Attract Event Pilgrims, Not Tourists

How to Break the Acquisition and Retention Cycle by Building Brand Loyalty

Attract Event Pilgrims, Not Tourists

Brand ambassadors. Advocates. Cheerleaders. Fans. Whatever you call them, you know you want them: loyal members who attend your event year after year…who bring friends and colleagues…who spread the good word about your organization and your life-changing mission. At Rottman Creative, we like to think of these people as pilgrims.

What exactly is a pilgrim?

In a more literal sense, pilgrims are the devout faithful who make a journey to a holy site—often yearly—because it does something for them on a deep, meaningful level. It makes them feel inspired, connected, renewed, refreshed, and purposeful. Driven by a sense of duty, pilgrims make the journey a priority. They suspend their everyday lives to complete the pilgrimage. It’s not even a decision. It’s a must. Imagine if your event was a must for your members, a given part of their year and their lives.

Holy sites are filled with pilgrims. They also tend to be filled with camera-toting tourists who visit once, check it off their list, and never return. Chances are your event has plenty of tourists, probably too many. The good news is that tourists can be converted. Here’s how to turn casual attendees into loyal members who make your event a priority year after year.


At the event…

Offer something they can’t get anywhere else.

There’s only one Santiago de Compostela. Similarly, your event needs to be the place for inspiration and connectivity. One way to accomplish this is to provide exclusive offerings that members won’t find elsewhere. You might include continuing education credits, access to industry leaders, or event-only workshops and trainings. A word of caution, however. These are just things, and while they might get people in the door, they don’t build loyalty and encourage brand advocacy.

Deliver inherently uplifting experiences.

An inspired state requires you to create a spark for your members through brand experience. While spark involves all aspects of your event—from the mood music to the signage—meaningful activities can be especially powerful sources of inspiration. These might include a morning of volunteer work, an interactive game night, a mentorship program, or an outing to the ballpark.

The big idea is that experiences, not “stuff,” emotionally engage members and give them an extra reason to attend your event yearly. These activities make members feel good about being a part of something greater than themselves. Not to mention activities provide untold opportunities for connection and inspiration through unscripted networking. Ask yourself what experiences your event can offer members that they just can’t get virtually or remotely.

Provide meaningful mementos, not junky souvenirs.

Pilgrims often take home a vial of holy water or a bit of earth from a pilgrimage site. Similarly, unique promotional items can be meaningful reminders of your event and your organization. They serve as visual signals to unite tribe members and raise awareness for the uninitiated.

A few years back, travel review site TripAdvisor sent out branded magnets that read “I travel with TripAdvisor.” They asked users to share photos of the magnet clinging to cars, airports, and landmarks around the world. This simple, inexpensive item made existing users feel uplifted and connected to the TripAdvisor community (who doesn’t like to share their vacation photos?). At the same time, the magnet promoted the brand to the unaware.

Imagine how your organization might use tangible objects to unite and uplift your base. Maybe you ask members to tweet a picture wearing your branded clothing out in the field. Maybe you’ll host a crazy hat cocktail hour to encourage high-quality connections (1). You can add meaning and mileage to your promotional items by incorporating them into relevant marketing campaigns and your event itself. If your items don’t have meaning and purpose, you’re just adding to the babble…and the local landfill.


Throughout the year…

Stay in touch.

As our flashbacks to Sunday School remind us, even the most devout pilgrims need a little nudging and nurturing throughout the year. Connect and inspire members regularly using mailings, social media, online forums, and regional events. When it comes time to register for your annual conference, generate hype and action using specific triggers and targets.

Create pilgrims.

It’s not enough to get an interested party to pay dues or register for your event. Once these tourists have checked your conference off their list you might never see them again. That puts you back in the dreaded cycle of acquisition and retention. To create true believers, loyal fans, cheerleaders, and advocates you will need to do more. You’ll need to have a marketing strategy that sets up optimal circumstances for inspiration and connection.

Share how you’re creating pilgrims for your association!

(1) Dutton, J. E., & Heaphy, E. D. (2003). The power of high-quality connections. Positive organizational scholarship: Foundations of a new discipline, 3, 263-278.

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