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ASAE Annual Meeting: An Opportunity for Innovation

Yes&

 As this year’s ASAE Annual Meeting came to a close, we sat down with Yes& President and CEO, Bob Sprague, and Director of Production, Sara Rassi, to learn more about the event, Yes&’s role, and this year’s take-a-ways.   

Originally introduced to ASAE in 2004 by the late President & CEO, John Graham, Yes& was commissioned to “add a splash of color” to the Annual Meeting’s general sessions.  Now producing the general sessions for the last 17 years, Yes& provides ASAE members and attendees with not just valuable content, but also an example of how to deliver it.  Learn more about how we made this year’s experience more personal, interactive, and inspirational. 

What is Yes&’s main goal and deliverable for ASAE membership at this meeting?  

Bob Sprague:The way we look at the meeting is it’s a primary vehicle for ASAE to connect with its membership.  The meeting itself makes a big statement about ASAE’s value to its membership and it’s important we make it professional, intriguing, engaging, and useful.  We always try to keep in mind, what is this year’s meeting supposed to accomplish?  And what message is it sending?  We want to not only put on a great Annual Meeting, but to turn it from an expense into a real mission enhancing investment for them.” 

For the last 17 years, Yes& has produced the general sessions at the ASAE Annual Meeting.  How has the conference evolved?   

Bob Sprague: “They value the fact that we take such a creative approach to the meeting each year.  ASAE recognizes that the freshness of a new approach, a new concept is valuable for their membership and therefore for the Association.  Over the years, Yes& has had the opportunity to develop fun, out-of-the-box, creative productions such as a musical, rap-focused/parody, dance, poetry, and next generation-focused meetings.” 

Now that we are coming out of the pandemic, this was the first Annual Meeting in 3 years.  How was this year’s conference different from previous ones? 

Bob Sprague:  “This year’s conference was different for three reasons: it was the first in-person meeting in three years, the first ASAE Annual Meeting post-Covid, and most of the ASAE staff was brand new (including CEO, COO, and VP of Meetings).  The association community has been pretty battered by the economics of the pandemic and the shutdown; they’re all faced with very real hurdles and a need to transform business models, offerings, and resources.  Yes& wanted the people who came in feeling beaten to leave feeling inspired and full of confidence to take on the challenges ahead of them.”

How did these changes affect your approach when producing this year’s sessions? 

Sara Rassi:  “ASAE develops the conference theme and brand every year.  It’s our team’s job to bring that to life through everything from the set design to the videos to the graphics.  Essentially, we are an extension of that brand.  This year’s theme – disruption = opportunity – was really about shifting our perspective.  By focusing more on what we can do coming out of the pandemic and choosing to see what opportunities it gives us to do things differently, experience things differently.  We worked in partnership to help them strategize what to do to enhance the experience so their members would leave the conference feeling inspired – and I think they did just that.”      

What means did you choose to relay that message?  How were you able to create that inspirational experience? 

Sara Rassi:  “We wanted to bring video into real life. We realize that after the pandemic and shutdown, people are craving a sense of community and connection.  We’ve spent the last two years doing Zoom, so it was a way to truly bring people out of the 2-dimensional world into the 3-dimensional world – which is what people were doing by attending an in-person conference… so this year, we chose to add a live component where members came out on stage to make remarks in between pre-recorded video segments.”  

In terms of physical production, what things do you need to keep in mind when producing the general sessions? 

Sara Rassi: “We produce seven sessions in the main ballroom over the course of the conference, so there are dozens and dozens of deliverables.  It is a six-month preparation process – getting all the information needed to develop the strategy, go through the review and approval process, and finalize all deliverables.  When the day of the conference arrives, we want to put on a show that looks clean, professional, and reliable.  This year, our crew of 15 people managed the AV provider and 30-40 stagehands, getting everything set up from a technical perspective, getting the stage ready, and running through rehearsals, graphics, video, music, lighting, cameras, announcer, stage, and teleprompter queues.  We also needed to coach 9 main speakers and multiple announcers to make them feel comfortable presenting on stage in front of a 4,000+-person audience; and implement any last-minute changes that may arise.”

It sounds like there are a lot of components that go into the Annual Meeting.  How do you prepare for the unexpected during a live event?   

Sara Rassi:  “When curve balls are thrown at us, we need to find solutions.  For example, when there are so many moving parts, rehearsals, coordination with outside contractors (such as the AV team), coaching for the speakers, timing with the teleprompter, etc. there are always last-minute changes that arise.  At any event, even one change can affect five different components.  With no notice or things changing on a dime, we have to pivot quickly.  No matter how well you plan, you always have to be prepared.” 

Bob Sprague:  “Yes, this year, during rehearsals, one of the crew members tripped and put a fairly large tear in one of the 80-foot screens on the main stage.  Sara and her crew were really impressive.  They made some calls and were able to procure these huge screens the same day.  By Sunday morning, both new screens were installed, rebalanced, and ready for the main event.” 

The Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Movement is something that is pivotal to the association community.  How was the importance of DEI highlighted at this year’s meeting? 

Bob Sprague:  “ASAE has been quite the leader in the diversity and inclusion movement.  They’ve been championing DEI for a long time, and I’ve learned a lot from watching their courageous example.  ASAE uses the general sessions as a platform to show that DEI is a top priority and used this year’s general sessions to inspire their membership to really create a multiplying effect – throughout society.”

What are you hoping that ASAE members will take away from the Annual Meeting? 

Sara Rassi:  “ASAE is the standard for how these meetings are produced so they need to develop a model their members can learn from about how to run a good meeting.  While other associations might not have the same budget, team, or bandwidth, Yes&’s hope is that the association community can look to ASAE’s example as scalable and replicable.” 

What is your takeaway from the ASAE Annual Meeting?  What keeps you compelled to produce the conference year-after-year? 

Sara Rassi:  “Part of what excites me is that ASAE is a really great partner.  Being able to work with their team – the award winners, different board members, different speakers.  Working with these different people over the course of the year, you start to feel like you’re a part of the ASAE family because we work so closely with a lot of these stakeholders.  Also, seeing the fruition of the team’s hard work over the course of six to nine months is really something else.  It’s fun to watch the event come to life through the content we produce and then live in action.”   

Working with a client like ASAE has allowed us to stretch our creativity further than ever before.  With each year we are proud to find new ways to engage the association community through captivating entertainment, thought-provoking general sessions, and inspirational keynotes.  Now, after working together for almost two decades, our partnership is stronger than ever.  We can’t wait to see what next year’s ASAE Annual Meeting brings.  Stay tuned for 2023! 

Yes& is the Washington, DC-based marketing agency that brings commercial, association, and government clients the unlimited power of “&” – using a full suite of branding, digital, event, marketing, public relations, and creative capabilities to deliver meaningful and measurable results.

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