Research, Experts Point to Power of Live Events

By Hank Berkowitz • July 3, 2012

Even in this overtly digital age, association professionals and solution providers continue to find value in meeting face-to-face. Live events are important for fostering a human connection and real relationships, as well as for real hands-on learning. Done well, live events create a positive social buzz and hopefully a return visit.

Forget the lake, the beach or the pool this summer. I’m spending a weekend in Dallas next month to fight through a crowded convention center and savor some authentic, Tex-Mex 100-degree heat.

And I bet many of you are doing the same.

Even without connecting with every exhibitor, customer and past colleague, clearly, live events such as ASAE’s annual conference and expo still carry a lot of clout within the association space. Even in this overtly digital age, association professionals and solution providers continue to find value in meeting face-to-face, which is perhaps why the 700 leaders who responded to our Association Communication Benchmarking Study gave live events a collective rating of 4.3 out of a possible 5. No other form of member communication rated higher than 3.8.

  • Networking is the foremost reason to attend association events.
  • Know the objectives for your events before establishing success metrics.
  • Attendees and exhibitors still value live events, but are being more selective about how many events they attend.
  • Never assume a guaranteed return visit, even if you’re the leading association in your industry.


“Well-run events are a respite from all the other noise that’s out there,” said Sam Lippman, president and founder of Lippman Connects, who has produced the Exhibition and Convention Executives Forum (ECEF), the Large Show Roundtable (LSR), the Attendee Acquisition Roundtable (AAR) and the Exhibit Sales Roundtable (ESR) since 2001. “Your entire industry has made the commitment to be at the same place at the same time. It’s a great venue for networking, recharging your batteries and getting refocused,” he said.

Changes from recent years

Gene Sanders, senior vice president for trade shows for the plastics industry trade association SPI, said he’s seen a real uptick in registrations over the past several years, which he attributes to the improving economy.

In the automotive fleet industry, however, there’s a new form of competition. “Entities are trying to enter the meetings arena by having small, specialized meetings on just one particular aspect of the profession,” according to Phil Russo, executive director, NAFA Fleet Management Association. “For instance, one group is trying to have a meeting on just telematics, another on just safety. I don’t think those smaller meetings are going to be successful or sustainable because the audiences they seek have so little disposable time they cannot be out of the office at four or five different meetings a year.”

Because of limited budgets and time constraints, influencers such as Eric Wynne, president of New York City-based Wynne Media Company, Inc. said they’ve become “far more selective” about the number of events they attend. “I focus only on those events that give me the best access to the right professionals.”

Importance of live events in digital era

According to SPI’s Sanders, “Live events are more important than ever, with digital media playing a larger role in marketing efforts. Although electronic education is viable, it doesn’t replace the power of face-to-face, whether in a networking forum or in a learning environment.” Lippman agreed. “Live events are becoming more important than ever for relationship building with existing customers and for developing new customer leads,” he said. “However, they’re probably becoming less important for professional training and development purposes.”

It depends on the subject matter, said Russo. “Live events can be more important in terms of having a human connection and fostering real relationships, as well as for real hands-on learning, but they’re probably less important if the subject matter is of an urgent nature, such as a legislative issue,” he said.

Those who become too reliant on email and other digital communication will discover that it is “far more difficult to create the depth of relationships gained through personal face-to-face contact,” said Wynne, whose company develops sponsorship programs for corporate and not-for-profit organizations.

Key selling points of live events

According to our latest reader poll, professional networking was cited No. 1 more than twice as frequently as any other selling point by our readers. About one-third of respondents (32 percent) cited networking, compared to 16 percent who cited speakers, 14 percent who said education tracks, 13 percent who said exhibits or the venue, and 12 percent who said the social aspect.

“Key selling points are networking, validation and rejuvenation,” Lippman said. “Networking is amplified on the exhibit floor, where your entire industry has committed to being at the same location at the same time. Validation refers to seeing peers who are wrestling with common issues. Rejuvenation is all about taking a step back and getting refocused on your big-picture goals and objectives.”

Networking is key, agreed Wynne. “I want to see more of the right people in the right place at the right time. If they are not there, I’m not there,” he said.

For NAFA, it’s networking, education, and socializing, said Russo. “Our conference is the largest in the industry, so it’s definitely the place to see and be seen.”

According to Sanders, it’s the ability to see, review, and compare technology. “However, networking and information exchange with colleagues is quickly becoming more important to participants,” he said. “It used to be strictly sales leads and making the on-site sale. While this is still desired, many new sales are much longer processes and are consummated only partly at the event or following the event.”

Camille Stern shares strategies for getting more out of your live events, while Marcus Underwood and Kelly Donovan explore conference mobile apps and face-to-face communication apps.

Success metrics

Measuring the success of live events has always been an inexact science, but with unprecedented pressure to demonstrate ROI, event planners and attendees are getting more sophisticated.

“One of my colleagues likes to ask, ‘Is the juice worth the squeeze?’” quipped Sanders. “Whether it is financial success, branding power, marketing or membership sales, if you do not create measurement objectives, you won’t be able to gauge your success.”

Russo said NAFA looks closely at fleet manager attendance and feedback from exhibitors. In addition to return exhibitors and attendees, Lippman looks to the sponsor-to-attendee ratio and the Net Promoter Score, a customer loyalty metric that measures the likelihood that someone will recommend the event to a colleague and keep returning.

Wynne said collecting qualified leads requires setting a threshold based on attendance and targeting for the conference while connecting that data to a realistic timeline within the sales organization. “Leads in and of themselves are useless unless they result in new clients or increased revenue from current clients who attended the event,” he said.

Avoiding common mistakes

“Events can get stale very quickly,” SPI’s Sanders warned. “Changing or freshening up your show is not an occasional exercise, but a never-ending evolution.” Another common miscue, said NAFA’s Russo, is taking attendees and exhibitors for granted. “Never assume they will come back just because the event is sponsored by the industry’s leading association,” he said. “We have to constantly prove our value to everyone and convince them they should come back.”

According to Lippman, common mistakes are not talking to attendees and exhibitors, assuming to know the needs of attendees and exhibitors and spending too much time on volunteer leadership and not enough time on the market.

Wynne said associations need to be more honest with themselves about how well their programs are keeping pace with changes taking place in the industries they represent.


No matter how sophisticated new technology becomes, humans still want to interact with other humans in a live, face-to-face setting. Make sure to have the right mix of guests at the next confab, make sure to thank them for coming and understand why they came. Do it well and they’ll reward you with positive social buzz and hopefully a return visit. Do it poorly, and they have more tools than ever for taking you to task.

About The Author

Hank Berkowitz is the moderator-in-chief of Association Adviser eNews.