For many years, association conferences took place behind closed doors. Keynote lectures, professional development and networking occurred in a silo; delegates and speakers rarely interacted with the community; and locals went largely unaware of the meeting’s existence. But that’s all changing. In fact, planners are now making it a priority to build public-facing events into conference schedules, recognizing that community engagement is a key way to spread awareness of the association’s mission and current work, support charitable initiatives, and share recent trends and breakthroughs.

In April 2016, the American Academy of Neurology (AAN) convened in Vancouver and invited the public to attend a day-long Brain Health Fair at the Vancouver Convention Centre. The free event featured interactive workshops and seminars that highlighted the latest news in brain health, including new treatments for prolific diseases like Alzheimer’s, MS and stroke. Attendees were also given the opportunity to meet one-on-one with some of the world’s top neurologists, at no fee. Kids were encouraged to learn about brain health at a neurological-inspired arts and crafts section. And people of all ages clamoured at the chance to hold and inspect a real human brain.

In June 2017, the International Urogynecological Association (IUGA) met in Vancouver for its annual conference, and organizers hosted a free Public Forum on Pelvic Floor Health where regional experts spoke about important health issues affecting women. The event provided the public with important information about urinary incontinence, painful sex and more, while creating a safe environment that encouraged questions and facilitated honest discussion.

In August 2017, Toastmasters International will host its 86th annual meeting in Vancouver, and conference organizers have opened up most of the schedule – which includes lectures by award-winning public speakers – to non-members for a fee. Check out how you can attend here.

So why the growing focus on community engagement? For one, hosting “open houses” and workshops showcases the mandate of these associations, what they have achieved – particularly new technologies or treatments that impact the public – and goals they are working towards in future. Community events also build trust among locals, improving the association’s reputation while allowing the organization to give back to the host city. These events are also important for the conference venue, since opening their doors to locals builds awareness and advocacy while showing the value that meetings bring to the region.

“It is so exciting to see how conferences and meetings are embracing community engagement in meaningful ways,” said Claire Smith, vice president of Sales and Marketing at the Vancouver Convention Centre. “More and more, organizations are giving back to the community with their expertise and knowledge – from hosting public seminars to opening exhibits to the community. Organizations have the opportunity to leave an important educational legacy and to advocate their cause, while the local community is exposed to new ideas in different fields of study – it’s definitely a win-win.”