Best Practices Make Best Meetings
In the April EXPLORER we began sharing proven ideas for effective operation of the AAPG Regions and Sections, a recommendation from this winter’s AAPG Leadership Conference.
This month, we continue with more “best practices” that focus on our local annual meetings.
Historically, annual meetings have been a tradition of the AAPG domestic Sections. However, the best practices described in this month’s article are applicable to any locally organized AAPG member meeting or conference, whether in a U.S. Section or international Region.
The first best practice featured here is the recent AAPG Southwest Section annual meeting, which boasted attendance twice the number expected.
Other ‘Best Practices’ That Could Help
Other “best practices” that could help you in planning an annual meeting include:
Eastern Section: Opening session and other program elements.
The Eastern Section has a long tradition of opening each annual meeting with an opening session and honor and awards ceremony, where all Section officers are recognized and the president and meeting chair both speak.
Also recognized are the attending AAPG Executive Committee members, the executive director and the national officer candidates. All three Division presidents address the audience.
In addition, the Section has sessions sponsored by the three Divisions and an all-division luncheon.
Pacific Section: Regional industry joint meetings.
The meeting format that works well for the Pacific Section is the regional annual meeting; the Section instigated joint meetings with SPE and GSA, in addition to the usual participation from SEPM and SEG.
The Pacific Section takes the lead by organizing a convention committee that draws from various areas (not just the local society).
Gulf Coast Section: Convention continuity committee.
In the past each convention committee was faced with trying to put together a convention, and since most of us are oil and gas people we were reinventing the wheel each time. The new Continuity Committee consists of: the GCAGS president; the previous year’s general chairman (who also heads the committee); the previous year’s president; the current general chairman; and the incoming general chairman.
The goal is to develop a template for how to run a convention so small societies can host; to establish a convention bank account that will include the credit card information necessary to take convention registration payments; and saving electronic committee reports, documents and spread sheets that can be utilized by upcoming convention committees.
We’ll also examine (right) best practices contributed from the Eastern, Pacific and Gulf Coast Sections, all of which provide insight into specific aspects of other successful annual conferences.
Geographically, the Southwest Section covers most of two U.S. states, Texas and New Mexico. While small in area, it represents nine affiliate societies; its total AAPG membership ranks fourth largest in size among the Sections and sixth largest among all Sections and Regions combined.
When asked to identify the key factors contributing to the success of the annual meeting held in April in Wichita Falls, Texas, Craig Reynolds, Southwest Section president, and Bill Stephens, annual meeting general chairman, were quick to agree on seven essential elements of a winning annual meeting:
The conference theme is more than just a catchy title used in brochures and posters; it sets the tone and direction for the overall conference planning effort.
Stephens advises other Section and Region leaders to determine not only their members’ interests, but also the interests of others outside their immediate Section or Region.
“The theme ‘Unconventional Challenges-Innovative Solutions’ turned out to express what people in our Section do,” Stephens said. “We also tried to attract members outside our Section, like those in the Mid-Continent Section.”
The theme also was a reference to the regional Barnett Shale play through the use of innovative technology; the Barnett Shale formation has emerged as the largest natural gas field in Texas and the hottest on-shore play in the United States.
This is crucial, according to the Southwest Section meeting organizers.
“You have to get the idea into people’s head to come to the convention,” Reynolds said.
Both Reynolds and Stephens appealed to their personal connections, marketed to fellow geologists and broadened the base of conference attendees by marketing to non-geologists. Everyone knew that the two were committed to making the conference a success.
“I kept registration brochures with me and made numerous personal visits,” Stephens said. “Many people showed up because they are friends.”
Wichita Falls, Texas, is fortunately located between Dallas-Fort Worth and Oklahoma City, where a significant number of people either work in the Barnett Shale or own gas shale interests.
“We marketed the meeting to attract those people,” Reynolds said.
For the past year leading up to the conference, both men got the word out by doing a lot of networking through their jobs, by discussing the conference during business meetings or while reviewing prospects. They even went to offices of petroleum engineers and landmen who were working in Barnett Shale plays and who might want to learn the effects of geology on how they would lease their acreage.
“Bryan Brister’s work experience in academia was a key credential for serving as technical program chair for (our) meeting,” Stephens observed, “The Call for Papers yielded some results, but direct solicitation of potential presenters by someone who knows the academic community yielded the best results for the technical program.”
At Brister’s direction, the “unconventional challenges/innovative solutions” theme and the current example of the Barnett Shale play became the common thread that extended throughout the technical program. The theme was repeated in presentations, poster sessions, short courses and even a Barnett core session, something that had never been done at a Southwest Section meeting.
Concurrently, non-shale topics also were presented to keep shale gas players engaged throughout, while also offering programming with a broader interest for those not working in shale.
Theme-related field trips reinforced the technical program and offered convention goers once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
Conference organizers invited a well-known speaker to address a timely topic -- Dan B. Steward, this year’s AAPG Explorer of the Year for his work on the Barnett shale. For the Southwest Section keynote, Steward gave a very informative address on current gas shale exploration and production techniques.
In addition to the draw of a popular speaker on a popular topic, Steward’s new book was available for sale at the conference, was marketed in the conference program and promoted on the conference flyers and Web site. He was even available to sign books on site.
AAPG affiliates Fort Worth Geological Society and North Texas Geological Society had recently sponsored writing of Steward’s book and its printing was completed just in time for the Southwest Section meeting -- partly luck, partly deliberate planning.
Sponsorship request letters, including the conference flyers, were mailed to approximately 200 potential sponsors. By including the flyers, potential donors get a preview of what the meeting is all about and exactly what they are being asked to sponsor.
The conference organizers continually networked their contacts, talked enthusiastically about the meeting and eventually, secured enough sponsorships to underwrite the cost of the entire meeting.
Sometimes, it is an effective technique to ask local area businesses to sponsor a specific event like a field trip or all-convention luncheon. The Southwest Section, however, took the approach of selling sponsorship “levels” for various dollar amounts. This enabled unrestricted donations that could be applied to any conference expense.
Exhibitors want to be seen, and conference attendees want easy access to the exhibit hall. The Southwest Section meeting accomplished both by positioning exhibitor booths in close proximity to the technical and poster sessions.
The exhibitors were centrally located adjacent to the opening session hall to ensure the best traffic flow. This location made it easy for conference attendees to walk through the exhibits in only a few minutes between program sessions.
Meeting organizers also designed the conference layout to require people to pass through the exhibits en route to the bar and food.
Memorable social events.
“Once people are here, you want it to be a successful convention -- one people will remember and come back to another year,” said Reynolds, who, in addition to serving as Southwest Section president has considerable experience organizing and running social and philanthropic events.
“If something out of the ordinary happens, try to handle it immediately and move forward,” he said. “With many strong events, people will remember the positive things and forget the glitches.”
Reynolds had local entertainment and catering contacts to call on; he knew from experience that “the conference crowd is captured at the icebreaker, so put your best foot forward at this event.”
Other proven practices include keeping the music volume at a level where people can talk, and always providing complimentary drink tickets and free food at the icebreaker and Monday evening social dinner.
Sponsorships make providing complimentary food and drink possible.
“Above all,” he said, “don’t run out of food.”