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Chapter Meetings: How important is the Setting?
2005, Q1 (July 03, 2007)
by Meredith Blackwelder

Editor's Note: The following article previously appeared in the March 2005 issue of Tieline.

Over the years, chapters have employed different techniques for drawing members to meetings. In the spring of 2004, the 250-member Carolina chapter analyzed attendance data, and realized that, from July 2002 through December 2003, we averaged only eighteen people per monthly membership meeting, with attendance fluctuating from as many as forty to as few as five. A chapter council member suggested we change the meeting venue from a business office to a local restaurant. After brainstorming among ourselves and hearing success stories from other chapters, we held three "test" meetings at restaurants. For chapters considering switching their meeting locations to restaurants, the Carolina chapter's story offers some suggestions — and a few caveats.

The Research

Historically, the Carolina chapter's membership meetings were held at office buildings in the heart of the Research Triangle Park area in North Carolina. These locations were donated by chapter sponsors and made it easy for members from Durham, Chapel Hill, and Raleigh to attend. The chapter did not have to reserve the meeting rooms, and did not assess fees for members or nonmembers to attend. Food (cold cuts or pizza) was provided at the chapter's expense.

Before making arrangements to hold meetings at local restaurants, we wanted to ensure that this idea appealed to members. To see their reactions to the idea, we conducted an online survey using surveymonkey.com (you can view the entire results on the chapter web site).
88.6% of those surveyed said that the meeting topic was an important factor in their decision to attend.
We found that, even though 56.8 percent of those surveyed reported that meeting location was a factor in their decision to attend, 50 percent reported that they didn't care if we held meetings at a restaurant or an office building. We also found that 79.5 percent were willing to pay for food if the meeting were held at a restaurant. These numbers gave us the go-ahead for the trial restaurant meetings.

Next, we researched possible restaurant locations. Challenges included finding a restaurant with a private room large enough to accommodate our group (we anticipated a maximum of forty-five), price range (the survey showed 61.4 percent of surveyed members were willing to spend up to $15), and geographic location (the survey showed members wanted meetings in a location central to where most lived or worked).

The Experiment

After completing the research, we tested the new locale idea with three meetings in three different restaurants. Twenty-eight people attended the first meeting. At this Italian restaurant, we were given a private room. However, the room was such that we could not use audiovisual equipment, and the speaker had to remain seated at a long, rectangular table to give his presentation. Furthermore, the food arrived in the middle of the presentation, so the flow of the meeting was interrupted.

Fifteen people (ten members, five nonmembers) attended the second trial meeting. At this steakhouse, we were again given a private room. However, the restaurant required a minimum number of people to order food or we would be assessed a certain amount, and there was no A / V equipment.

At the third meeting, attendance held steady at nineteen people (thirteen members and six nonmembers). Although the buffet at the third location provided a large selection accommodating all diets and food preferences, the private room was not noise-proof. We could hear screaming children from the restaurant during the speakers' presentations. Also, the chapter provided our own projector and borrowed a portable screen from a council member's company.

Lessons Learned

Our biggest mistake was underestimating the amount of time and effort it takes to coordinate meetings held at restaurants. We needed more than one or two people leading this change. The challenges included finding a well-located restaurant that would accommodate us, gathering reservations from members and fielding questions about types of food, making sure the chapter's projector worked and could be used at the restaurant, and ensuring that the setup of the private room was satisfactory. Holding the meetings at three different restaurants also added challenges because each restaurant had unique policies, room setups, and attitudes about group functions.

We learned a great amount from our experiment. After seeing our attendance numbers decline for the restaurant meetings, we concluded that a restaurant location may not be essential to convincing more members to attend meetings. In fact, we reexamined our survey and found that 88.6 percent of those surveyed said that the meeting topic was an important factor in their decision to attend. We decided that, in 2005, our efforts should focus on presenting meeting topics of interest. If we succeed in doing that, we anticipate that attendance will rise.

Meredith Blackwelder is a past president of STC Carolina. She can be reached at mblackw at earthlink dot net. End of article.

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