A Rebirth of the Conference Program

The Renaissance Society of America is a large non-profit membership organization for scholars who study the culture and society of the European Renaissance between 1350 and 1650.

Each year the RSA holds a global conference for members to get together, share their research and papers, and shmooze with like-minded scholars spanning multiple generations: according to Dr Tracy E. Robey, the sole full-time conference manager for the 2014 conference in New York, some members have been with the organization since the 1950’s.

A Harry Potter-Novel-Sized Conference Program

“In 2014 we printed 3000 copies of our program guide. Each program weighed 2.5 pounds,” says Tracy. The program is so huge because nearly every conference attendee is also a contributor… and that means an exhaustive list of abstracts and personal information. It’s over 800 pages long and has the heft of a fantasy novel.

What do 3000 kilo-sized books really look like? According to Tracy, that’s 375 boxes of books, or five freight pallets. “It was getting out of control.”

By the time the paper program was handed out at the conference, it was wildly inaccurate: a product of the need to typeset and edit it months ahead of time.

The paper program was unmanageable. “We knew that this was not sustainable,” Tracy says.

A One-Woman Show and an Impossible-Sounding Ask

In 2014, the RSA Executive Board decided to pursue having a mobile guide as a supplement to the printed program. Tracy was overloaded with responsibilities as it was, so she searched for an option that would give her support and flexibility. A few months before the conference, RSA partnered with Guidebook to create the annual mobile guide.

Tracy worked directly with Jacob Wittenberg, Customer Success Manager for Guidebook, to enter all the content and build out the guide. Suddenly it felt like she had a lot of extra pairs of hands.

“I was able to work with Jacob to come up with something that convinced people we had a full staff of IT people onboard,” says Tracy. “The thing that impressed me the most with Guidebook was the customer service is ridiculously good. And, of course, it’s more elegant than all the other options.”

RSA staff or the Guidebook team could make real-time edits to the app at any time, which meant that on conference weekend it was vastly more up-to-date than the printed book.

Full-Throttle Dedication to the Event App

“It was kind of a do-or-die year, which is why I wanted to invest so much in the app,” Tracy says. If they ever wanted to leave those 800-page books behind, the RSA would need to convince their large, multi-generational attendance base that it was a better option.

Tracy used email newsletter marketing and social media to familiarize members with the app in the weeks leading up to the conference. When attendees checked in onsite, the majority of them had already downloaded the app. They were given the heavy program as well, but Tracy says many of the members brought it back.

“They would say, ‘Can I give this back now? I have the app.’” says Tracy.

The Guidebook app had a 115% download rate–meaning that RSA had more downloads than attendees. “Attendees were downloading it on their phones and tablets. They loved it so much.”

A “Lighter” Future

“Members are saying, ‘Don’t print the full book. Print a shorter version and give me the app.’ It’s an overnight change for our organization,” Tracy says. The post-event satisfaction survey showed that the app was a huge hit.

For the 2015 conference, held in Berlin, the RSA will save $20,000 on printing, shipping and typesetting.

“Guidebook has enhanced what the conference is about: sharing ideas and connecting with scholars. It was the BIG financial winner in 2014.”