Molly C. Marsh, AMR Director of Education and Engagement Design
Participant engagement and supporting peer-to-peer connection is critical for any face-to-face conference, but when the primary purpose of an event is to “build relationships” you’d better be sure you provide a program that delivers. Gone are the days during which associations set out a coffee break and assumed that valuable, caffeine and sugar-fueled networking would just happen. For the National Association of State Procurement Officials (NASPO) and the 2017 Exchange, the planning committee took the themes and principles of engagement to heart.
Know your Audience
As with any successful event, having a thorough understanding of the audience is essential. The conference brings together two distinct audiences who need to be able to work together, but have a history of keeping one another at arm’s length. They come for opportunities to learn, network and develop partnerships, but those partnerships must exist within the rules, statutes and regulations governing public procurement entities.
It started with the foundation of the conference – relationship building through in-person meetings between state procurement professionals and supplier or vendor representatives. By spending almost half of the conference in formal, pre-scheduled One-on-One meetings, participants maximize their investment by focusing on the contract and business needs of individual states.
Engagement through Education
The peer-to-peer aspect of the conference doesn’t have to stop at the door to education sessions. The 2017 planning committee spent additional time and energy to ensure engagement was weaved into every aspect of the event, not just traditional “networking” time. Interactive discussion sessions were designed to allow participants to share the frustrations and pet peeves that come from working on either side of the business relationship. Then, instead of letting those frustrations go unheard, a panel addressed them head-on, looking for creative ways to address the challenges inherent in the relationship between state government and the supplier community.
Knowing that the relationship isn’t always the warmest, the event introduced an inventive way to allow supplier participants to ask questions of state members in attendance. The “Snowball Fight” format used written questions – with the paper formed into a ball and thrown in for consideration – to allow states to address supplier questions and concerns with an added layer of anonymity. Frank questions got frank answers without concerns of fairness or certain organizations getting inside information from a state. Participants had fun, relating to one another in a new and different way while also getting the valuable info they need to be successful.
Networking with Purpose
Not every valuable interaction among participants is going to be business-related and this was embodied through the inclusion of a service component in the course of the conference. Partnering with fellow participants takes on a whole new meaning when it means contributing to the growth and development of the local community. But, the service activity was not included just because of its value to the organizations served, it is a direct embodiment of the relationship building goal of the conference. The project connected participants on a foundational human level, working together for the benefit of something larger than any one interaction, one contract or one business.
Not a moment was wasted during the 2017 NASPO Exchange, with each aspect of the conference experience incorporated to support participants building relationships and connecting with one another – engagement in action.