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  • Writer's pictureSharon Ashton

Latest Trends in Conference Design

In this article initially published by our partners at Boardroom Magazine, Sharon Ashton explores the enduring goals of Associations to create value, generate revenues, and build community through events. By doing so, and with the example of EURORDIS-Rare Diseases Europe, she delves into the current challenges and opportunities facing the events community.

The fundamental purpose of why Associations organise conferences has not changed, the way they are being designed and delivered is, however, evolving at an increasingly rapid rate.

The 3 main reasons why Associations run events, regardless of the type or format thereof, are to:

  1. Create value for members

  2. Generate revenues

  3. Build community

By producing events, Associations are directly contributing to building value, revenue and community for their organisation and thus impacting its core utility, relevance and even sustainability. 

The global pandemic provoked a seismic change in the events community. It’s an exciting time to work in events. It's also an extremely challenging time. Associations and event professionals alike need to learn how to meet the high expectations of their board and members to deliver more accessible and diverse events, provide more interactive and immersive experiences, incorporate new technologies, and focus on sustainability and impact. All this with limited human and financial resources. 

Given these opportunities and constraints, what are the real trends in conference design we are seeing emerge?

As the Events Community Co-Chair at the ESAE, I have a unique vantage point to stay attuned to and gauge the pulse of the industry. Additionally, in my capacity as the Open Academy & Events Director at EURORDIS-Rare Diseases Europe – an international NGO committed to improving the lives of all people living with rare diseases – I am deeply committed to implementing impactful conferences and events. 

Here are some concrete examples of what EURORDIS-Rare Diseases Europe is currently experimenting with:

  • Sustainability: despite seeing a hunger to return to fully in-person events, EURORDIS is increasingly conscious of the carbon footprint our flagship conference generates. To combat this, we have chosen to run our 2024 European Conference on Rare Diseases & Orphan Products in May as a synchronous hybrid event. We are limiting the capacity on-site and offering opportunities for those who cannot travel for health, financial or even convenience reasons to tune in remotely. Moreover, for the first time, we are using a carbon emissions tracking software ‘Trace by Isla’ to track the emissions of our speakers, staff, board and volunteers. All of this being new to us, we are starting slowly and will build up gradually. 

  • Accessibility: EURORDIS represents a vulnerable population. We are making more concerted efforts to allow everyone to fully participate in our conferences and meetings. This includes neurodiverse populations and those with disabilities that include vision and hearing impairment and reduced mobility. We are working with our members and specialised consultants in the field to put accessible measures in place for our conference. To name but a few, we will propose closed captioning in 12 languages for all sessions, add an accessibility page to our website, provide a quiet space on-site and instruct all speakers to describe themselves visually, while also describing the graphics on their slides. By putting these – and many more – measures in place we will make the experience better for ALL participants.

  • Community: we recognise that our conference is not a standalone initiative but rather a crucial element of a continuous, collaborative drive to bring about positive change in the field of rare diseases. It is for this reason that we are linking our next conference to our European Elections manifesto and giving the opportunity for our conference participants to co-create and co-sign an open letter to the EU Institutions and country leaders where expectations of the community will be clearly spelled out and conveyed to decision-makers in an unequivocal manner, leaving a solid legacy for the future EU leadership and for the conference.

As Association professionals, we recognise that balancing opportunities with constraints is paramount to bringing about positive change. Fundamentally, we need to look inward before outward and return to our core mission and raison d’être. It is only by matching our outputs, including events, to the value we are creating for our members and community that will we be able to identify which trends are the most adapted to our needs. Ultimately, Associations need to focus on the imprint vs footprint we are making.

In true Association spirit, we go to each other for help. Sharing experiences helps us all advance without having to reinvent the wheel. One of the next key opportunities to do this will be at the European Association Summit & Awards, scheduled on 22 May 2024 in Brussels. We look forward to seeing you there! 

For more information about Boardroom, ESAE's knowledge partner, please visit


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