Win the Battle for Attendees

Want Trump to Speak? Be Patient
Landing big-name industry leaders as presenters can help make your event a can’t-miss. The Burba Hotel Network (BHN) recently produced the Americas Lodging Investment Summit (ALIS) in Los Angeles, which featured Donald Trump as the keynote speaker. (Click here to watch the video of Trump's address.)
And it only took 15 years to book him. 

“It takes more than a phone call to the Trump team to get him on board. In fact it takes years,” says Bob Hayes, co-founder and vice president of BHN. “A great lesson we’ve learned over the years is that it’s always best to go out of our way to cultivate relationships, which can take years to develop. We connect people and thoughts, but you first have to make the connection before you ask the question.”  

The timeline leading up to Trump speaking at ALIS constitutes the record of a long, arduous, and sometimes serendipitous effort. 

Jim Burba, president of BHN, met a senior hotel executive, now COO with the Trump organization, when he was the managing director of a major Los Angeles hotel BHN used for an event. The two developed a great working relationship and kept in touch even after the executive was no longer at the property.

The executive joined the Trump Organization. Burba sent the person a congratulatory note, reached out to see what sort of things he and the Trump organization were doing, and explored the possible connection of getting Trump employees to attend BHN events around the world when it made mutual sense.

At various times, BHN invited Trump executives and/or Trump himself to speak at BHN’s hotel investment events. Although BHN had no success landing Trump himself, from time to time the events drew Trump executives. This time period also included a specific request for Trump to speak at BHN’s Hong Kong conference in October 2011. 

BHN met with Burba’s Trump connection at the ALIS event in January 2011 to once again catch up and to talk about the possibility of Trump speaking someday, somewhere at a BHN conference. Trump hotels were becoming more active in the global hotel industry. The interest was finally there on Trump’s part, and in the fall of 2011 he was confirmed as a speaker at ALIS 2012.

January 24, 2012: Donald Trump finally addresses the ALIS conference in Los Angeles, and BHN is still talking about it. 

“The moral of the story is that you never really know where a connection is going to take you,” says Hayes. “That is why we go out of our way to connect with people and to keep the connection going. It can be a long, frustrating process, but the reward makes it worth the effort.

As anyone who’s ever searched YouTube using the key words “dog” or “cat” can tell you, Americans love their pets. Indeed, according to the National Pet Owners Survey conducted by the American Pet Products Association (APPA), in 2011 alone, we spent almost $51 billion on Fido, Whiskers, and company, and that figure is expected to increase by nearly $2 billion this year. Not surprisingly, all that money has helped give rise to numerous pet industry associations whose aim is to bring suppliers and retailers together. APPA, the biggest of the bunch, is also the sponsor of Global Pet Expo, the industry’s largest trade show, which draws about 12,000 attendees each year. How does APPA win the competition for attendees year after year?

According to Andrew Darmohraj, who as senior vice president of APPA is responsible for planning the Global Pet Expo, one way the show keeps its registration numbers up is by keeping the price of education down. “Education on any level is important to our independent retailers, so we make sure the sessions are reasonably priced,” he says. “They were just $20 a session this year.” Such rock-bottom pricing helps Darmohraj get top dollar for booths from the exhibitors who want to connect with the thousands of retailers who walk the show floor between classes.

The success of the Global Pet Expo begs the question: How do planners in other industries congested with events ensure that their meetings and trade shows are worth the investment of time and money? Here’s how some savvy organizations are making sure that the professionals in their industry choose their shows and not the competitions’.
Partner With Your Attendees
Partnering with industry suppliers is common practice when planning events, but partnering with attendees is one of the core strategies employed by Bob Hayes and Jim Burba, co-founders of Burba Hotel Network (BHN), a company that produces eight major hotel investment conferences each year in cities such as Hong Kong, Delhi, Miami, and London.

“We try to make everybody an involved partner. We do all we can to make people feel like they are stakeholders in the event,” says Burba, who serves as president of the company. Burba and Hayes spend a great deal of time, money, and effort determining exactly what’s on the minds of potential attendees.

The two men recently had two back-to-back pre-planning meetings in Singapore and Delhi with their target attendees — senior hotel investment leaders. 

“About 30 senior leaders in the industry in each city gave a day of their time to meet with us,” says Burba. “We spent all day picking their brains using a little technology and a little old-fashioned brainstorming to see what is of importance to them as they do their jobs, and if there is a way to incorporate that into our upcoming conferences.”

It is a hugely collaborative process that Burba and Hayes use to gain an informal level of buy-in from the participants. “As a result, we now have 30 cheerleaders in India and 30 in Singapore talking about us and the program,” notes Hayes, who is also vice president at BHN. “These people went back to their offices feeling like they own a piece of this event.”

The two are currently making arrangements for their Los Angeles conference pre-planning meeting, with about 100 people set to attend. “Hopefully, they will go out and say good things about our conference, as they now have a little skin in the game,” says Hayes. “They become a marketing arm for us in a way that is more effective than any promotion you can ever buy.”

Every meeting owner should make time for the sort of due diligence that Hayes and Burba routinely conduct, according to David Meerman Scott, bestselling author of The New Rules of Marketing and PR. “It’s important to remember that a conference starts long before anyone shows up,” he says. “One of the best ways to ensure success is to get key potential attendees involved early in the process and make them vested partners in the event.” 

Maximize Face Time
Networking opportunities are the main reason attendees and exhibitors go to events, and organizations that provide the most effective, structured means to enable such interaction will be rewarded with long registration lines.

John Graham, CEO of the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE), says it’s important to pay special attention to first-time attendees. “Many associations forget that there are a lot of first-timers at any large convention or trade show, and those events can be daunting experiences if you don’t know anyone,” he says. “Make sure new attendees are comfortable, because if they have an unsatisfying experience it can be very difficult to get them to return.”

Graham suggests having staff assigned to first-time attendees and to have gathering points for them, so they have a group they can feel connected to. 

Every BHN conference kicks off with a speed-meet, similar to speed dating, where new attendees meet with other conference-goers. “We’ve been successfully doing this for the past 10 years,” says Burba. “Speed-meet is especially beneficial for newbies, as it allows them to feel more at ease knowing they can connect later in the conference with a few of their speed-meeting acquaintances.”

Global Pet Expo facilitates networking on the trade show floor by creating a special 15,000-square-foot pavilion just for new product launches. “It’s the new products that make the Global Pet the world’s largest annual pet products trade show, and many of the exhibitors of these products are first-timers, so we want to make it easy for the attendees to find them,” notes Darmohraj. “More than 3,000 new products launched at this year’s show included everything from teddy-bear fish tanks to life-size dog[-shaped] speakers.” 

The new product pavilion drew 12,000 attendees onto the trade show floor, much to the benefit of the 900 exhibitors in 2,787 booths located on the 250,000 square feet of exhibit space the show occupied.
The Right Name Makes a Splash 
Darmohraj capitalizes on the many celebrities who have pet product lines to help market his show. “There is a synergy with us and some of the celebrities in the industry. We have featured Cesar Millan, Rachael Ray, and Victoria Stilwell from [the television show] It’s Me or the Dog as speakers at our show,” he says.

For its part, BHN also recognizes that high-profile speakers add allure to an event. At its most recent Los Angeles conference, BHN presenters included Donald Trump and Bill Marriott.

“It took us 15 years to get Donald Trump to come,” says Burba. “He finally agreed because we were able to provide him with what he needed: a platform to talk about his growing hotel business.” (See sidebar for a timeline detailing the effort to land Trump.)

But Graham cautions against going after a luminary just for the sake of getting a big name. What’s most important is the speaker’s connection to the industry. “Today it’s all about a return on investment, so the celebrity has to have some relevance to the industry,” he says. “Attendees are investing in plane tickets, hotel rooms, registration fees, and meals. They’re putting out a lot of money, so there better be some value in it for them beyond just being able to say they saw George Clooney speak. That might entice some, but the serious meeting attendee couldn’t care less.”
Embrace New Marketing Platforms
Recognizable names also help Global Pet Expo create buzz on its Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter pages. Social media is now the most important component of its marketing. 

“We get better responses to our posts on Facebook than we do to our direct mail pieces and emails,” says Darmohraj. “Moving from direct mail to email was a big step for us, and now we’re focusing on social media.”

Nine months before its event, APPA lets its exhibitors release information on its Facebook page and runs contests for free booths, hotel accommodations, or airline tickets. “It took a while to figure out how to keep interest on our Facebook page,” he says. “We don’t use it only for self-promotion; we use it for relationship-building.” 

Darmohraj’s effective use of social media to help with marketing puts him squarely in the minority, says Scott. “Sadly, very few host organizations have figured out how to use social media to tap an attendee base,” he notes. About a month before most of his speaking gigs, Scott sends an update to his Twitter followers to say he will be speaking at the event. “I’m surprised at how few organizers do this. Sometimes I am given a discount code for anyone who registers based on my tweet. At one event where I got the metrics, the result was 53 people linking to the conference site and seven registrations, all in less than a day. It’s the new rules of marketing at work.”

Scott says many meeting owners use the same old marketing methods, year after year. “They send an email and a postal direct mail to everyone who attended last year and to the in-house lists; they partner for some lists, and buy even more email and postal mailing lists. It’s all about pushing the idea of the event out there. To be fair, most shows build good websites and most have decent SEO. But that’s usually it for marketing.”

In terms of what marketing methods should be employed, Scott says, “Quality, conference-centric web content can provide an ideal confluence of on-site and online. Smart organizers create all kinds of different content that helps people to make the decision, prior to the event, to go or not. The content also serves as search engine fodder, driving traffic to the show site prior to the event.”

Social media has extended the reach of events exponentially. Scott remembers speaking at a meeting in Boston and getting a question via Twitter from New Zealand. “Who better to pre-sell tickets to next year’s event than someone who wishes he could be at this year’s show? Online information generated by participants [can serve as a lead-generation tool] to sell new attendees in future years. It’s a marketing dream come true for event organizers,” he says.

The lingering content from previous years often is the best marketing tool for subsequent events, adds Scott. Which means that organizers who use the same URL over and over wipe away the valuable information from the previous event as staffers begin gearing up for the next event. 

“That’s a big mistake,” says Scott. “Every event today is an opportunity to create a living conversation, one that creates a real-time vibrancy and a lasting archive of community content. At a minimum, let it happen. Better still, enable and interact with attendees to bring your conference marketing message to life.”