Wheatland Electric Cooperative serves a vast expanse of Kansas, stretching from the eastern Colorado border to just southwest of Wichita—a 300-square-mile territory with two time zones. So, when it was annual meeting time, the co-op rotated the event between its seven district offices, some of them separated by a three- or four-hour drive.
“Attendance was pretty minimal," said Alli Conine, director of member services and corporate communications at the Scott City-based co-op. “Annual meetings take a lot of planning, and you want it to be a nice event. When you're doing all that work, you want people to be there."
But through technology and teamwork, the co-op has conquered that distance, and now even the most remote member can be part of the annual meeting experience. Organizers stage the primary meeting at one of two locations and then livestream the proceedings someplace near each of its seven offices. Employees fan out among the locations to engage members and oversee traditional annual meeting activities.
Conine believes this year's record attendance of about 800—up from 500 last year—helped the co-op attain its highest-ever score of 92 on the latest American Customer Satisfaction Index survey.
“Our members are our main focus and member satisfaction is something that we take very seriously, so we must be doing something right," she said.
Wheatland EC is one of several co-ops to “meet members where they are" through retooled annual meetings. Co-ops experimented with different formats before the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, but the crisis led to greater innovation.
“I think a lot of people were feeling stuck and eager to try something new," said Abby Berry, NRECA's senior communications resources manager and author of the Annual Meeting Toolkit, a how-to guide that features several co-ops, including Wheatland EC.
“For many co-ops, annual meetings looked the same year after year, and there was a lack of member engagement and voting participation for multiple reasons, such as events held during the middle of the day when working professionals or families couldn't attend."
Available on cooperative.com, the toolkit contains recommendations, case studies and customizable resources to help co-ops plan, promote and execute annual meetings. Berry gathered information based on discussions with several co-ops, including a roundtable of six communicators.
The toolkit organizes examples of revamped annual meetings into four categories: event format; elections and voting; on-site activities; and event marketing and promotion.
Last year, Sussex REC, based in Sussex, New Jersey, moved its annual meeting from a high school gymnasium to the state fairgrounds. With the business portion pre-recorded and available on the co-op's website, the event became more festive and focused on member engagement with giveaways, fundraisers for local charities, and opportunities for directors and staff to mingle with members.
More than 800 people have registered for this year's meeting in early August—more than double 2022's attendance, said Claudia Raffay, the co-op's director of marketing and member services.
“It's exciting," she said, noting that many of last year's attendees were first-timers. “The members are coming to see us and we're getting to talk to them. That interaction is priceless."
Co-ops seeking to change up their annual meetings should set specific goals and go from there, Berry said.
“Maybe you want to increase event attendance, provide better educational opportunities for members or offer members additional ways to vote for directors. Defining annual meeting goals early can help lay the path for success."
She underscored that small changes can still make big impacts.
“Progress doesn't always have to be expensive," Berry said. “Even making a few small tweaks to improve the event can go a long way. There's no right or wrong approach to revamping annual meetings—as long as the changes ultimately improve the member's experience."
You can find NRECA's Annual Meeting Toolkit at cooperative.com/annualmeetingtoolkit.