The Conference Conundrum (879 words)
In uncertain economic times, the question of how to deliver value, true ROI, to your conference attendees while still keeping the cost under control is truly…a conundrum. Determining what activities conference attendees want is like shooting in the dark. And, to add to the difficulty, the generational issues are now just that, an issue. Younger people want “Extreme” or interactive meetings while the baby boomers, who are the senior executives want golf and a slower paced meeting. All of this can be quite elusive in your effort to attract them.
What do today’s conference attendees want?
First, explore the basic types that attend conferences, especially when travel is required. The old paradigm conference attendee is a bit like the good ol’ boy—attending his industry meeting regardless of the time of year, location or quality of the meeting. He just wants to meet with his buddies, network a bit, golf and drink. The conference is his well earned get-away.
Then there is the new paradigm attendee, both men and women. They are younger, have families and have the attitude that they will participate if they see the capability for synergy. Golf and partying is not their motivation, but rather the desire to obtain new strategies, tactics and the skills necessary to improve their business. They only want to rendezvous with value.
Toward which group is your attendees titling?
Has the ratio been changing over the last few years? I bet it has been changing, but perhaps nobody noticed? Then there is the paid verses volunteer leadership element with which you must be attentive. This becomes crucial when a volunteer leader from a small company follows one from a large company.
My observation in over a decade of interviewing volunteer association leaders and speaking at association meetings is that generally (but not always) a leader from a large company tends to be more strategic in their thinking and those from smaller companies tend to be more tactical. While both are necessary, tactics without strategy is like traveling to a far-away land without a map—who knows where you’ll end up?
One tactic for reducing costs that a number of associations have recently engaged is that of inviting suppliers to present educational sessions rather than hiring experts, authors and /or professional speakers. Industry presenters usually manage to wrap their presentation around a sales pitch for their product. An important point that is rarely broached in the above mentioned tactic is what effect does inviting one company to present have on other supplier companies?
Since suppliers, or allied members as they are sometimes called, generally pay a disproportionately larger amount to attend a conference than other members, they want value too. Forcing a number of suppliers to endure a competitor’s veiled sales presentation can be considered cruel and unusual punishment. And they never forget. By the way, while I have your attention, just what are you doing to show your suppliers that they are appreciated? Hopefully not having sessions during their expo time? Hopefully doing more than just saying, “Thank you.”
What does create value for today’s conference attendees?
Many attendees, especially those at national meetings, are looking to be recharged. They need and want both the motivation and tools for doing battle in the trenches for another year. What percentage of motivation verses skills? Regardless of what I have been told by meeting planners, over the years I have learned that in both general sessions and concurrent sessions alike, the scales tilt more toward motivation. This is something that a non-professional speaker can rarely deliver.
For a meeting organizer, the rendezvous with value challenge can be enormous. You say, “How in the world can I deliver all the value my diverse group of attendees demands and needs in a time of diminished registrations?” Your answer is in numbers. Just how many of your attendees demand that costly golf outing? Is it a large number or just a few that are quite vocal in their personal demands? Must you have an open bar reception? If so, cut the hours in half.
A great question to ask oneself is that of memory—what will your attendees remember? Will they remember their fourth free whiskey at the reception? Or, will they remember that the speaker from XYZ Company spent the entire hour talking about their own company’s capabilities? What will stick in your attendees’ minds that will urge them to return to the conference the next year? If they are old paradigm; they’ll just come again no matter what. But, for the new paradigm attendees, you must help them to rendezvous with value.
Currently, suppliers to the meetings industry are offering generous discounts; including hotels, resorts, airlines and also professional speakers. This is simply because of supply and demand. If you truly want to deliver value to your attendees, take advantage of the times and give them more than a free whiskey by which to remember their conference. This may take an additional effort in helping your volunteer leaders to understand the value, and, they themselves may be the ones that need the inspiration and motivation the most.