Retail Therapy and Association Events

Retail Therapy and Association Events | MCI United States | EN

How a shopping mall experience inspired big changes for association events.

I spent a lot of time as a teenager inside our local mall. As a GenXer, I came of age with the American shopping mall, and my small Massachusetts town was known for two things — our Mass Turnpike exit and The Auburn Mall (for whatever reason, there was always a “The when you referred to it). My childhood (and current) best friend and I remember going there as one of the first places our parents allowed us unstructured time, clutching our purses as we agonized over a smoothie from Orange Julius vs. a slice from Papa Gino’s. (The food court didn’t come about until the next wave of malls, so our mall had a number of dark-paneled sit-down restaurants that served things like beef tips scattered throughout.)

Some of my first jobs were in the mall  I sold super-hip clothing, socks, ice cream, chocolate, and sterling silver jewelry over a four-year, off-and-on cycle in between sports, school activities, and endless rehearsals for some very important musical. I remember the thrill of being entrusted with a key and how I had half of an ATM card so I could unlock the door and make a cash deposit on nights that I closed, after I importantly took the Y and Z readings from the cash register. I started closing up when I was around 15, one year into my retail experiences. I now look at my 14-year-old son, picture handing him a key, half an ATM card, and a vinyl envelope full of cash, and wonder what anyone was thinking.

There is a mall near my house in Arlington, VA, and it is universally known to be horrible. There are stores in that mall that you haven’t seen for decades. To prove this, I have two words: Radio Shack. All of the food is slightly off-brand, the retail options are a bit odd, and the anchor store seems to be staffed by a total of three employees. Everyone who lives near me uses that mall for the excellent skating arena (the Washington Capitals practice there) or the movie theater, with a possible third place being the bulk-candy store perfectly situated in case you want to sneak a snack into the movies.

This horrible mall has been under renovation for more than a year, to the point where I think we have just assumed it will always be something around which to detour. However, my older son and I wanted to see a movie recently, so we parked and entered.

It was kind of amazing. Somehow, they kept the parking structure, skating rink, Macys, and movie theater intact, and everything else was redone. They peeled the roof off the top of a third of the building and created an outdoor amphitheater, and the interior is now super-bright with interesting conversational groupings and cool views.

But it was the new retail that caught my eye. Unlike the mall of my youth, the retail in the improved local version is mostly experiential. I can paint and sip, competitively cook, escape a room, bowl, play ping-pongor learn about wine  all on the first level. There are only a few stores that actually sell stuff, but the activity menu is amazing.

So: what does this mean for associations – assuming you’ve read this far? Associations used to have an iron grip on a few commodities  the ability to network with professional peers, the industry data used to make a case for research or expansion, etc. But now, those elements are offered immediately. Successful associations have realized that super-customized experiences are the new differentiators that drive buzz, engagement, and investment.

A few great examples of this approach include:

HSMAI Curate

Twice a year, Hospitality Sales & Marketing Association International holds Curate, an Executive Insights Forum that’s offered as an exclusive benefit for representatives of HSMAI Organizational Member companies. Attendees are senior-level hospitality sales, marketing, and revenue-optimization professionals who have traveled, seen, and done a lot, so one of Curate’s key differentiators is its emphasis on unique experiential activities — such as a private tour and tasting at a Baltimore distillery and a behind-the-scenes look at a recording session in a Nashville music studio — mixed with high-octane networking and interactive brainstorming.

Beyond the Booth

The Special Libraries Association added an indoor “park” to its exhibit hall  complete with yard games, seating, and a team cornhole tournament. This interactive section allowed space for attendees to connect with vendors and peers in a more relaxed way; rather than simply stopping at booths, their engagement was more meaningful and memorable.


The Incentive Research Foundation took advantage of the smaller size of its Leadership Insights Forum to create a more intimate atmosphere among attendees. Fireside chat break-out sessions facilitated deep conversations. Additionally, attendees completed a pre-event survey that was used to surprise them on-site with customized mugs and snacks.


I admit that I secure 95 percent of my family’s “stuff” online  from groceries to baseball bats to the endless supply of track pants required to raise two teen boys. But I look forward to taking a painting class with my younger son, competitively cooking with my older son, and continuing to skate and watch movies with both. I would much rather invest in experiences, and believe the magic we create when we bring our client stakeholders together aligns with this as well.


Erin Fuller is president of Association Solutions for MCI USAShe won a competition for selling the most acid-washed overalls as part of her first mall retail job.

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Erin Fuller

Erin Fuller
Erin Fuller

Erin Fuller leads MCI USA’s team who focus on nonprofit management and consulting, and assesses business development and partnership opportunities that advance MCI’s mission and model while supporting a culture of creating thoughtful growth and strong career pathways.

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