by Alex Palmer | June 22, 2017
Education and networking are top drivers of convention attendance -- but destination experience is right near the top of the list. That was among the findings of the second "Decision to Attend Study for Conventions and Exhibitions," previewed on June 22 at Meeting Professionals International's (MPI) World Education Conference. The study, from The Experience Institute, drew on almost 9,000 responses from association members to find out what factors shape their decisions to attend a conference.

The top two attendance drivers were education/staying abreast (92 percent), and networking/social interaction (76 percent), but these were followed the destination itself and perceived experience, cited by 71 percent of respondents.

"Attendees don't just come for the meetings, they get out and about," said Mickey Schaefer, president of Mickey Schaefer & Associates LLC and founder and CEO of The Experience Institute. "They are leisure travelers with an add on."

Emphasizing this "bleisure" aspect of these travelers was the fact that a majority (53 percent) said they are likely to extend their stay or add vacation days, while 49 percent are likely to bring a friend or family member. A full 79 percent are likely to get "out and about" and explore the destination's many non-conference offerings. Additionally, if their experience is positive, 78 percent of attendees said would be likely to return for leisure, while 77 percent would likely repeat attendance. Almost nine out of 10 respondents (88 percent) would likely recommend the destination to others and 89 percent recommend the convention center or expo.

Schaefer emphasized that all these elements should be taken into consideration by planners when negotiating with destinations and hotels, quantifying the "true value of attendees" that includes the additional room nights, extracurricular activities, and potential for future business. 

"Attendees are discerning travelers -- they are going to be looking at everything," said Schaefer. "The perceived destination experience matters."

The full, final research report will be published on July 15, and available for download on The Experience Institute's website. This is the second iteration of the study, following the inaugural 2014 version, which drew on about 7,000 respondents.

Schaefer presented the findings alongside Loren Gold, executive vice president of the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau, and a member of the board of directors of the Destination Marketing Association International (DMAI), which is supporting the research, along with MPI, the International Association of Exhibitions and Events (IAEE), Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA), and American Society of Association Executives (ASAE). Gold is chair of the DMAI task force looking at attendance promotion, which will be releasing its own ebook of destination promotional practices later this summer.

"We're moving away from the transactional process where it's all about room nights," he said. "We're looking at what the true demand and full capture is."

Accompanying the research, The Experience Institute introduced a new Behavioral Profile Template, meant to be used by planners and destination marketing organizations as a strategic conversion tool in creating promotions. It's designed for DMOs and planners to use together, going through 10 areas, including industry and demographic makeup of the prospective group, price considerations, food preferences, and portion of attendees likely to extend their stay or bring others. Also included were destination elements (whether its walkable, safe, etc.) and out-and-about interests (nightlife, arts and history, shopping, etc.).

"The vision is targeting promotion to behavioral interests then making sure we are creating exception experiences," said Schaefer.