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The Mezzanine Group Manage Your Conference As A Strategic Asset July 2012


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Conferences often continue, year after year, without a strategic assessment of whether they are achieving the key goals for the professional association that organizes them - let alone an assessment of what those goals should be. This white paper examines the importance of a regular strategic assessment of a conference, and outlines the steps to get it done.

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The Mezzanine Group Manage Your Conference As A Strategic Asset July 2012

  1. 1. MANAGE YOUR CONFERENCE AS A STRATEGIC ASSETConferences are a significant opportunity for professionals in a range of fields to network with their peers,obtain continuing education, and learn about new developments in their industry. For many professionalassociations, conferences are a significant source of revenue, a major membership benefit, and a way toconnect with their key stakeholders and bring their community together. Given the strategic importance ofCanadian conferences – and the significant pressures they face – it is critical for a professional associationto evaluate the quality, relevance, and sustainability of its conference to ensure it is strategically alignedwith the needs of delegates, volunteers, sponsors, and exhibitors – as well as the needs of the associationitself.Copyright © 2012 The Mezzanine Group. All rights reserved.
  2. 2. INTroductionThis White Paper is based on our Why do you hold a conference? To build yourwork with a number of professional organization’s brand? To provide professional development for members? To increase mediaassociations, as well as interviews profile for your organization and its mission?with the executives of more than 15 To uphold tradition? To engage directly withprofessional conferences, ranging members and the rest of your community? Or dobetween 500 and 15,000 attendees you rely on its proceeds to fund other activitiesfrom a variety of fields. It will that your organization undertakes?be of interest to the leaders ofprofessional associations and other Conferences are under huge pressures.not-for-profit organizations who Online and mobile technologies are disruptingmanage conferences. the relationship between physical proximity and activities like learning, networking, and collaborating. Many delegates find it increasingly difficult to secure the funding and time necessary to attend. Industry sponsors are questioning their return on investment, seeking to quantify and justify their marketing decisions. Conferences can be complex to manage, and costs difficult to contain. At the same time, the surpluses generated by conferences are a revenue stream on which organizations may be strategically reliant. Given these forces, it is important to take a clear look at your conference, to ensure that its potential is being maximized and that you are preparing it for the future. The Mezzanine Group 2
  3. 3. Why do a review?Many associations, if asked, will say they regard process, and just as necessary. The need fortheir conference as a strategically important part ongoing communication is increasing, becauseof their operations. Yet most do not regularly the environment, needs, and expectations ofundertake a strategic review to understand its stakeholders are constantly changing – and thosehealth and its contribution to the organization’s stakeholders include non-member delegatesmission. Critical issues, such as decreasing and industry partners, who are not consulted inrelevance to delegates or shaky commitment member-oriented sponsors and exhibitors, can be easilyoverlooked without a periodic check-in. If an 2. You don’t have a clear and widelyorganization does not take the time to set and recognized set of conferencemeasure objectives and listen closely to sponsors, objectives that guide decisionexhibitors, volunteers, and delegates, it may not making.realize there is a problem until delegates and While it may seem obvious for objectives to besponsorship dollars are already in decline, which intertwined in conference operations, this isn’tmay be difficult to reverse. always the case. If you don’t know what you’reUltimately, a successful strategic assessment trying to accomplish, how will you know if youwill give you a deep and rich 360 degree picture achieve it?of your conference to support decision making. 3. Delegate attendance and/orThrough our work, we have seen conferences sponsorship revenue is flat orundertake this process and uncover key insights decreasing.that enabled them to make strategic decisionsbased on clear evidence. A strategic review will provide insight to understand the root causes of this downward pressure andA strategic review should be considered if any of identify strategies to address them.the following applies: 1. It has been 3 to 5 years since you 4. The program has become stale and have consulted broadly with your needs to be refreshed. stakeholders specifically about the conference. If a conference has used a similar format for a number of years, it’s important to understandMany associations conduct a member needs what types of changes will renew and reinvigorateassessment from time to time. Consulting with the program.the stakeholders of a conference is a similar The Mezzanine Group 3
  4. 4. Why do a review? 5. You have to make a decision about whether to insource or outsource your conference management.This may be driven by organizational changesor cost pressures, and it’s a surprisingly keystrategic decision with many ramifications forhow the conference operates. It will depend on avariety of factors, including the strategic prioritiesof the conference, which therefore should bewell-understood. The Mezzanine Group 4
  5. 5. How to do a review Use the objectives as a guide 1. Determine who will make decisions during planning, management, based on the outcome of the review. and evaluation of the conference. They should form the basis of your reporting to the board onFor some organizations, this step is simple: a the success of the event. Resourcestrategic review would report to the Board through trade-offs should be made with thethe CEO or Executive Director. However, wherethe governance structure is more complex, it is objectives in mind.important to clarify how the assessment itself is to The objectives should be fairly simple and few inbe governed. Some organizations form working number (4-5 is usually sufficient) so that they cangroups to address strategic issues, which can be easily remembered. They should concentratebring in key individuals with a diverse set of skills on the core reasons for the conference to existand also generate buy-in for the outputs of theprocess. at all. Objectives should be written at a strategic level; resist the temptation to load all possibleNo matter how the process is managed and stakeholder expectations into them. Often itgoverned, it is important to ensure that engaging works well to have a consultation with a relativelyand briefing the decision makers is built into the broad group to understand what the objectivesapproach and timeframes. should, in their opinion, contain, but then a very small group should take those findings and draft the final objectives. 2. Start with your objectives. A note about including a financial objective: organizations are often reluctant to do this, butObjectives should be developed and validated this represents a failure to make a decision at itsby the key stakeholders involved in organizing appropriate level. Without explicit guidance, staffthe conference. Depending on the conference’s are left to make complex decisions on their own,governance structure, this may be a fairly lengthyand complex process, or may be accomplished trading off costs and revenues against delegatewithin a week via a couple of discussions and experience without knowledge of what theythen approved by the Board. should be solving for. If the organization relies on conference net proceeds to fund other programs, the staff running the conference should be aware of this and manage purposefully to meet The Mezzanine Group 5
  6. 6. SHOULD YOU USE A THIRD PARTY ORDO IT YOURSELF?While a strategic review may be handled in-house, engaging a third party should beconsidered where feasible. An external individual or firm can provide the followingadvantages: • Objectivity: A third party can provide an impartial perspective to guard against complacency and the use of potentially incorrect conventional wisdom. Because of their objectivity, findings from a third party may also meet with a better reception inside the organization, particularly if the issues identified are complex or politically sensitive. Confidentiality: Stakeholders participating in interviews or focus groups will likely feel more comfortable reporting potentially critical feedback to a third party, who can credibly promise to keep specific comments confidential. Expertise: For effective implementation of the strategic assessment, a third party should be selected for their knowledge of best practices in qualitative interviewing and survey development, skills that are likely not available in-house. They should also be able to provide perspectives on best practices in conference management based on their experience and work with other organizations. Resources: An outside organization can bring in resources dedicated to the assessment, so internal staff can focus on other priorities. However, it is still important to make internal resources available for any assessment to provide data and insights and to evaluate the findings.
  7. 7. How to do a reviewthat objective. If the organization is happy to For delegates:break even on the conference because of themembership benefit it provides, staff should • Why do delegates attend? Why don’t they?understand that as well. • Are delegates getting what they want out of the conference? Do they see value for their 3. Understand the value proposition of time and money? the conference for stakeholders. • What kinds of delegates might you be able toMost conferences conduct delegate satisfaction attract to grow the conference?surveys, and some have methods of consulting • What are their alternatives, both in terms ofwith industry participants. However, these other conferences as well as other educationalapproaches are often quite tactical, focusing on and networking opportunities?delegates’ satisfaction with the food at a particularmeal, or the logistics of booth setup. • Are the educational and professional development components of the conferenceIt’s rare for an organization to meeting their needs?step back and ask its stakeholdersthe kinds of strategic questions - Are the topics well chosen and reflect their that really get at loyalty and interests?motivation. - Is the quality of the speakers and contentConference organizers need to go beyond the meeting their needs?simple percentage of satisfaction to understandwhat the event means to delegates and what - Is the schedule well designed so delegatesvalue it really brings to industry participants. can attend sessions of interest?Without a deep and systematic understanding ofstakeholder priorities, it’s very difficult to make • Do they come to the conference to network?good decisions. - What do they mean by networking? HowThe questions that should be focused on will does this vary by type of delegate?depend on the type of stakeholder. - Does the quality and quantity of networking opportunities meet their needs? The Mezzanine Group 7
  8. 8. How to do a review• Is the conference being managed in a way It is important to note that sponsors almost always that meets their expectations? make at least some critique of the conference, so their evaluation may seem less than glowing. - Are they comfortable? Is there enough However, make sure to benchmark responses food? Is the conference centre designed year over year to understand trends and identify and set up appropriately? any issues. - Is there too much or too little The following research techniques can be communication before, during, and after the employed to help answer the questions listed conference? above:• Would they recommend the conference to a colleague? Delegate and sponsor surveys:• If they are volunteers with the conference, • Provide quantitative data for organizations has that been a positive experience? What to use for evaluation. This should be done motivates them to volunteer? regularly (at least after each conference) and consistently to track trends in year-over-yearFor industry sponsors and trade show data.exhibitors: In-depth, one-on-one qualitative interviews:• What are their goals for their involvement with the conference? Are they achieving them? • Offer richer and more nuanced insights than surveys, by uncovering hidden or unrealized• Are they coming to display their brand, or are needs and expectations. They can be used they interested in generating leads (or both)? both to improve the quality of surveys (such• How do they measure their conference return as developing new questions or wording on investment? questions more accurately) and to improve interpretation of the quantitative data. - Is the conference meeting their financial expectations? Focus groups:• How easy was it to deal with the association • Can be conducted in situations where it is in the negotiation and planning process? easy to bring delegates together. They can be an efficient way of gathering many opinions.• Is the timing aligned with the sponsors’ budget This technique should be a supplement to cycles? one-on-one interview research since people The Mezzanine Group 8
  9. 9. How to do a review may express somewhat different opinions in Here are the key questions to ask based on the a focus group than on their own, especially in conference data: groups that contain individuals from different professions or with status (e.g. senior and Attendance: junior individuals together). • What are the trends in attendance? Which delegate segments are increasing and which aren’t? 4. Crunch the numbers. - Data collected at registration should align with the key questions you are attempting toHaving a clear picture of the conference’s answer. For example, it should be possibleperformance over time is critical to effectively to track delegates by type – member, non-managing it. Because measurement should be member, industry, trainee, etc.driven by objectives, data is required to quantifyachievement. Sometimes it takes a strategic • How many attend regularly versusassessment to identify gaps in the data currently infrequently?being collected. • Does the attendance pattern matchThis quantitative analysis can point to membership patterns in your organization orpreviously hidden issues, such as unintended growth in your field? If not, why not?overinvestment in a conference. It can alsochallenge assumptions; it’s counterintuitive to Finances:think that an incremental delegate may cost you • What are the trends in revenue and expenses,money, but this may be true if you are not charging by category?enough to cover variable per-delegate costs,especially if you have tiered registration fees or • Do you accurately capture both direct andrevenue-sharing agreements with partners. It indirect costs? For instance, perhaps youcan also expose both unrealized opportunities have a contract conference manager, whichfor growth as well as long-term strategic risks, represents a direct cost, but if their supervisorsuch as low attendance by younger members of is also spending 50% of their time on thethe profession. Without adequate data, you are conference, are you capturing that additionalmanaging blind. organizational investment in the event? The Mezzanine Group 9
  10. 10. How to do a review• What patterns do you see in revenue per delegate and cost per delegate? 5. Identify best practices. - Do you make money or lose money on each incremental delegate? Are you innovating with the• Where there are multiple organizations conference – whether through involved, how are the revenues and costs progr a mming,facilitating distributed? (Who bears the financial risk, i.e. networking, increasing access, who signs the contracts?). leveraging technology, or trade show design – to increase the value• If you forecast financial trends for the next few years, what are the results? What are the for stakeholders? implications of the potential scenarios? If you only evaluate the conference you held, you will not hear about opportunities for innovation.Reputation and leading indicators: An open-ended question at the end of a delegate• What media hits do you get from the conference satisfaction survey won’t provide this conference, and how is this changing over information. Knowledgeable volunteers from the time? delegate communities typically help develop the program, but it is not reasonable to expect them• For scientific conferences: are abstracts to speak for all the delegates. going up or down over time? Information on best practices and ideas about• Is the number of booths you need to sell to potential innovation can be obtained through fill the exhibit hall increasing? That is, do you qualitative interviews with stakeholders and by need to sell to more exhibitors to make the reaching out to conferences in other industries same revenue? and other geographies as well as through secondary research.• What categories do exhibitors come from (e.g. in a medical conference there may be pharmaceutical companies, device manufacturers, and lifestyle or health promotion companies)? The Mezzanine Group 10
  11. 11. How to do a review partners are seeing the benefit from the 6. Assess resourcing, management, arrangement. and governance. • The governance model should be aligned with the distribution of risks and benefits (financialFinally, review how your conference is managed and other).and governed internally to ensure that it is set upto address the key challenges and opportunities 7. Communicate the results of thethat have been identified. assessment.Do you have the right skill sets and adequateresources within your organization to effectively In a well-executed assessment,manage the conference and deliver on delegate dozens of people have been askedneeds and expectations? for their input.Do you have appropriate external partners If a survey was conducted, it was likely sent toproviding additional support to your internal hundreds or thousands of individuals. Once theresources? assessment is done, it is easy to overlook the need to communicate the results to all thoseDo you report regularly on the conference’s stakeholders, but this step must be built in.performance against objectives (financial and Communication of the results of the assessmentother) to senior management and the board? can be integrated with existing opportunities, such as the conference itself (e.g. in marketing• If the conference is of strategic significance materials), or an association AGM. However to the organization, the board should be it is important that the communication has receiving annual reports on its performance, the opportunity to reach all the conference and senior management should be actively stakeholders, whether they are internal or involved in setting its direction. external to the organization, and whether or notIf the conference is jointly sponsored by more they attend the next conference.than one organization, is the current governancemodel appropriate?• Governance models for a multi-organization conference can be challenging to manage, and require regular reviews to ensure all The Mezzanine Group 11
  12. 12. Themes and TrendsIn the past several years, a number of key themes diversity in delegate interests.and trends have emerged strongly in our researchon professional association conferences in Regardless of the definition, face-to-faceCanada and globally. networking is particularly important now that technology, such as webinars, can handle many of the basic educational needs of delegates. A Networking great networking component to the conference does not need to happen in formal settings.Networking is universally important to delegates Networking can be achieved through appropriateand consistently emerges as a key reason to breaks between sessions, over meals, in anattend a conference. But what do your delegates engaging exhibit hall, at a wine and cheesemean by it? Some examples of what “networking” scientific session, or at a social event.may mean: Conferences have a plethora of• For a premier scientific or academic opportunities for networking, and researcher: A chance to discuss need to find ways to foster these collaboration on worldwide studies. connections wherever possible to leverage the fact that delegates• For a social worker in a community services are interacting all together in one organization: Connecting with local peers place and at one time. who work with the same client groups to better coordinate services. Strengthening Conference Management• For an accountant: Meet sources of referrals. The extent of a conference’s management and• For a recent graduate: Get hired. logistics that should be in-house versus outsourced depends on the specific situation. Regardless,• For an industry product manager: Social the level of commitment should be aligned with opportunities with key opinion leaders. the size and complexity of the conference, taking into consideration whatever resources the rest ofThese varying definitions have very different the organization might be able to provide (e.g.implications for conference organizers in terms of media relations or fund development capabilities).program offerings, scheduling, venue, and even The key is to first assess what is required, andrefreshments. If your event is multidisciplinary, subsequently determine how that work should bethat’s all the more reason to recognize the done – whether in-house or elsewhere. The Mezzanine Group 12
  13. 13. Themes and TrendsThe key to excellent conference the staff through training and professional development as well as sustain a team that ismanagement is not in the specific appropriately sized for the scope and complexitydecision between insourcing of the conference.or outsourcing, but rather inensuring that whatever you Innovations in helping sponsorschoose best supports the sponsor and exhibitors realize their return onand delegate experience given investment.your organizational situation. The pressure to demonstrate a quantified return on marketing investment is intensifying forIf an association chooses to use a third party, it industry sponsors and exhibitors. If you don’tis critical that it makes the decision strategically understand, intimately and concretely, what yourand selects a partner not dependent entirely on event achieves for your industry partners – whatcost, but also based upon their ability to provide motivates them to participate, what alternativesthe outcome the association is looking for, with they have, and how strong their commitment is –the flexibility to meet needs as they arise. then that portion of your revenue is at risk.It is possible to build a truly successful, long-term Sponsors and exhibitors have diverse reasonsthird party relationship that provides a conference for participating in specific conferences. Whetherwith significant benefits. While a good contract they are attending to have their brand on displayis critically important, an initial learning process alongside their competition or to connect directlyto interpret the contract and develop a working with people who are important decision makersrelationship will take place over the first year or within their industry, meeting their needs istwo. critical for the future financial sustainability ofInsourcing can also be effective, but it requires conferences that rely on this type of revenue.that the association commit to having stronginternal resources. The benefits of keepingconference logistics in-house can include greatercontrol over the execution of the event and havingevent management expertise available for otherevents held by the organization. However, thesecapabilities need to be developed and maintainedby a strong executive champion that can support The Mezzanine Group 13
  14. 14. Themes and TrendsThrough our work, several key tactics have been • Audited delegate lists can be helpfulidentified to help ensure their needs are being but require the ability to collect delegatemet: information accurately.• Engage with sponsors and exhibitors • Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) on over the course of the year, such as delegate badges provides sponsors and through the development of a sponsor exhibitors with a more exact way to measure advisory committee, and through informal their return on investment. RFID provides discussions. accurate information on exactly which types of delegates entered the exhibition• Pay special attention to the organization hall or attended specific events. However, of the schedule and the layout of the conferences using this method should also conference. The exhibit hall should be in be prepared to manage any issues arising a location that maximizes the potential for from attendance figures that do not turn out delegates to enter, and the environment to be as expected. should be conducive to staying, eating, and interacting. Even in the medical conference industry, where regulations can make it more challenging to deal with sponsors and exhibitors, the exhibit hall should still create an exciting and engaging environment. Make sure the schedule allows for adequate time for delegates to visit the exhibits.• Create ways for delegates to engage with sponsors and exhibitors, such as through passport contests, interactive satellite symposia, poster sessions set up inside the exhibit hall, etc.• Provide timely and accurate data on what type of delegates were at the conference and at specific sessions. The Mezzanine Group 14
  15. 15. CONCLUSIONIt is easier to let an event simply Conferences can be an irreplaceable way for associations to provide tangible value to theircontinue along, year after year, members, engage with industry, and generatebut a board or CEO with a strategic revenue to support other programs and services.perspective will protect this key Over time, they tend to take on a life of their own,asset from risk, and maximize its developing their own culture, history, and brandvalue. associations. Ensuring the ongoing health of the event starts with a clear understanding of its performance, its relationship with its delegates and other stakeholders, and its potential for the future, in the context of a changing environment. The Mezzanine Group 15
  16. 16. ABOUT THE MEZZANINE GROUPThe Mezzanine Group is a Toronto-based Business to Business strategy and marketing company.For more than ten years, we’ve helped executives in small and mid-sized companies, large enterprisesand professional associations achieve growth through effective strategic plans and marketingimplementation.We know growth - we were named one of the fastest growing companies in Canada for four years byPROFIT Magazine.WANT MORE INFO?Sign up for our tips and trends newsletter to receive regular email updates or subscribe to our blog RSSfeed.130 Spadina Ave, Suite 305Toronto, Ontario M5V 2L4416.598.4684info@themezzaninegroup.comCopyright © 2012 The Mezzanine Group. All rights reserved.