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by Andrea Doyle | December 01, 2011

At first glance, the annual meeting of the Certified Restoration Drycleaning Network (CRDN), an international franchise organization of textile restoration specialists, didn’t seem like a candidate for a radical reorganization. Its members are dedicated, with close to 98 percent attending the annual meeting. But with the volatile economy, everyone is scrambling to find ways to scale back. So no annual meeting is immune from reassessment, which sometimes means a shift to regional meetings.

This was the case with CRDN. While the organization’s executives gave the stellar performance of the event serious consideration, they still decided that the best strategy for continued success was to take its all-encompassing annual meeting regional.

“The biggest factor in making this decision was the economy,” explains Jeff Schultz, CRDN’s vice president of communications, whose responsibilities include planning meetings. “We want this to be a cost-effective event for our attendees, as we want them to come and bring guests as well. It’s an important meeting in our industry for education as well as networking.”

Price Is Paramount
And CRDN is not alone. Many companies and associations see regional meetings as attractive alternatives to the traditional annual meeting. As the economy slowly gets back on track, the number of meetings being held may increase, but price is still paramount in the minds of executives. That means that when possible, destinations that are easily accessible by car are being selected, which eliminates the pricey fares and hassles of air travel. 

“I’ve found that when organizations take the annual event and turn it into three to four regional meetings, they get more bang for their buck, and the delegates get more bang for less buck,” says Sandy Biback, founder of Toronto-based Imagination+ Meeting Planners. “Sponsors also benefit with regionals because instead of just one annual conference, the meetings are spread over a longer period of time for them to get exposure. Regionals also open the doors to specific geographic sponsorship.” 

Build Anticipation
In response to the economic uncertainty that began in 2008, CRDN changed its annual international gathering to every other year, and supplemented it with biannual regional events. “After our 2008 international convention, we decided to host our future gatherings every other year. At that time we were not sure about the direction of the economy and the potential impact on our members,” explains Schultz, who uses Access Destination Services for event design and logistics.

Generally speaking, CRDN divides the United States into two zones, east and west of the Mississippi River, and plans events for each territory; smaller regional events occasionally are added to facilitate training. For CRDN, it’s a system that works well and helped smooth the transition away from a single event.

While some groups might divide the country up into smaller pieces, a simple east-west division works best for CRDN. Schultz acknowledges that regional events add to the workload of meeting planners, but he says that the benefits outweigh any complications. “I guess I look at it as an investment we make so our members can benefit,” he says. “Having two major regional meetings enables us to have workable, good-size groups that foster valuable interaction.” 

CRDN breaks the country down into even smaller units as appropriate. 

“Right now, we are in the process of conducting five regional training sessions for our new CRM [customer relationship management] program,” Schultz explains. “We have completed sessions in Indianapolis, Atlanta, and Dallas, with San Francisco and Boston upcoming. In this situation, we wanted smaller groups due to the fact that the training was more hands-on and focused heavily on technology.”

CRDN’s regional events have been held at the Marriott Inner Harbor in Baltimore, MD, and the Hilton Long Beach in California. These properties are not as high-end as the properties used for the annual conference, but they allow for more content-driven events.

Each of the regional meetings has been attended by anywhere from 100 to 150 people, versus the 350 that usually attend the international convention. Members from Canada are included in the international event and have a national meeting similar in scope to the U.S. regional meetings. U.K.-based members attend the international convention and participate in sessions tailored to the specific needs of their business environment. In this way, CRDN is successfully meeting the needs of each attendee group, while requiring less time out of the office for members because of decreased travel time to and from the events. 

“And by having our international event every other year, it makes it that much more special,” says Schultz. “There is more anticipation about everyone getting together, and it truly becomes a noteworthy event for all involved.”

Associations like CRDN are finding that regional meetings that require less than four hours of drive time help improve attendance. Many corporations will chop the national meeting into regional meetings and eliminate events like the previously requisite awards dinner—a move that some who have sat through many long, drawn-out banquets might very well be happy about.
 
Eliminate Attendance Challenges
Traditionally, the Society for Service Executives (SSE), a professional society in the technical services and support industry, has had an annual meeting in Chicago. Based on member feedback, that event is being replaced by several regional meetings.

“Members were finding that it was becoming a challenge to attend one annual meeting even though it was held in a central location,” explains Sue Fern, president of Association Services, a division of Event Pro-SSSS, an association services provider based in Palm Harbor, FL, who helps plan SSE’s meetings.

The organization’s first regional meeting was held in Chicago at the beginning of October with great success. “The response was phenomenal. It was less expensive, and the attendance was higher,” says Fern. 
While that sounds counterintuitive, the new focus includes both an overview of the industry as well as material specific to the region in which the event is held. A larger group of attendees came to the meeting, presumably because content is more tailored to potential attendees within driving distance. “Chicago was a good location, [the problem] was that the agenda was too general and East and West Coast attendees did not see enough value in attending,” explains Fern. “Holding meetings on the East Coast with an East Coast focus will draw them in, as will the same focus on the West Coast.”

For the Chicago event, meetings were held at a member’s corporate office, with attendees staying and dining at a nearby Marriott. In 2012, similar meetings will be held in California, Texas, and an East Coast location yet to be determined. Attendees arrive on Monday evening, participate in a full day of sessions on Tuesday, and a half-day on Wednesday, and then depart on Wednesday at lunchtime.

“It’s a win-win situation,” says Fern. “The annual meeting has typically been three full days, so these regional gatherings are half the length of time. We have to see if this works, as we may have to add some time now that localized topics are being added to the agenda. Everyone’s travel times are now shorter, and for those who are flying, airfare is at a reduced rate.”
 
Proceed With Caution
Regional meetings are not necessarily a home run for every group. Medtronic, the Minneapolis, MN-based medical technology giant, replaced its national meeting for one of its groups with three regionals but didn’t experience the cost savings others have. 

“We were hoping to do this meeting more cost-effectively with regionals, but it did not end up being the case,” explains Melody Kath, a senior meeting planner at Medtronic. “The economies of scale weren’t there by using one hotel, by pooling food and beverage and other services. We had to negotiate three contracts in three different cities. There was not a substantial savings on F&B, nor on the A/V as we hired a third-party vendor to coordinate our presentations and we incurred additional A/V costs at each of the regionals. We also had to fly those attendees who were presenting at all of the meetings to three different destinations. It adds up when there are 20 to 30 people who have to attend every meeting. That also meant there could be no overlap in dates, which made for more challenges.” 

One large national meeting will be held next year for the group, which met in three separate locations this year, outside of Los Angeles, Dallas, and Philadelphia.

Similarly, Sherry Johnson, a meetings and events consultant based in Scottsdale, AZ, cautions that “there are definite trade-offs in doing smaller regional meetings versus doing one national meeting. The regional meetings can save the cost of airfare for the attendees, but this approach often compromises the meeting goals. If your goal is to generate excitement and foster networking, smaller regional meetings can fall short of the mark.” Planners also should consider the elements that will need to be included at each regional event—training programs, food and beverage, speakers, A/V, and other components.

That said, companies looking to foster professional development should avoid the lavish events expected at many large-scale annual events and focus on content. Regional meetings can be ideal for them. Especially for companies still concerned about perception problems—even if the costs are not necessarily lower—a handful of smaller meetings in smaller cities is less likely to attract negative attention than one major event in a city perceived as glamorous.

“I have seen companies switching from national to regional meetings as well as from regional to national meetings—it all depends on the particular company culture and the meeting objectives,” notes Johnson. “Both regional meetings and national meetings have their purpose. My experience is that the key to determining which is best in a particular situation is to review the overall meeting goals and actually crunch the numbers.”