Making Meetings Successful

Having Good People is Key to a Good Meeting!
By: Larry Connor

Between speaking invitations and serving as a vendor selling Wicwas Press books, I have attended a large number of state and local beekeepers’ meetings. They are all different, but I have developed a number of strong opinions on why some beekeeper meetings draw larger crowds while others disappoint the organizers with a lack of attendance. Here are a few observations about club meetings that might help you plan your next meeting or you can influence those who do.

Education is Key
Since the publicity surrounding the 2006 Colony Collapse Syndrome, attendance at most major beekeeping meetings has grown tremendously. This does not mean, however, that those beekeepers will come to a state or large regional meeting. Many new-generation beekeepers are very happy sitting in front of their computer watching YouTube clips and checking out discussion groups about bees and beekeeping. One way to get this new generation of techno-friendly beekeepers (or wanna-beekeepers) into the seat at a beekeepers meeting is to offer them a top quality educational experience.

Some of these wanna-beekeepers will make it a point to attend meetings that will feature one of their Internet Superstars. Many experienced beekeepers, however, may not know who these speakers are and will not be drawn to a meeting where they are featured.

It is important to know who your potential audience will be as you plan a meeting. Established presenters with a word-of-mouth reputation may fill the seats at your meeting. Will you be drawing in a large number of people from urban and suburban areas that might imply a bit more computer sophistication? Is your meeting going to be held in an area where the potential audience is just starting with bees and beekeeping and have less communication on the Internet?

Many bee clubs are going through a rapid change in the makeup of their membership and the demographic of the beekeepers who attend their meetings. Some state beekeeping organizations have, in the past, focused on commercial beekeepers and large sideline producers. This de-emphasizes the introductory topics and puts greater emphasis on topics such as hive pest control, state and national trends, university and government speakers sharing research results, and other areas of similar importance.

Compare this with the meeting focused at new beekeepers: These people want and need the information that gives them the essential training as new beekeepers. They want to know how to get bees and keep them alive. Talks about chemical mite treatment, legislative action and politics are of reduced interest to them. They are not concerned with honey sales and promotion unless the speaker is giving them techniques and ideas that they can apply directly to their own beekeeping practice. There is a great deal of Me-Me-Me in all beekeeping meetings, but the focus for new beekeepers is greater than those who are attempting to help their industry.

So how does a meeting planner for a local or state organization set out to cover these split interests? Here are a few thoughts on the subject:

Offer split sessions
More and more groups offer a selection of speakers and topics for beekeepers to choose from during the same time slot at a meeting. There may be a beginner session, a session on basic management, a session on honey promotion and a session on something advanced in nature, such as bee genetics. When you split the group, you will need a larger facility to provide enough space for multiple groups, adequate sound and projection equipment for each room, and good advanced publicity so people will know which speaker to look for. Failure is not acceptable in any of these areas.

I have seen some of these split sessions fail because there are too many sessions and very small numbers in rooms. The presenters are often a bit put off when they only get five or 10 people in the room when they expected 50 or 100. As an experienced presenter, low attendance on occasion no longer phases me, but it does indicate that my time could be more efficiently spent elsewhere or on a different topic.

Stay with keynote speakers

Having experienced and willing volunteers is key to running a good meeting.

Find speakers who can offer a topic of interest to a wide range of beekeepers. If you bring in big-name speakers, please do not ask them to speak about something that is not of interest to the group or to the speaker. Before you invite a keynote speaker, discuss with him or her what topic will appeal to both the speaker and the audience. When you know you will have a mixture of newbees and experienced beekeepers in the auditorium, make sure that the speaker is informed so the presentation can be catered to both cover the basic needs of the newbees and also provide valuable information for the experienced group.

Respect the audience member’s time and investment to attend
It is disrespectful to attendees when beekeeper talks do not focus on beekeeping-specific topics. It bothers me when the majority of the day focuses instead on a smaller number of beekeepers by discussing procedural behind-the-scenes, non-beekeeping topics. The best club programs do NOT discuss club business at these talks but instead change their bylaws so that the technical decision-making is done by the board of directors prior to and after the meetings. Perhaps only the annual election, if there is one, would be held briefly.

Avoid down time in between speakers and programs. Again, respect the time and cost of the participants to attend. Many have taken time off from work, have traveled considerable distances and are paying for hotels and prepared meals. Compress the meeting as much as you are able without adding stress to both presenters and attendees. I think it is fine to take evenings off, but do not be afraid to schedule something social or fun. Most beekeepers like mixers, meet-and-greet sessions and ice cream in the evening, giving them a chance to socialize. A chance to socialize provides an opportunity for participants to form social connections that will bring participants back, improving cohesion, and give groups a sense of identity.

Keep in mind that not all beekeepers care about honey queen programs. I find that meetings that feature honey queen candidates as a major part of the program have a much smaller attendance than those that do not support such a program. I have long believed that beekeepers should give up honey queen programs and develop honey ambassador programs that are based on training in promotion of beekeeping and open to any age or background. I realize that many clubs use their honey queen programs as a centerpiece of their meetings, but if they only have attendance of one third of nearby organizations, I wonder why they continue to support these programs. Part of my dislike of the queen program stems from the extensive fund-raising needed to finance the program. Hours-long auctions and continuous soliciting to buy quilt tickets take time and focus away from the information and education in which the attendees, who have already paid to be at the program, are actually interested.

What works best?
Single-day programs are extremely successful. They provide focus, and attendees are more attentive. Two-day programs work well, too, as long as the content is solid and there is little down time in between events, as mentioned earlier. Beekeepers are looking for the best educational return for their time and money spent, and a one or two-day program serves them well. Beekeepers like a little fun at these events, but not too much because they are focused on bees and beekeeping.

Offering seven or eight hours a day of speakers, workshops and educational programs gives the participants many hours of thought-provoking information. Split sessions will allow folks to select which topics they will attend. I enjoy hearing couples and beekeeping partners debate who will hear which speaker, which has the combined effect of doubling their information intake! While people complain at the end of the program that their brain hurts from so much information, I feel that this is exactly what people want.

You should have one or two keynote speakers for each day, starting in the morning and perhaps a second keynote speaking again in the afternoon. The keynote speaker(s) is (are) able to run breakout sessions after their main program. Breakouts are then ideal at different levels, but be careful there are not too many. Also, make sure you do not schedule key presenters against each other as they should each get full support from the audience.

Vendors are crucial to a successful program. Make it easy to participate as a vendor. Provide adequate facilities for setup, a good loading/unloading area and plenty of space for people to mingle. Never separate the vendors from the meeting area. While they should not be in the same large room as the speakers, they should be in close proximity to the speaker area. When the vendor area is organically accessible from any section of the venue, more people will have more time to look at products.

Do not gouge anyone for give-away door prizes. This undermines the products’ retail value and delays or, more likely, negates sales to hopeful participants. Instead, ask for one or two major items for a fundraiser (see below). Put at least one vendor on the planning committee to help influence the choice of the facility and program structure.

Even for tech-savvy beekeepers, a good vendor selection offers the appeal of hands-on product interactions, chances to interact with experts on the products’ use and the chance to stock up on supplies for the new project that they’ve just learned about while sparing themselves the cost of shipping. You will find that advanced sign up will give you time to publicize who will be at the meeting so participants can plan to pick up their orders without having to pay shipping costs. At some meetings, I have seen vendors bring a second trailer filled with orders that they intend to deliver at the meeting. Vendors, for the most part being beekeepers themselves, are members of the greater beekeeping community. Clubs that restrict access to vendors only hurt their membership in the long run!

Include a luncheon in the registration fee, offering a choice of either sandwiches or main entrée. Not only does this simplify getting everyone fed but it also keeps people in the building (rather than going out to search for food). Make sure that the refreshments are in the vendor area. This will encourage all participants to interact, further developing the relationship between new beekeepers, experts, vendors and other facilitators. As for the menu, avoid the budget fried chicken dinners and subways and upgrade the food to a level of professionalism that you want. Pay a dollar or two more per person and put on a good meal that people will not only appreciate but remember in future meetings (because the food was good). If there is an opportunity to make participants happy, take it.

Have a group of volunteers signed up to help move the vendors into and out of the area. Registration goes so much smoother when there are trained people there to check-in paid participants and collect money from walk-ins. I recommend a lower fee prior to the day of the event so you have a better idea how many people will attend. Add 10% for your expected count to allow for walk-ins. Quite often, the walk-ins cannot order a noon meal the same day as the event, but you can always order a few extra meals ahead of time for these people so they do not have to go out at noon and miss out on socialization with their peers.

At the end of the day or during the last break, do something special with food. In the warm weather you can serve honey ice cream. The rest of the time, it is fine to break out some honey-based snacks (cereal mixes or cookies) that everyone will enjoy. Not all places will let you bring in food, so negotiate this in advance. This will remind participants why they’re there in the first place (to learn about bees).

Breaks should be at least 30 minutes. This allows people time to use the bathroom, get a cup of fluids and socialize. Never shorten the break because a speaker ran over – speakers must be on a tight schedule so they start and stop according to schedule. This ties directly into the professional tone of the event and the respect to the attendees and everyone involved.

Funding options can be fun!
While I strongly dislike time-consuming auctions during meeting time, silent auctions have their place. I am an advocate of fund-raisers at meetings to support the cost of the speakers and room rental as well as provide something that goes toward recycling or repurposing beekeeping items. My favorite fund-raising option is the tea-cup auction.

The tea-cup auction is when vendors and attendees bring in items that are bee-related or food and farm products to put on a table with a small container in front of it (the tea cup). People purchase tickets in quantity (arm’s length for $10 or $20) and put half of their ticket into the cup. At the end of the day, one ticket is pulled from each cup and taped to the item. People check the tickets and leave with the items if their ticket matches an item. This requires someone to monitor the tables, sell tickets to the participants and pull the winning tickets. Be mindful of all volunteers as these folks rarely get a chance to attend any of the meeting sessions.

Silent auctions are my second favorite. Instead of a tea cup, a sheet of paper is put in front of each item and people sign their name and the amount they will pay, at a value several dollars higher than the previous bid. This requires someone to monitor the tables and cash people out at the end of the day.

Well-run teacup and silent auctions can earn several thousand dollars during a meeting. This money can be used to reduce the registration fee and/or cover the cost of speakers expanding the quality of the program.

2015 takes Dr. Connor to meetings in Alabama, Ohio, Virginia and Grenada. Check the website for details as the dates approach.