An Interview with Lynn Fisher, CMP, Vice President of Conference & Exhibition, Texas Apartment Association
The first in-person Texas Apartment Association conference since 2019 brought members back together in San Antonio, Texas at the Henry B. González Convention Center in mid-April. Lynn Fisher, Vice President of Conference & Exhibition, said her goal for the TAA ONE Conference & Expo was “to just have it,” and that moving forward was so important, because that is what her members wanted.
TAA has more than 11,400 member companies and employs 75,000 in Texas. Many of these employees are front-line workers and therefore they never stopped working during the pandemic.
“Our members are extremely social,” she said. “Participating in our events is like being with your best friends. They missed being together.”
Lynn shared that TAA used bracelets to indicate if an attendee wanted a hug (green), an elbow bump (yellow) or a socially-distanced wave (red). “We ran out of green bracelets,” she said.
The TAA ONE Conference & Expo saw the return of almost 1,500 registrants and 1,300 exhibitor personnel. While the attendance number is lower than usual, Lynn said that these attendees were primarily the decision-makers and influencers – which made for very satisfied exhibitors, and very engaged attendees.
Speaking of the exhibition space, Lynn said that the decision to keep their Expo as is, with 10-foot, one-way aisles, worked well. She coordinated closely with the Center to meet requirements for draping (had to go all the way up), masks (which were required), and using their formula to calculate the maximum numbers for booths and people.
Everything is different
In planning the event, Lynn emphasized that “everything was different” from past years. Starting with changes in primary contacts with vendors all the way up to room sets, speaker arrangements, education session attendees, A/V, food and beverage, the planning process was a constantly moving target. And so was her budget, which went through four iterations.
“Everything had to be redone with venues and space,” Lynn said. “Our general opening session usually takes 46,000 square feet for 3,000 attendees. This year it took close to 200,000 square feet for 1,700 people. Everything had to be re-arranged.”
The room configurations changed weekly, which impacted all of the sets. It was constantly evolving,” she added.
Tall boy set ups were out, and additional A/V was in. Larger, more spread out set ups required bigger screens, more rigging and additional sound relays. In Lynn’s case, this was a significant cost increase to absorb, and a challenge in planning.
Food and Beverage was another challenge. Water fountains were gone. Coffee stations had to be more spread out. “We had to triple everything we did,” said Lynn. And, while having bottled water at the gala took some getting used to, many people appreciated the individually packaged desserts, which could be taken to go.
All of these differences, however, allowed for some fresh and innovative thinking. When their A/V company of 25 years had to close five weeks prior to the event, Lynn turned to Freeman. “We had to completely pivot,” Lynn said. “But we also had to look at things through a different lens. We were mourning the loss of our vendor and we knew it wouldn’t be perfect, but we figured that we could try this out on an imperfect meeting, and it worked.”
Lynn also praised the fresh ideas and work of TAA’s communications team, which had to pivot from traditional marketing and print materials. Through the use of Facebook Live, TAA was able to engage its socially savvy audience with the event’s entertaining co-chairs, and with guest appearances from Visit San Antonio to help explain the safety measures in place. They also utilized Feather and sent customizable tools to their leaders, exhibitors and sponsors.
TAA listed the event attendees on Facebook and enlisted members for “phone-a-thons” to connect with peers, encourage them to attend, and answer any questions (particularly with regard to safety).
“It was a very different way of getting information out. We were very interactive, and it was fun,” Lynn said.
When asked about the biggest surprise for this year’s event, Lynn shared a heartfelt response. “It was emotional. We did it and our members enjoyed it. That’s what our members cared about.”
But Lynn also shared that the impact of the event went beyond TAA and its members. At the pre-con, more people than usual attended – they were there to thank her and TAA. “They thanked us and let us know that because of our event, they were able to hire back their staff. We realized how many lives we touched. I was thinking about our members but saw how many people in the service industry were working, because we put on this program,” Lynn said.
“Let’s face it. We focus on the logistics of the meeting – we just go. But this one was different. It was more of a celebration than a conference – a celebration of both the management company and the event industry.”