When Conferences Go Awry

Oh My, Oops!

Most nonprofit organizations host some type of annual meeting every year. Generally their bylaws require that they hold at least one annual membership meeting.

Similarly, many corporations and associations organize, plan and implement one or more conferences every year that have other goals beyond the annual membership meeting. Some corporations hold customer events to showcase new products and services or increase loyalty.

Often when these annual meetings and conferences first start, their vision and goals are clear to everyone involved. Then over a period of time, the mission and goals become vague or foggy. Committees and volunteer groups lose sight of the conference’s original purpose. Eventually the conference becomes an institution that the organization has always offered.

When conferences are not kept true to their original mission, or their mission is not readjusted to align with new plans, the conference gets off-center. It becomes skewed to specific historical patterns of behavior even if it is out of kilter with its true purpose.

Three Main Business Purposes Of Organizational Conferences

Here are three primary business reasons organizations host conferences.

1. The Conference Is A Primary Revenue Generator

Many organizations depend upon their conference as a primary revenue generator. It can provide as much as 70 percent of the revenue for their overall annual budget. Revenue comes from exhibitors, sponsors and paid registrants with exhibitors and sponsors carrying the most financial burden.

2. The Conference Is A Break Even Service

Some organizations see their conference as a service and will continue to provide it as long as it breaks even financially. Typically, these conferences are smaller in size and don’t have an exhibit hall. Often the organization underwrites staff time for planning and implementing the conference.

3. The Conference Is A Service Underwritten By The Organization

These conferences are seen as a primary service to customers and completely underwritten by the organization. Usually, the host organization has a clear goal such as education, product roll-out or increasing customer loyalty.

When Conferences Become Twisted

A faulty understanding of the conference’s business purpose and its goal often leads to the conference becoming skewed. Volunteer groups and staff plan programming that misses the mark as to the original conference’s purpose.

Frequently, the conference becomes the place where every niche group within the organization wants to hold programs. They expect the organization to offer them free space, free AV and free food, even if they will only have a small attendance. In these cases, each program request needs to be evaluated on the basis of the conference’s original goals and business purpose.

If the conference is a primary revenue generator for the organization, allowing volunteer groups to design programming often leads to an overabundance of programs for small groups. While in theory this is appropriate, it often dilutes the overall offering to the identified target market. Additional expenses are incurred for niche groups that are not typically the economic buyers and primary decision makers needed for a sustainable event.

These volunteer groups look at the conference through the lens of their personal consumer mindset. It’s often difficult to move from the consumer mindset to one that aligns with the conference’s original strategic mission. However, it is imperative that all volunteer groups and staff involved adopt the conference’s strategic business purpose especially if the conference is to be sustainable.

Ultimately, Volunteer groups should be allowed to hold programming as long as it aligns with the larger vision and attracts the target market.

How can organization keep their conference true to its original mission? In your opinion, how much emphasis should an organization put on a conference as a revenue generator?

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