“What does this meeting cost and what financial value do we get in return?” That’s a question that many planners and associations don’t ask.
Everyone wants to stretch meeting and conference budgets, provide more value to members, and increase revenue from membership and services. But only a fraction of planners and associations measure the return on investment (ROI) of meetings and conferences.
Experts cite several reasons why measuring ROI is uncommon: Planners think the process is too difficult and lack the time to learn it. Many planners who try to measure ROI become frustrated and abandon the effort. Some planners calculate ROI superficially or incorrectly, leading to ambiguous or inaccurate results. On the other hand, planners who use ROI can increase value for attendees. The information also can help planners manage budgets and target attendees more effectively with activities such as education, training, exhibitions and membership drives.
In addition, planners can use ROI to help cope with growing competition for traditional association services. Many professionals no longer feel they must attend association meetings to get information, specialized learning and make contacts, says Jeff Hurt, executive vice president, education and management at Dallas-based Velvet Chainsaw Consulting, which services associations and companies with their meetings, conferences, events and education. “Associations were the main keepers of professional networks and information. Now people can build their own professional networks and get information online, no matter how exclusive associations think their information is. Many associations are struggling with this. If the goal of conferences is to make money and provide value, I think associations will eventually be forced to use ROI,” says Hurt.
Eric Olson, general manager of Active Network, a leading event management software firm based in San Diego, agrees. “If associations don’t take the time to understand exactly what value they get for different activities and what value they provide members, then some associations may not be around in the future. Or their memberships will shrink and there will be a threat to what they count on for revenue,” says Olson.
There are some efforts to gauge the ROI of meetings and conferences. Last year, IMEX Frankfurt and IMEX America launched an online platform that enables attendees to set individual conference goals and measure the results. The online platform, called Online Performance Center (OPC), allows attendees to use the system several weeks before an IMEX exhibition to set five main goals and a maximum of four objectives under each goal, says Jon Bradshaw, CEO of Meetings Mindset, a London-based firm offering online, onsite and face-to-face solutions to improve the effectiveness of international meetings, conferences and exhibitions.
For example, attendees can use the OPC to set goals such as developing knowledge and skills. Under that goal, attendees can list objectives such as learning a specific skill, meeting and developing a relationship with a certain person, or finding a solution to a specific business problem, says Bradshaw. Attendees also can write personal notes in the system to further detail their goals. The system then provides a tailored list of education seminars and sessions to each user based on the goals entered.
When a conference ends, users can rate on a percentage basis of 1 percent to 100 percent how they fared in meeting their individual goals and objectives. IMEX uses the aggregate results of the OPC to improve its education programs. “We believe that ROI comes from (attendee) performance at meetings, which can teach the meetings industry a lot about how to improve meetings. People can build that into their own ROI methodologies as they wish. We feed back to IMEX some business intelligence, especially from education activities, to show how many people wanted certain topics. They can use the information to increase attendance and impact the bottom line in terms of registration,” says Bradshaw.
Four years ago, a large national association launched a “continuous improvement program” that set objectives to increase the number of executives attending the annual conference by 25 percent. The objective was crucial to the organization because executive members lead to other categories of membership and represent a knowledge resource for the organization, says the association’s consultant, Bill Voegeli, president of Smyrna, GA-based Association Insights.
The association reached its 25 percent goal last year and then set about gauging the ROI of its annual conference and five yearly regional meetings. At the annual conference, 10 Association Insights staffers used iPads to conduct interviews choosing from a list of more than 50 questions. Attendees were interviewed after nearly every conference activity, including training sessions, meetings and educational seminars to determine precisely what learned information they would use. Interviewers also questioned exhibitors and attendees on the trade show floor to determine whether they were meeting the right customers and buyers. General questions about satisfaction level were not included.
The goal was to measure the quality of attendee experiences and their impact on attendance and trade show revenue. Based on the information, the association will improve, cut back or discontinue some activities. Analysis of the data is time consuming but promises to be informative, says Voegeli. “We discovered the impact of allowing 10 minutes between session start times and the sessions being up to 15 minutes apart in terms of walking. Participation was diminished along with their propensity to return the following year. We also discovered there was a 15 percent decline in attendance for those who feel they didn’t have enough time to network between sessions,” says Voegeli.
The Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) uses online technology to justify growing mobile offerings, use staff resources effectively and measure session popularity. PCMA also uses the system to improve meetings, learn more about members and enhance convention activities and services.
PCMA’s technology partner and event sponsor Active Network Inc., a leading provider of fully scalable and customizable event technology for events of all sizes, first implemented the system in January at the PCMA 2012 Convening Leaders annual meeting in San Diego. The free Convening Leaders mobile app helped attendees connect with one another through attendee search and messaging tools and provided complete mobile conference guides to help attendees navigate 385 sessions and 241 speakers. About 48 percent of attendees downloaded the app, and 31 percent of surveys were completed on the software.
Active Network’s other technological solutions for PCMA include end-to-end services for registration, attendee management and session access control, says Olson. “All of that is integrated with their membership database. We put all the information in one place about what attendees do at all of their events worldwide. PCMA knows what sessions and events they attend and can get feedback through surveys on all events. They had been collecting much of the information, but it was in different systems and places. It’s only helpful if you can get it one place and examine it and determine its value,” Olson says.
Kelly Peacy, CAE, CMP, senior vice president, meetings and events at PCMA, agrees. “We need to have information ready at our fingertips at all times when it comes to our attendance and who is at our meetings. We are very busy. We don’t have time to search different places for the information and reporting that we need. We need it quickly,” Peacy says in an online video on the Active Network website.
In an email, Jason Paganessi, CAE, vice president, business innovation of PCMA, describes several benefits to the association’s bottom line. “First, we are able to see the growth of the amount of our attendee base that is using mobile devices, which in turn helps us justify growing our mobile offerings in the future. Secondly as mentioned, by scanning at each session we are able to measure session popularity as well as collect that attendance behavior to issue CEU (continuing education units granted upon completing PCMA professional development programs) credits without the intensive staff resources normally associated with CEU recording and reporting,” says Paganessi.
Paganessi also cites advantages for PCMA’s technology development teams. “By looking at the most popular devices and platforms within our audiences, we can spend more focus on the popular devices to enhance them for the majority of the attendees. While we can’t ignore the other platforms out in the space, it at least helps our teams know which ones need to be addressed first to have the greatest impact,” Paganessi says.
Earlier this year, a large association with new top management launched efforts to improve the ROI of its four annual international conferences. Hurt met with the association’s officers in February after they examined the organization’s finances. “They realized that the sponsorship, exhibitors and attendance were down for all four events. They realized they needed to make tough decisions because the conference experience wasn’t attracting the right market anymore. They weren’t targeting the right buyers and decision-makers who could make decisions about purchasing from exhibitors and memberships,” says Hurt.
Based on advice from Hurt, the association made immediate changes to increase ROI. Starting with 2012, the group combined its two yearly North American conferences into one to cut expenses and increase financial return. The association also reinvented its 2012 trade show, says Hurt. “They moved education experiences to the show floor. They created an app arcade on the show floor with presentations on using mobile apps. They created community centers on the show floor where people could network. The trade show went from having little traffic to being the buzz center of the entire conference,” Hurt says.
Financial returns were immediate. The association increased the number of exhibitors seeking spaces at the group’s three yearly conferences. “They showed improvement because they were able to turn on a dime to make changes. Most associations can’t or aren’t willing to take such risks,” Hurt says.
Associations and planners should be willing to examine every aspect of meetings and trade shows to determine if they are good investments. However, many significant expenses go unquestioned although there’s little evidence that they provide financial return, says Voegeli.
He cites the following example. “An association has a special lounge at a meeting for senior members. They should ask, ‘Why do we have the lounge and what is its expected outcome in terms of meeting objectives?’ Instead, they say, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have a special lounge for senior members because it will make them happy.’ Nobody asks whether happiness matters or how to determine its impact,” Voegeli says.
Measuring ROI includes three basic steps: define objectives, measure results and analyze data. Here is advice from experts on how to handle each step.
1. Define Objectives
It’s impossible to accurately gauge meeting ROI without clearly defining meeting objectives. Precisely stated objectives include numerical goals and specify desired changes in attendee behavior such as increased memberships and exhibitors. Examples of objectives include having sponsorship demand exceed supply by 15 percent in five years or increasing membership by 25 percent over 10 years.
But many planners don’t accurately define ROI objectives. It’s one of the most difficult things that planners and associations face, says Voegeli. “If you ask the board of 10 associations what are the objectives needed to measure ROI for a meeting, you would probably get different answers from every board member with all 10 associations. When I ask association stakeholders to meet and not leave the room until they agree on defined objectives, I usually get blank stares because they think they already know the objectives. But they usually change their minds after meeting for six hours without success,” says Voegeli.
2. Measure Results
Surveys are the most common methods of measuring meeting ROI. But attendee satisfaction surveys widely used by many planners don’t measure ROI. General questions such as, “Were you satisfied with the convention experience?” or “Did you benefit from educational sessions?” don’t help estimate the financial return on meeting spending.
Surveys should ask specific questions that measure changes in attendee behavior related to meeting objectives, says Voegeli. He cites an example: If there is an education component, then measure specifically what was learned, how attendees will use the new knowledge, and how their professional behavior will change as a result. This sometimes requires surveying attendees several weeks or months after the sessions to ask how they use what they learned, says Voegeli.
Many associations and planners already have information they can use to help measure meeting ROI but don’t know it. Such information includes registration and attendance data at annual and regional conferences, attendee demographics, membership statistics and figures on sales of association services and products, says Voegeli. “More often than not, associations have a bunch of disparate data on their members collected through active and passive measures. They have it on several different computer systems or filing systems. But they don’t know how to effectively pull all the data together or they never thought about doing it,” Voegeli says.
Olson offers this advice on measuring ROI: “Have a basic membership management tool that’s integrated well with an event and attendee management tool. If you don’t have that, it’s hard to understand and measure the value of what you are providing to members,” he says.
3. Data Analysis
The third step involves analyzing information and data to determine the impact of the meeting on the bottom line. For example, planners can measure the financial impact of sales training and educational sessions by following up to obtain data in areas such as job performance and sales. The results can be compared to the cost of the meeting to evaluate ROI.
Measuring ROI is no longer limited to corporations evaluating the financial impact of business strategies, deals, mergers and investments. Experts predict that, sooner or later, more associations will adopt some form of ROI measurement, especially for their largest meetings. “Associations need to be smarter about how they do business and smarter about knowing the value of what they provide to members if they want to survive,” says Olson. AC&F