Post Con

Where the Wild Things Were

The 2012 Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Annual Conference, held Sept. 8–13 at the Phoenix Convention Center.

The premier meeting for mid- to upper-level zoo and aquarium professionals, the conference drew more than 1,800 attendees this year – and culminated in a behind-the-scenes site visit to the Phoenix Zoo. “It’s definitely shown growth in the past couple of years,” said Melissa Howerton, AZA’s vice president of conference and membership, “and we’ve increased the quality of the programming.”


Indeed, with strong programming throughout the conference, AZA has had a difficult time enticing attendees to spend more time in the exhibit hall. “This was our second year having registration in the exhibit hall,” Howerton said. “We like getting people acquainted with the hall and creating that cohesiveness with the rest of the meeting, giving them a sense of community, the feeling that [the hall] is the central hub for the conference.”

And AZA ensured that attendees would want to stay there longer – with activities and attractions such as a giant animatronic spider. “That was an interesting thing,” Howerton said, “and something you won’t see at a lot of places.” Programming that AZA provided in the exhibit hall this year included “a silent auction, posters, and poster reception,” Howerton said. “We also do the roundtable discussions in the hall. People can have small meetings, and even some of our program tracks will extend their programming within the hall so they can have more informal discussions.”


As an animal-advocacy organization, AZA places great emphasis on being green. “This is the first year we actually had an annual conference program app,” Howerton said. “Our hope is that over the next few years the app will be more popular and we’ll be able to cut down on our print material.” The app did well for its first year, with approximately 400 attendees subscribing. “The app had a really strong exhibitor piece to it,” Howerton said. “There was a floor plan which allowed you to take notes and to identify those exhibitors that you really wanted to see on the floor.”

AZA also placed a premium on its general-session speakers. “We have found that our speakers really need to have a balance of relevance to our audiences, as well as inspiration,” Howerton said, “and over the years we’ve focused on bringing in some key speakers” – who this year included Mark Kielburger, co-founder of Free the Children, a charitable organization dedicated to children’s education.

“Our annual conference program committee,” Howerton said, “has really rallied around being proactive in the development of topics, and encouraging moderators and speakers to ramp up what they can put together for our program offerings.” Attendees would agree. “This year we have gotten great feedback in terms of the conference program and the information in the sessions. We consistently hear, ‘There are too many good sessions going on at the same time that I can’t make it to all of them.’ Which is a good problem to have.”

For more information:

AZA Annual Conference Details

2011 Atlanta

  • 1,880 Attendees
  • 161 Exhibitors

2012 Phoenix

  • 1,850 Attendees
  • 168 Exhibitors

Convene’s Pre-Con/Post-Con series asks meeting planners about their challenges and how they intend to address them (Pre-Con), and then circles back around after the meeting has occurred (Post-Con) to see how well they worked out.

Sarah Beauchamp

Sarah Beauchamp was formerly assistant editor of Convene.