What You’ll Learn

When WREC‘s annual meeting attendance sagged, the co-op reworked the meeting into a series of events that focused on local students. Garrett Hylton explains the results and how they made it happen.

Guest Speaker

Garrett Hylton

Show Notes

Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.


Intro: A production of Pioneer Utility Resources. StoryConnect, helping communicators discover ideas to shape their stories and connect with their customers.

Andy Johns: How can you rethink your annual meeting or annual events to get more participation? That’s what we’ll be talking about on this episode of StoryConnect: The Podcast. My name is Andy Johns, your host with Pioneer, and I’m joined on this episode by Garrett Hylton, who is the communications and marketing analyst for Wells Rural Electric Cooperative out in Nevada. So, Garrett, thanks for joining me.

Garrett Hylton: Yeah, absolutely, Andy. Thanks for having me.

Andy Johns: So Garrett and I were talking at the NIC Conference, NWPPA’s NIC, out there about the annual meeting, the way they have kind of rethought their annual meeting as member events. Garrett led a presentation out there at the conference, and I thought it was a good opportunity to get you on this one because you guys have really kind of taken what you have to do as an annual meeting and kind of rethought it, shifted it around and made it into something that you guys are proud of.

Garrett Hylton: Yeah, definitely. We’ve been doing the current format now, I think this year was the eighth year. We’ve been doing it for nine years, missed one year for COVID, but we’ve really turned it into something that we love from the cooperative standpoint. We look forward to it every year. We enjoy it. We love it. We think it’s been really effective with our members, and the numbers kind of reflect that as well. And it’s really turning into something that’s a win on every side. And I think any time you can do something like that, you’re always going to be happy and proud and excited to share that with other people, hopefully help somebody else.

Andy Johns: Yeah, absolutely. So to kind of describe it for folks, you guys have taken more of a, instead of one big meeting – and part of it probably, and I’m sure you’ll get into the geography a little bit, you guys are pretty spread out – but you guys have shifted from one big meeting into a series of smaller events.

Garrett Hylton: Yeah. And with the kind of an in-between stop between those two formats. I guess just to give background historically, this is the community that I grew up in, and the co-op used to do a massive annual meeting event in the gym at my local high school. Guest speakers, a lot of giveaways, prizes. They did like a big dinner. I can’t remember that it was tri-tip or steak, but I think it was like some combination of beef and something else. And it was a really massive event, and it worked well. It would get several hundred people every year, but it was missing some key components. As you mentioned, we’re pretty spread out. Our service territory is 10,000 square miles.

Andy Johns: Wow.

Garrett Hylton: Yeah. And so we have like four communities within that. Wells is the town that we’re based out of, but it’s actually the smallest of all of those communities. We have a community on the border between Utah and Nevada that has several casinos. That’s the largest by far. It has a much higher Spanish-speaking population. And there’s kind of two towns on either side there. Then we have another community that’s about an hour and a half west of us. That’s a mining community. And we picked them up, I believe, in kind of the seventies or so. And then, Wells is, it’s sort of a traditional agricultural town where the co-op has kind of grown out of and spread throughout all the rural areas and things in between. And so that original meeting format was great for Wells. Because that’s who was mostly attending. There weren’t a lot of people coming in from Carlin or West Wendover, Wendover or all of the rural areas to attend that.

Garrett Hylton: And it was very expensive. It was definitely a spectacle, but wasn’t necessarily hitting all of our members the way that our board of directors wanted to. So at some point, I’m actually not sure when this took place, in between when I was in high school and when I came back, they actually switched to a different format. They cut out a lot of the guest speakers and the giveaways and things like that. And they did a meeting with a meal in each one of the communities. And I’m sure that most of the other co-op communicators, anybody that’s been on a co-op for a long time, probably knows what’s coming. And that as soon as you cut out all of the giveaways, the prizes, the speakers and all of that stuff, attendance pretty much dropped to zero. And so there have been several years of these where we were doing the smaller versions at each one of our communities, but nobody was really attending. Really just the die hards. We were getting dozens of people from the hundreds. And so that sort of frames the conversation. When I started to work at WREC about ten years ago, and one of the first projects I worked on was what can we do to reinvent what we use as an annual meeting, but just a community outreach event that’s a really important part of what we do. And so that process is what led us to our current format that has been pretty overwhelmingly successful from our standpoint.

Andy Johns: Very cool. And let’s dive into that process because I know that’s something a lot of folks listening would be interested to hear. So you come in, you’re fairly new and you want to, sounds like there’s a need to overhaul a pretty significant part of the co-op and particularly the communication side of the co-op. How do you go about identifying that? And then how do you start those gears turning, which sometimes inertia, you know, a lot to overcome? But how do you identify that, and then get stuff started, get change started?

Garrett Hylton: Yeah, I think from my personal perspective and the process that we use, and I think it worked really well for us, is that sometimes the best time for creativity is when you are very clear on what outcome you’re trying to achieve. And so we really started at the end and looked at what we weren’t getting out of the current format and tried to identify what we really wanted to get out of whatever format we change to. And I think that that had a huge, made a huge difference in shaping that process. And what we basically decided was that kind of the traditional annual meeting format we felt was a little antithetical to what we normally do as co-ops. We try to be supporters in our community. We try to help community groups and be pillars in our communities, but we don’t necessarily spend a ton of time talking about ourselves. And when we talk about our annual meeting format, that’s kind of all it was, was us talking about ourselves and what we wanted our members to hear. And the outcome that we wanted to achieve was rather than spending more time talking about us with just a few members, we wanted to have touch points with as many members as possible, even if they only lasted a few seconds. And then we wanted to benefit from being able to have some name association with an event that developed community pride or made it more about our community rather than just the co-op.

Garrett Hylton: And so we sort of set that as the expectation. What could we do? And we set some goals like attendance is one thing we definitely wanted to change. We’ve gone from hundreds to dozens, so we needed more participation from our members. We thought it was really important. As I alluded to earlier, each one of our communities is a little bit different, and WREC is one of the major employers in community resources in Wells. That’s not necessarily the case in those other larger communities. And so we really wanted to place an emphasis on building relationships and strengthening our bonds with our members in those communities, but also community organizations. And so with those three things kind of in mind, we came up with the current format, and the real driver behind that was basically that a lot of times the best way to really make a huge impression on a member, on an adult, is to help their children. And so we decided fairly early on that we wanted to make an event that really focused on the youth in our communities and help develop pride and support for them. And then, in return, we were hoping that, I guess – you know, we try to make it sound good, but there is that factor of, if the kid has to be there, then it’s more likely that the parents have to be there too. So a good way to drive up attendance is to link that attendance with the kids.

Garrett Hylton: And so what we settled on.

Andy Johns: Smart move.

Garrett Hylton: Yeah, yeah. You know, it doesn’t sound completely altruistic when you say it that way, but I mean, that is one of the things that if we really want people to show up, let’s get their kids there.

Andy Johns: That is the truth.

Garrett Hylton: Yeah, that’s kind of what we did. We decided that rather than making the event about us that we would approach each of the four high schools in our communities, and we would ask them to help us plan an event that fit their school’s needs, that fit their community’s needs, that would bring out people to kind of build that community support, and that we would sponsor that event and facilitate it. And so we call these “community rallies.” Sort of like a tailgate for each school. They look different in each community, and each community kind of takes their own and puts their own spin on things. You know, in Wells, which is the rally that I’m most involved in, they use it mostly as a get back to school, welcome back to school, kind of thing. It’s usually earlier on in the fall. We have one of the best FFA programs in the country. They do a tri-tip dinner for our members and prepare it and serve it. And then afterwards, we do a giant rally on the football field where they announce all of the teams for the community from our flag football and little kids all the way up through the high school varsity teams.

Andy Johns: Oh, bunch of kids. Bunch of kids means a bunch of parents.

Garrett Hylton: Yeah, a bunch of kids. A bunch of parents. Usually, you know, you’ve got 200 kids there, so you’re going to double that or almost double that with parents and the other family members that show up. Carlin is one of our other communities. They kind of do it with their homecoming, and they plan that as kind of they’re using some new formats. There’s a lot of shift work in that community, so they’ve tried to find a better way to connect with their people. In Wendover, Utah, they have a great FCCLA program, and they’ve struggled some with academics. So in order to remedy that, they do like a parent teacher night once a month. And they don’t play football; they play soccer instead. So instead of a homecoming thing, they do it in conjunction with their parent teacher meetings. Bring those parents into the school to show them what their students are doing, what their studies look like. And then the FCCLA program prepares the food. And then in West Wendover, they do it with homecoming as well. And that’s by far the biggest. Their booster club does hamburgers and hot dogs, and they bring out over a 1,000 people, 1,500 people in general. So each one of those rallies kind of has taken on their own.

Andy Johns: So about how many meetings are we talking about? You’re looking at four, is that right?

Garrett Hylton: Yeah, that’s correct.

Andy Johns: And what are some of the touch points? You mentioned the touch points that you guys have kind of built in there, even if they’re small. So what kind of, when you’re talking about building in touch points to those meetings, how are you guys interacting?

Garrett Hylton: Yeah, there’s a couple of different ways we handle that. We definitely have employees and board members at all of those. And part of that mingling is literally just kind of moving table to table, catching up in line, you know, talking to old friends, contacts, neighbors, things like that. But we also set up a table in front of where they go to get their food. We usually do some kind of giveaway themed with like the school colors. Like we’ve done beanies, socks, t-shirts are super popular. We’ve done like the terrible towels that you can wave at games and things like that. And we try to set up those touch points so that when they come to get one, (1) they have to talk to us before they get food and (2) if they want to give away, they have to come talk to us as well, even if it’s just for a few minutes. And the topic there has varied. When we very first started these was also as we were starting our social media accounts. And so for the first couple of years, like in order to get a giveaway, if you had Facebook or Instagram, you had to follow us on one of those. And I can say as also a person that deals with social media, it’s been amazing how many of those have actually stuck. We were kind of worried that you’d have people that would follow and unfollow after the event, but the retention there has been really good. And our following on Facebook is almost 40% of our total members, numbers wise.

Garrett Hylton: And so that’s been super successful. We had a pretty large – yeah, it’s been great. And it’s really helped us in so many other ways on a communications front. We’ve had a massive political issue that was going to deregulate our energy industry and the rallies were really, that year, it was a really important time to be able to talk to members about it. Give them some facts. And that was really effective in the way that that swung that vote from an overwhelming pass the time before to failing almost 90 to, I think it was it was a little over 90% in our districts.

Andy Johns: Wow.

Garrett Hylton: Yeah. The next year, and so the rallies were a big part of that. And then it just varies. Sometimes it’s signing up for energy assistance early or rebate programs, or even just updating contact information to make sure that we have a good email address, good phone number, things like that. So those touch points are varied. We’ve tried to tailor those to fit whatever’s going on in the co-op at the moment or whatever we’re trying to accomplish there. And it does give us a few minutes. We get our talk out of the way, and then for the rest of it, it’s about the community and about the schools and about the kids.

Andy Johns: So to be clear, because there may be folks who are listening and saying, you know, that is a different way to do things. And we’ve always done our annual meeting different. We have to vote at ours. But you guys have kind of split the voting component off of these meetings. So there’s not the, I don’t want to say burden, but you don’t have those requirements, those extra considerations with the voting because it’s split off different from your annual meeting.

Garrett Hylton: Correct. And there’s actually two factors, I think, that make a huge difference for us, that the annual report is the other one. The voting has been split off for a long time. We do vote by mail over the summer, a different time period from when we do our annual meeting, and it’s been that way for much longer than we’ve done the community rallies. And so that was not ever an obstacle. And then our board has been very enthusiastic and supportive in making our requirements a little bit different so that we have the creativity. But even if we didn’t have that challenge, I’m pretty confident that we would still keep this format. We would make our annual reports available at our table for people to pick up. We would give some sort of presentation probably as quickly as we could on the front end of the event and then move it along. But those are the two challenges that we don’t face that I know a lot of other cooperatives do. We had kind of a perfect storm. I think we’ve talked about this in the past, that we’d have the really expensive format that had good attendance, but not the coverage of our service territory like we wanted to. And then they’ve gone to another format to try to do that, and it was an abject failure. So we kind of had a lot of built in support from the very beginning because we had an event that was a huge budget before, and we were coming off an event that was ineffective in not getting members.

Garrett Hylton: And so I think that we had a lot of support from our senior management and senior staff and our board of directors to get creative, to try anything that would help us connect with our members better. So they’ve been tremendously supportive, and they’ve been real allies in making this happen and strong even in the participation part of it. So we were kind of, I kind of came in at the perfect time where there was a system that was a little broken, and we kind of had a lot of leeway to fix it. And it’s been super effective. And so we’ve continued to get a ton of support. But, you know, that might not be the case everywhere. And one thing that I always tell other communicators when they ask about our events, it doesn’t necessarily have to be the same scale that we’re trying to get here. It could be a much smaller sort of pilot project to do something, even if it was just an alumni dinner at homecoming or something small scale like that. And let it grow organically from there. I just really, really, really believe that if you can make yourself a valuable ally to your local schools, that for most co-ops, that’s really going to have a lot of benefit with their member relationships.

Andy Johns: For sure. So another thing folks may be thinking, or at least I’m thinking when I’m listening, is so if you’re doing four annual events instead of one big annual meeting, is that four times the work? How much are you able to carry over from one meeting to the other and still keep it manageable, even though you’re doing four fairly sizable, pretty big commitments from a team that I know you don’t have a real big team there work on stuff like this? So how do you make it manageable?

Garrett Hylton: Oh man, it’s a little crazy sometimes. I’m not going to lie. We do four of them. We’d never had this before, but this year we had. We try to let the schools pick their own dates and find a date that works best for them. And we try to never say “no,” if at all possible. So this year we ended up having three of these in two days.

Andy Johns: Oh, no.

Garrett Hylton: Yeah, yeah. It was crazy. Now, the one thing that went well is that the one that was separate was the West Wendover one, which is by far the largest. But the other three were in a two-day period. And so we were spread pretty thin. And it was crazy, genuinely, because there is a lot of work and a lot of oversight that goes into these. But I will say one of the built-in advantages, we try to involve as many different school groups in teams as we possibly can to pull these things off. And so I’ll just give you a rundown of the Wells rally really quickly, because that’s the one kind of that I’m most familiar with, but it’s similar in every community. The FFA does the dinner, and the advisor there is wonderful. He’s a former National Teacher of the Year. We don’t have to worry about the food getting ordered and smoked in their meat lab and served because he handles that with our FFA kids. Our football team sets up and takes down all the tables and chairs and packs them up to be moved to the next event. Our leadership and student council, they manage counting all the plates and handing the plates out, and then they’re the ones who administer the pep rally afterwards and run the pep rally afterwards. So they handle all of that.

Garrett Hylton: We have our Academic Olympic team kind of helps bus tables. Our volleyball and cheerleading teams help do tables, and then they help the football team set up and take down. My girls’ basketball program that I coach. We hang up all the fliers around town and help coordinate the marketing on that level with everybody. Our band plays at the pep rally. Our yearbook group does pictures and things that we can use for promotional. And so, it is work. It takes a lot to pull these off on our standpoint. But in each one of those communities, if you build champions within the school organization and within the different groups that participate, these things get so much easier. And as much work as it is, I did have a thought this year at the Wells one, that man these guys really don’t need me because every time I check-in with him to make sure that we’re on track, everybody knows what they’re doing. Everybody’s got kind of has their routine down and their marching orders, and we’re good to go.

Andy Johns: Wow.

Garrett Hylton: Yeah, it works great that way. And, you know, you look at other communities, they have the local firemen come and give rides around the track on the fire trucks. Or the local Boys and Girls Club sets up bounce houses for the little kids to play in or whatever. There’s all kinds of ways to involve different community groups that add to your event, but don’t necessarily add a ton of workload if they can be the champions of their part of the rally. And so that’s been a huge help even in a hectic, crazy, stressful year like this one was. It was manageable because of the help we get from our communities.

Andy Johns: Fantastic. So last question I have for you, what advice do you have for somebody who is, you know, advice you may have for somebody who’s thinking about redoing their annual meeting or redoing any kind of big event that they’ve got, and they’re thinking, you know, this just isn’t getting the results we want. There’s got to be a better way. What advice would you have for somebody who’s trying to make a change?

Garrett Hylton: Yeah, and I guess the one thing I talked about, our outcomes and what we looked at earlier. And one of the things that has really helped our support throughout is, is the fact that they worked. You know, we were getting several hundred people in the initial one, dozens in the second one. Three out of the four rallies we have this year actually set new attendance records. So we went from dozens around our service territory. This year there were 698 people in Wells. There were 425 people in Carlin. There were 500 and – I can’t remember the exact number – but it was over 500 in Wendover, Utah. And then at the fourth one, there were almost 1,700 people. And so we went from dozens to 3,300 members were at these. And so that was beyond any of the expectations that we set. But it was those expectations that drove the planning of these events and helped us kind of build these things up. And so the advice that I would give is to be very detail and outcome oriented in your planning. What is it that you want to get out of your member event or your annual meeting? What is the change that you’re looking to make? What is the thing that’s not working for you, and what would you like it to look like instead? Then I think you go and look at what are my resources. We obviously, you know, it’s not really an elephant in the room.

Garrett Hylton: We spend a lot of money on these. It is a big part of our budget every year. We think it’s a really important part of our budget to be able to engage in our communities and be out with our members. And I think the thing that’s allowed that is, it was really hard this year not to feel the community pride in each one of those rallies, especially coming kind of out of COVID in our state. It’s been been pretty adverse. We missed a lot of sports seasons that other places didn’t miss. We had some restrictions a little bit longer than other places. But to feel that pride, it was worth that investment for us. But that might not be where another co-op is starting from. And so I think that having the outcomes you want in mind, even if they’re really big and then evaluating what your resources are. What does your team look like? How many employees are you going to have to participate in this? What are our relationships with our local schools or our local youth groups? What is our budget for this event going to be? Can we do food? Can we not do food? What does that look like? What can I do to build those community champions that are going to help me do more with less resources and sort of have an outline of what those things look like and then plan a realistic event that fits within those boundaries.

Garrett Hylton: That would be the thing. I would hesitate. I think if we would have started with what these have become in mind, nine times out of ten, we’d have been disappointed because that’s usually not the outcome you get from an event like this. But I do think you can do something positive for your schools, for your communities, and for your own brand. Start realistically, start within your resource, and start with an outcome in mind and work towards that over years and let it develop organically. I think if you start with that structure on the front end, it’s going to make things in life a lot easier on the back end. And then like I’ve mentioned a couple of times, find local champions. When it’s a school, I promise that there’s a group leader that is trying to fundraise to send her kids to nationals or his kids to nationals, or they’re looking to get this for their school. And if this will help them with fundraising or something like that, they’ll work really hard to make it a great event and help develop pride in their students because they care about our community just as much as we do. And so I think those two pieces of advice are probably, that’s where I would start.

Andy Johns: I think that’s a great note to end on. I’ll remember I wrote it down when you said earlier the best time for creativity is when you’ve got a clear idea of the what you’re trying to achieve. So I like that a lot. That’s good advice all the way around. Garrett, thanks for joining me.

Garrett Hylton: Absolutely. I appreciate the opportunity. And hopefully this helps somebody somewhere help those strong relationships with their members.

Andy Johns: Absolutely. He is Garrett Hylton, communications and marketing analyst at Wells Rural Electric. I am Andy Johns, your host of Pioneer. And until we talk again, keep telling your story.

Outro: StoryConnect is produced by Pioneer Utility Resources, a communications cooperative that is built to share your story. StoryConnect is engineered by Lucas Smith of Lucky Sound Studio.