every year, and the session on shared best practices was standing room only.

2. Give your members time to connect with each other.

Event planners and conference committees can easily fall into the trap of packing a conference with so many sessions that it reduces opportunities for attendees to spend time with each other.

Avoid falling into that trap.

Rather than wall-to-wall sessions filled with speakers, panelists, and thought leaders, include social hours and other events that give attendees the chance to swap stories and lessons with one another.

Even if they don’t learn something, they will still enjoy spending time with colleagues who understand the realities of day-to-day life in that industry or profession.

3. Give members opportunities to be presenters and panelists.

The life of a professional speaker involves traveling city to city, event to event, often giving the same presentation to different audiences, with just a few industry-specific jokes added in to make the presentation feel like it was created specifically for the audience in front of them.

And, that’s okay. Sometimes those presentations are exactly what your members and attendees are looking for.

However, fellow members often have insight that is directly applicable to attendees. No, your average member will likely not be able to move attendees to tears (or laughter) the same way a professional speaker can. That said, the ultimate measurement of success for any conference or event is whether attendees can take the information they’ve learned and apply it in a way that improves their individual or company performance.

If your attendees can consistently take the information they learn at your event and apply it in a way that results in a promotion on the job or increased sales for their business, you’ll never have to worry about attendance again.

Good food isn’t enough to get someone to come to your conference. A tiny grilled cheese in a shooter glass of tomato soup might be really, really good—and strangely hard to replicate at home—but it isn’t good enough to spend what could add up to several thousand dollars on registration, travel, and missed time away from the office. Good content is also getting easier and easier to find, especially content focused on a general audience. Any motivational speech worth listening to can most likely be found on YouTube.

So, if good food and informative content is (relatively) easy to find, why would anyone ever attend an association event or conference?

The answer is simple:

The opportunity to connect with and learn from colleagues who experience the same hopes, fears, and challenges.

Photo by Matthew Henry from Burst