Pre Con

Lion and Tigers and Booths – Oh My!

The Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) Annual Conference, Sept. 8–13 at the Phoenix Convention Center. Going strong since 1924, the AZA Annual Conference is the year’s premier gathering of mid- to upper-level zoo and aquarium management. Since AZA is an accrediting organization, the conference agenda is focused on making sure the country’s zoos and aquariums are maintaining high standards of animal management.


Not long ago, the actual planning for AZA’s Annual Conference was managed by the zoo or aquarium in the city where the conference was being held. But a couple of years ago, meeting management was taken in-house, according to AZA Vice President of Conference & Membership Melissa Howerton. Since then, AZA staff has devoted itself to making the meeting more consistent from year to year.

One ongoing challenge for AZA is trying to improve traffic and engagement in the exhibit hall, which in years past has taken somewhat of a backseat to the conference’s big draw, which is the programming. “So really it’s been about educating attendees and exhibitors that there’s really a lot of expertise to be gained in the exhibit hall,” Howerton said.

Another tactic, instituted last year in Atlanta, was placing a registration desk in the hall itself, open at the same time that exhibitors are moving in and setting up their booths. “It was kind of a gamble for us, but we surveyed our exhibitors to make sure we weren’t going to offend anyone,” Howerton said. She added: “And our attendees got to feel like a part of the exhibit-hall build.” AZA will be reprising this reg-desk setup in Phoenix.

AZA is pursuing a variety of strategies to make the exhibit hall into an ever more attractive hub for its approximately 1,800 attendees, such as offering free Wi-Fi on the trade-show floor and encouraging exhibitors (136 last year in Atlanta, with 161 paid booths) to increase their square footage and to do more exciting things with that space.

“Some may say our hall is exciting because we have everything from concession companies to animal-feed companies,” Howerton said, “but predominantly they are 10 × 10 booths.” Because of that, one person on AZA’s three-person planning staff is wholly devoted to AZA’s commercial members, coaching them on how best to market themselves and to make their presence at the Annual Conference more engaging.

As you might expect for a meeting focused on wildlife, AZA is serious about being green – and has been for long before the meetings industry as a whole turned its attention to environmental issues. For example, “We don’t just use water bottles,” said Howerton. “We encourage attendees to bring their own water bottles.”

But AZA doesn’t rest on its laurels. Rather, each year it tries to build upon its past environmental success, adding elements such as an online registration incentive, carbon offsetting, and recyclable tote bags. And this year – in addition to promoting host hotel Sheraton Phoenix Downtown’s existing towel-donation program to the Phoenix Zoo – AZA (if sponsorship can be secured) plans to debut a mobile app for the conference, on both iPhone and Android platforms, in order to cut down on the number of printed programs needed.

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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.

Hunter R. Slaton

Contributing Editor Hunter R. Slaton is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn.