By Association Adviser staff
Despite a tough economic climate that has put more scrutiny than ever on travel budgets and time out of the office, live events continue to thrive. Our recently completed 2011 Association Adviser Communication Benchmarking Survey found that association leaders still believed members place a higher value on live events than on any other member communication channel including online, mobile, social and print. More than 35 percent of the 674 associations who completed our comprehensive study reported they’ll be increasing their resources devoted to live events in the next 12 months (less than four percent will be cutting back) and as a group, they believe members rate their live events 4.3 on a scale of 5, compared to an aggregate rating of 3.97 for their print media, 3.95 for their online media and 3.35 for their social media.
Event organizers say the forecast is cautiously optimistic for 2011. People still need to justify every expense associated with attending a show and being out of the office for several days, according to Richard Boale, a longtime association event planner and currently the operations director for AppNation Conferences, one of the fastest growing new technology shows for mobile device developers and entrepreneurs. “You really have to demonstrate to your boss or CFO what you got out of the show and what you can bring back to your organization. It’s all about ROI,” he said.
The thing that makes forecasting a show’s success so difficult is that early bird/pre-registrations are way down and so many attendees are waiting until the last minute to register, said Camille Stern, VP & Group Show Director for NaylorCMG. Stern said on-site registrations are way up, despite the higher cost: “It’s not so much the dollar cost. You really have to make sure they can justify time spent out of the office and make sure you’re not out of touch when there are fires to be put out at the office,” she said.
“I’ve been doing this a long time,” added Boale. “No matter how much you trumpet the value of your professional development, networking and lead generation, conventions and trade shows can still have the aura of a boondoggle. No one wants to get fired for being out of the office at the wrong time.”
“Your content can’t be old and dusty,” said Boale. “Your content has to be really timely and really relevant if you want people to come. Things are changing so fast in so many industries. Show organizers are waiting much longer to announce their program content and they’re really scrambling to get the very best speaker and presenters they can to maximize the show buzz.” As Stern noted, the wait-and-see game cuts both ways as attendees are waiting later and later to commit before attending.
When Boale talks about short time frames he’s not kidding. Now entering its second year of existence, AppNation was formed less than six months before its scheduled launch. Show organizers changed venues (and cities) and dramatically modified the programs to attract the best speakers on the most buzzworthy app topics of the moment. Did it work? Fifteen hundred attendees and 150 exhibitors showed up in the show’s inaugural year and nearly 2,500 attendees and 350 exhibitors are booked for year two later this month in San Francisco. “The key is accountability,” said Boale. Every job and task has a single clear owner. AppNation may not be a trade association—yet. But, that kind of adaptability and real-time mindset is becoming increasingly common at the more successful trade association shows.
Associations still have a long way to go, said NaylorCMG’s Stern, but things are already coming back, especially for the savvy organizations that didn’t panic during the depths of the downturn. “At one of our biggest events for the fleet management and transportation industry, all the exhibit space sold out this spring, floor space is up 11 percent, sponsorship is also up double digits and attendance is holding steady,” she said. “At another big event we’re involved with for the paper industry, attendance is up nicely compared to 2010, and booked exhibition space is up a whopping 26 percent. In this digital/virtual age, industry professionals really seem to crave face-to-face interaction.”
Boale agreed. “Even at our shows, which are heavily geared to techies and developers, they find the value of face-to-face interaction really important,” he said. “They’re just more comfortable exchanging information, bouncing ideas off each other in a face-to-face environment. That’s especially important when they’re tiptoeing around industry secrets and proprietary information. It’s hard to find a better way to detect emotion, body language and nuance in a virtual setting, and of course you can’t have those once-in-a-lifetime change meetings without being there in person.”
Many organizations learned a hard lesson during the recession, said Stern. They cut back so much on having their people attend events just to save on a $500 registration and some travel costs. But they lost out on lots of sales opportunities, new member prospects and valuable networking opportunities. “Sooner or later,” she said, “that short-sighted thinking hits you on the bottom line.”
Common mistakes associations make before, during and after their shows
Pre-Show: “Relevance is everything right now. No one has time to waste. You have to be super timely with the content you’re producing to attract the kinds of people that want to meet each other—and your exhibitors,” related Boale.
Stern said NaylorCMG sees many association show organizers with big disconnects between their educational programs and the types of exhibitors they want to bring in. “All too often you see a program committee put together great tracks for those who are at the early or middle stages of their careers, or those who don’t have direct budget responsibility,” she said. “But that’s not who the exhibitors want to see—they want to see senior decision-makers and others with purchasing influence.”
During the show: “Organizations just aren’t being visible enough at their own events,” said Stern. Staffs have been cut back so much that they can’t serve attendees as well and they’re not showing enough love to their exhibitors. “I just don’t understand why, even with staff cutbacks, more associations don’t use their boards, steering committees and volunteers to go around the floor and say thank you for attending. You’ve got to be more visible at your own events,” she said.
Boale says that since attendees have so little time to waste, make sure you’re sticking to your schedule of events. Make sure that schedule is clearly visible. Make sure the speakers are who you promised and that they’re approachable before, during and after the event. Yes, there are now apps to help attendees stay in touch with speakers and exhibitors to extend the show experience. And make it easier for people to find each other at the show.
Post-show: Post-convention depression is a common symptom at many associations, said Stern. It’s common for many organizations to give their staff a week off after completing a big event. But, that first 3-to-4 day window is exactly the prime time for following up with great contacts and business prospects you met at the show. Associations “can’t keep letting their guards down.” If they do, someone else will step in and grab their attention.
“It’s not just failing to follow through,” said Stern, “It’s failing to promote all the positives that came out of the show—the attendance, the great speakers, the charitable or advocacy work. People like to be associated with winners. Attendees and exhibitors always want to feel like they’re associated with a winning organization.”
“Get your post-show surveys out ASAP and do something with that feedback right away,” advised Stern. Don’t just ask what you want to hear, ask what you need to hear. “If people are unhappy, you’ve got to find out why,” added Boale. “These days you don’t have much time to navel gaze and fret about what went wrong and who is to blame. Just document the problem, work together to get the problem fixed and make sure it doesn’t happen the next time.”
Boale advised keeping post-show surveys short and sweet—no more than 20 multiple questions in an online format. “You don’t really need to incentivize them to take the survey or follow up on the phone or by snail mail,” he said. “Just make sure it’s quick and easy and ask questions that are relevant to the attendees’ or exhibitors’ experience.”
Think 365 days, not 3 or 4 days
Both Stern and Boale said associations should think of their shows as a year-long community of like- minded professionals—not just a once-a-year gathering. Associations have to do a better job of integrating their events into their editorial coverage of the publications, websites and social media. For instance, they shouldn’t just be covering the annual convention once a year, but including something from the convention in each and every issue.
“We have one client who started this strategy about a year ago and the exhibitors liked it so much that the association’s member magazine had almost $100,000 in advertising in the issue that comes out right before their annual show,” said Stern.
At the end of the day, both Boale and Stern remarked that you’re only as good as your last event. Follow up immediately, address and correct your mistakes—then move on and start planning your next event.
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