Anita O’Boyle serves as the Director of Event Services at SmithBucklin. She has more than 25 years of convention, trade show and event experience, having managed large staff teams, and training and mentoring event professionals. Kim Vinciguerra is Senior Manager of Event Services at SmithBucklin, and has more than 15 years of experience planning and executing events for both associations and corporations.
The average size of a local community in America is 6,200 people. An association’s annual conference can include anywhere from 2,000 to 20,000 attendees. That’s right — your next event could have a larger population than a small town! So when that many people gather in one location, what are you doing to ensure the event will run smoothly and achieve its goals? How do you ensure that event logistics and management, and trade show and educational services are working together to maximize ROI? Hopefully, your answer involves the word “strategy.” In the midst of an ever-changing business and event market, the need for strategy is greater than ever before. But what does strategy even mean?
Kim Vinciguerra and Anita O’Boyle, event strategy leads at SmithBucklin, a leading association management and services company, shared their insights on successful strategy.
O’Boyle: During the past 10 years, event planners have faced some of the toughest challenges ever for the industry. As a result, the need for strategic planning is critical. But strategy is not simply following a production schedule or picking a great venue. It is the careful orchestration of an event’s objectives.
Vinciguerra: Strategy is about clear communication and collaboration among team members. Constant contact keeps the team focused on end results and ensures the conference goals align with the organization’s strategic plan. Strategy is also the feeling that something needs to change and the inspiration to produce something different and innovative.
Vinciguerra: Regardless of whether you already employ a clearly articulated event strategy, you should take a moment to ask yourself, “What would we do differently if we were starting over?” Answer without thinking of prior obligations, committee rules or budget constraints.
O’Boyle: You have to get input from your members, prospects, attendees, exhibitors and sponsors regarding what they want, what they need and what will create value for them. Take this feedback seriously. You need to know where your event ranks in the market you serve. Look at the competition. If your market is changing, be honest about whether or not you are addressing these changes. Then get your team ready.
Vinciguerra: An event lead can set the strategy, but you will need your whole team to implement it or it won’t work. Include your team members in the conversation and value their feedback or your strategy will be something that only exists on paper.
O’Boyle: Talking about the importance of strategy is one thing. Implementing it is a whole different ballgame. At SmithBucklin, I serve an organization of print professionals with an annual event facing challenges that include competition, limited flexibility due to future contracts and a loyal community questioning the overall value of the event. After a decrease in attendance in 2012, it was time to re-evaluate our strategy. For the 2013 event, we gathered data and input, both formally and informally, from our members. Our staff team also identified what we viewed as the event’s biggest challenges and opportunities. This research gave us specific goals and data points to help keep us focused on exactly what needed to be updated.
As a result, we made changes and adjustments to the event’s website, registration categories and packages, exhibit layout and approach, educational content and format, and marketing. Open communication has proven key, as it ensures everyone has up-to-date information and is engaged and invested in the event’s overall outcome and success. The team meets regularly to stay aligned and consistent, and we keep our volunteer leadership and exhibitors aware of our progress.
Change is hard, so not all of our ideas have been met with a positive reaction, but our clearly defined strategy has kept us on track and reminded us that these changes are being driven by member data, not emotion or opinions.
Vinciguerra: At SmithBucklin, I serve a technology organization that has kept its annual conference registration numbers consistent while its registration revenue decreased. This happened because the organization offered last-minute discounts to boost registration.
To address this issue, we informally reached out to members and discovered attendees had come to expect the eventual “fire sale.” Attendees wouldn’t register at full price, instead waiting for an email announcing the last-minute discount. This pricing strategy was resulting in negative registration behavior and lost revenue.
After receiving this feedback, we looked at the event budget as a whole and analyzed the current pricing strategy. We learned what discounts were used most often, when and by whom. This information allowed us to set a new pricing strategy that wouldn’t deter attendees but would still allow the conference to succeed and be perceived as valuable.
As a result of our new strategy, we reduced the price of registration and stopped offering last-minute discounts. Timely communication was essential, as we needed to get the word out quickly regarding the pricing structure change so members could budget appropriately and know not to wait for discounts. We had to change the behavior of a few thousand people in a very short time frame.
The 2013 conference is just around the corner, and we are on track to meet our registration and budget goals. And, we have received positive feedback on the lowered fees. All thanks to our new pricing strategy!
O’Boyle: Success can be defined in many ways. It’s important you know what success looks like for your event in particular. Make sure you have clearly defined your goals based on the changes you have made so you can analyze whether they were successful. And don’t overlook the importance of a lesson learned. Even if everything doesn’t work exactly the way you were hoping, you can still learn from it.
Vinciguerra: Be aware that success can come in all forms. Maybe you’ll learn that you need to retire or “sunset” an event or program because it no longer matches your overall strategy. While it may be hard to view that decision as a success, it could be a big step toward accomplishing your goals and providing your members and attendees with what they really want.
Vinciguerra: If you learn that your event isn’t meeting the needs of your constituents, don’t be afraid to make the necessary changes. Just make sure you have a clear strategy in place before you do so.
O’Boyle: Creating a successful strategy is not about being more brilliant than everyone else. Instead, it is about being focused, making calculated decisions based on thorough research and knowing how to pay attention to trends that will impact your events. Strategy shouldn’t be seen as a list of critical dates — it should be the guiding force behind everything you do. AC&F