Catch 'Em If You Can

Once upon a time (okay, two or three years ago), luring people to your association meeting was a cinch, so to speak. You sent out brochures and postcards promoting the event and the destination to your loyal delegates, then sat back and waited for registrations to roll in. In those flush times, it was obvious to attendees why they should show up: to network, get a little education, maybe see a different part of the country.

Sorry, Cinderella, but it's long past midnight. Today, for the reasons we all know (the dot-com bust, September 11th, the still-limping economy), association planners face a humbling reality. Compared to the corporate market, their meetings still go on (after all, attendees' registration dollars help keep associations afloat), but it's much harder to pull in delegates during down times. "Before, [association planners] could depend on repeat attendees," notes Michael Olson, recently departed CEO of the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) in Washington D.C. "It's not like that now. They have to resell the organization's value every time they hold a meeting."

Even so, Olson adds, overall attendance figures for associations are holding steady, meaning there are enough well-attended gatherings out there to compensate for others' poor showings. Successful Meetings interviewed planners of thriving shindigs to find out what accounts for their success. They offer some valuable lessons you can apply to your own meeting.

Expanding Your Value Offer

"Springtime," the annual June get-together of the Greater Washington Society of Association Executives (GWSAE), was already the largest one-day gathering for the hospitality industry in the country. Still, Susan Sarfati, president and CEO of the D.C.-based organization, wasn't one to rest on her laurels. At this year's meeting, she managed to boost her attendance by a whopping 35 percent over 2002's -- without increasing her membership base.

How'd Sarfati do it? By expanding the value of what Springtime offers, she says. For instance, its trade-show segment used to feature primarily exhibits by hospitality and travel companies; this year, she built on those by introducing a business-services area showcasing over 70 business- and technology-oriented firms, with educational modules on hand to familiarize people with new software programs and other tools. The result: 125 more booths, a broader exhibit mix -- and over 4,500 attendees.

Of course, this wasn't decided willy-nilly. Sarfati used focus groups and market research to pinpoint the subjects attendees wanted to learn about and the types of services that interested them. She then used this new knowledge to design Springtime's educational component, coming up with programs on Web-based marketing, leadership for women, and other hot topics.

Sarfati also devised an unusual setup for Springtime's general session: two speakers, one a famous management guru (Tom Peters), the other an industry expert (Roger Dow, a senior VP at Marriott International). Using a "dynamic duo" system, Sarfati says, is a good rule of thumb for all planners: "It not only gives you a big name that draws people in, but it makes the general session totally relevant to the audience."

Add Tech to Your Toolbox

"Technology is key," says Mary Pat Cornett, managing director for meetings and travel at the Alexandria, VA-based American Diabetes Association, who says the increase in the incidence of this disease only partly accounts for the fact that attendance at her meetings has risen 42 percent in the last three years. Forty percent of Cornett's attendees register online, so she makes sure to keep the association's Web site interesting and up-to-date, with interactive elements such as a message center and an agenda-builder, which attendees use to choose the sessions they want to go to. The Web site is also the only place they can sign up for housing, and Cornett prevents guests from crashing the meeting or going outside the block by linking housing to registration (without a registration confirmation number, attendees can't get a room).

Sending "blast" e-mails to previous attendees has been especially successful, Cornett adds. "Each one contains a teaser -- say, housing is about to close, or fees are going up -- and a link that takes them straight to the registration screen, which displays all their information from last year," she explains. By tracking the number of registrations to each promotional blast, Cornett was able to pinpoint how effective this strategy was: "With every e-mail we sent, there was a nice spike in registration. And it's practically free to send."

As an e-mail fan, Cornett's got company. "I've seen general event communication and registration reminders, sent via e-mail and the Web, increase registration by up to 20 percent," notes M. Rachel Porter, president, corporate and association events, for The Porter Event in Chapel Hill, NC. She urges planners to "know [their] membership and their e-mail limits -- and push those limits." To reach the e-mail-weary, she suggests press releases containing newsy items about the upcoming meeting: "Often folks who couldn't stand to read one more e-mail would pick those up."

But don't expect e-mail to work miracles with all attendees. "E-mail marketing wasn't all we expected it to be," admits Anna Lee Chabot, CMP, manager of meetings and events for the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada in Ottawa, who says she's "struggling" to raise attendance since narrowing the focus of her annual meeting. "E-mail is fine for general announcements, but for targeted communications, there's too much already out there and it's too easy to delete for it to be effective." On the other hand, Chabot has noticed that "if people get a letter on Royal College stationery that's addressed to them personally, they're much more likely to read it and act on it."

Talk Amongst Yourselves

Since 1997, when the Drug and Alcohol Testing Industry Association first met, attendance has gone up by over 10 percent each year, notes Laura Shelton, executive director of the Alexandria, VA-based organization. She attributes her success partly to "continual marketing" of the meeting, but more importantly, "At the conference we talk to attendees to get their ideas, and we actually act on the feedback we receive" when deciding on destinations, sessions, and activities.

Keeping attendees' interests front and center is also a priority for Christopher Grace, CMP, meeting services coordinator at the American Academy of Pediatrics in Oak Grove Village, IL. By working with staff members who are experts in adult education, "We make [our conferences] the most positive environment for adult learners that we can." For instance, to appeal to his attendees' preference for self-directed learning, Grace sets breakout rooms in rounds rather than theater style, so attendees can discuss topics with their peers as well as the faculty member leading the session. "That way they're not just learning from one person," he explains. Grace also refuses to compromise the educational experience for the sake of higher registration dollars: "We don't try to pack in attendees. Once we hit capacity, we close the course."

Striking a similar note, independent planner Porter argues that nowadays, creating a positive event experience is fundamental. "In this economy, people are working harder than ever thanks to staff and budget cutbacks," she points out. "Often [the annual meeting] is the only 'vacation' overworked association members get." For that yearly get-together, Porter recommends selecting sites that offer "more than just a meeting place -- family activities, interesting sites, and, most importantly, relaxation."

Even the GWSAE's Sarfati acknowledges this need for an occasional change of scenery. While site selection alone can't account for her huge jump in attendance, "I'd also like to credit the brand-new Washington [D.C.] Convention Center" where Springtime was held, she offers. "I think people were very interested to see this new venue, and I'm assuming their interest will continue next year."