I am just now returning to the office after managing my association’s 21st annual conference.
After seven days in Scottsdale, AZ at a beautiful resort and 100 degree temperatures, I’m grateful to be home.
In 15+ years of planning conferences and events, this was one of the most difficult I’ve ever managed. The convergence of the recession, health care reform (which directly affects the industry association I work for), challenging venue negotiations, and free online content put us on the precipice of the unknown and constant change. We did our best to manage attendee’s expectations and move on a dime as needed. Many “Midcourse Corrections” occurred at this event. Thankfully, as a small staff association we were prepared to change quickly both off and onsite as warranted.
Attendance was down. Revenue was less than expected. Expenses were cut. Yet, the attendee experience did not suffer and our delegates enjoyed the event and resort. That’s what ultimately matters although the fallout of the bottom line is yet to be seen.
As we head into 2010, here are 16 of my meeting planning takeaways from this experience:
1. Signing venue contracts two and three years before the event is no longer the new normal.
There is too much risk for the customer regarding contractual obligations including attrition and food and beverage requirements. Some venues are suffering financially as well and want to hold the customer to their contract instead of negotiating a win-win. Things change very fast today. Shorter planning times mean venue contracts are being signed closer to the event.
2. As an association event planner, forget your history for meeting room space and sleeping rooms.
The past is not a good predictor of the future at this time. The better predictor of your attendance is to connect with your members and ask them about their plans. But don’t expect them to follow through with their plans if they are paying for their own way to the event.
3. Cell phone and WiFi access are necessities like water and electricity for any event venue and should be free.
I’ll never do another RFP that does not include requests for information about all cell phone carrier access at the venue and the venue’s WiFi access. People are doing business 24-7 and need to be able to connect online and through their cell phone. Venues that don’t have good cell phone reception and those that charge exorbitant fees for WiFi will lose business, including mine.
4. Phone-in presentations don’t work without visuals, good land line connections and quality hybrid phones (phones that connect directly to sound magnification).
Don’t assume that SKYPE or the cell phone speaker are good back up plans unless you’ve tested them during a site visit. Both may be inaccessible from the facility.
5. Less is more, green is in and spending dollars on content and connecting people creates success.
Cut back on the extravagance and put money towards good content, helping people connect with each other and extending the conference experience before and after the event (webinars, blog posts, conference social community, virtual experiences). A conference social community is a must!
6. Attendees want to pay less for conference registration and expect more value from the event.
The attendee wants more immediate gratification. If the content or experience is not relevant or applicable to their personal or professional lives immediately, forget it. Also, associations that depend on a large portion of their annual budget revenue from conference revenues will continue to face increased challenges. Watch for more associations to drop registration fees or even offer free conference registration. (Also watch as some associations begin to merge with others in the coming year.)
7. Online free content is affecting the conference content and attendance.
Attendees expect onsite conference content to be stellar and better than what they have already seen online. Providing the same ‘ole speakers that you have always used is not good enough anymore.
8. It’s time to view the annual conference within the context of a larger community eco-system.
It is actually only one touchpoint within the eco-system of virtual and face-to-face member experiences. Some of your attendees will be at the venue, others will be outside the venue’s four walls. The organization needs to reach both. Also, step away from viewing the annual conference as a one-hit wonder or stand-alone climatic meeting within the year’s events.
9. Presentations need to move from vertical, one to many presentations to more horizontal, many to many, style sessions.
Attendees want less talking heads, more interaction, networking and structured engagement with each other and with the content. They prefer to learn from each other than a panel or presenter. Structure learning experiences around the audience as the experts. Use crowdsourcing and peer-to-peer exercises for increased attendee engagement and satisfaction. When delegates attend a presentation, they want time to interact with the content and with each other during or after the session. Plan and provide that opportunity.
10. The conference attendee list can drive your registration.
People are attending an event less for content and more for face-to-face time with friends, business colleagues, competitors and vendors. Identify the influencers in your attendee registration and empower them to be your event evangelist.
11. Our attendees are seeking boutique event experiences with fewer people.
We are seeing an increase in requests for a smaller conference experience that we plan every year with condensed meaningful professional development content. People actually enjoyed the smaller number of attendees and felt like it was a special event, just for them.
12. You cannot go backwards with virtual and technology integration.
Attendees expect the same level of virtual and technology integration as in past events. Reducing costs by cutting technology and virtual expenses ultimately reduces attendee’s experience and increases their concerns. Charging extra for virtual and technology integration will be a sure fail whale and you’ll jump the shark at the same time.
13. Attendees welcome more adult white space in the conference schedule.
Build in adequate time for breaks, connecting with the office, conversations with each other, and time to reflect. Don’t try to cram in more stuff thinking more is better. Reducing the amount of scheduled presentations or events is actually welcomed by the attendee and gives the attendee time to digest and reflect on content.
14. Fear and change are two themes all audiences face regardless of the discipline or industry.
If you provide content on dealing with fear and change, you’ll have a winner. These are unique times indeed and these themes are ubiquitous as attendees grapple with the unknown.
15. The corporate and nonprofit mantra has been “If we can just hold on, one of these days things will get back to normal.” Forget about getting back to normal. This is the new normal.
16. What is the new normal?
According to economist, Don Reynolds of 21st Century Forecasting, “More regulation, a weaker consumer, higher rates of unemployment, years before housing prices get back to old highs, a weaker dollar, more government debt, more taxes, a little deflation, then a lot more inflation and an end to U.S. global economic downturn.” (Don was one of our keynote speakers and delivered optimistic yet cautious economic news.)
As we look into the 2010 crystal ball regarding the meetings, events and associations world, what can we expect? More of the same.
According to Reynolds, “The economy has improved and will continue to do so. However, we are in the new normal!” He felt that this recession will last a minimal of six quarters. He also said, “To expect a normal recovery cycle, whether it is corporate profits or lending or consumer spending or capital investment, or (pick the category—increased meeting attendance, or association growth) is just not reasonable.”
Welcome to the New Normal.