In the association world, ensuring an event or meeting is successful is paramount to the organization’s bottom line. In fact, focusing on event return on investment (ROI) is critical for association planners because events are often an association’s biggest marketing tactic — helping to engage members, grow their membership, increase renewals and so much more.
Association event planners leverage event ROI by answering several critical questions: “Is this event worth our association’s spend, time and resources? Is what’s being allocated for this event being returned in revenue, membership satisfaction and retention, sponsorship targets, competitive positioning, etc.?”
“It is important that the association’s event strategy and outcomes align with the broader business strategy and overarching goals,” says Julie Haddix, senior director, solutions marketing at Cvent. “Meeting and event ROI helps to confirm the actual outcomes support the association’s desired trajectory. While there are multiple elements when it comes to defining a successful association event — a congratulatory board, a balanced budget, sponsorship renewals, etc. — most of the weight for success is placed on how satisfied the attending members were and was the value of membership perceived by attending prospects.”
In fact, association goals and what meeting attendees want should be key drivers of event design and content strategy, and Haddix stresses that association planners will need to understand meeting ROI to make more informed decisions, such as where to add more resources, where to cut back and where to make strategic changes.
Sarah Berman, president of The Berman Group, has more than 17 years of experience producing and managing events, including for many real estate associations, including the Real Estate Lenders Association, which has nine chapters across the U.S.; the Urban Land Institute (ULI); Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA); NAIOP, the Commercial Real Estate Development Association; the Greater New York Construction User Council (GNYCUC); the Building Trades Employers Association (BTEA) and the International Facility Management Association (IFMA), to name a few.
Berman says the networking aspect of events is crucial, and plays a big part in the return on investment for events. You can gain knowledge from many sources, but to be together in a room with key contacts with which you can do business and/or exchange information is a big reason to spend time and money at events.
“Event planners should plan content to ensure that new and interesting speakers deliver information that your target audience wants to hear,” Berman says. “It’s important to build in networking time so that conference or event participants are able to connect in meaningful ways, and the event size should be designed to bring like-minded contacts together to form relationships, whether this is through small-group sessions, interactive activities, breakout sessions or speed networking, for example. It is also important for event planners to design ways for sponsors to showcase their businesses in a meaningful way.”
The landscape of meetings also has changed; all events in the past were solely in-person, but during the COVID-19 pandemic, there was an increase in virtual events — which ultimately adds a unique challenge to evaluating the ROI of an event.
“Now, more than ever, there is an increased demand to be back together in person and get back to networking and re-establishing connections that were forged prior to the pandemic,” Berman says. “We have worked with several associations to develop surveys to gain valuable feedback after events and to try a variety of meeting formats, including time of day, panels versus fireside chats, new venues and other new features to ensure that ROI is maximized and that attendees can participate in events that best suit their individual needs.”
When it comes to focus areas of ROI, association meeting planners need to establish measurable objectives and develop a detailed, written plan for how to measure those goals. Haddix says four key areas association planners should focus on measuring include:
Finances: Look at total event spend across all aspects of the event from start to finish, and find ways to allocate annual or standing contracts proportionally. Also, determine revenue, sponsorship and membership prospect goals. Putting more financial resources into an event can be justified if there is an even greater return on investment.
Hours & Resources: Planners should track which events take the most of their time and identify areas in which you can fix bottlenecks or address short-term needs with volunteers and interns. Associations also need to have a long-term strategy that takes into account how to properly resource and support their events. As membership grows and attendee expectations continue to rise, staff cannot deliver if bogged down with hours of manual processes.
Engagement: Traditional engagement methods include registration numbers, attendance and post-event feedback surveys. As Haddix explains, digital tools allow for individual session polling, dynamic commentary, and chat and social media buzz — the number of shares, likes and key conversation themes. “With the right event technology platform, planners can leverage attendee engagement scoring or Net Promoter Scores to better understand which members are most engaged,” Haddix says. And be sure to not rely on anonymous data collection — designate a small committee of members that represent your association membership’s various segments, both longstanding and new, who will share their honest perspectives and critiques of the event.
Overall value: It is also important that meeting planners evaluate some key questions to determine the overall value of an event, including:
“During the height of the pandemic, associations didn’t necessarily find themselves challenged with a lack of membership or a sudden decline in revenue because the value of membership was institutionalized and well regarded,” Haddix says. “In addition, many associations are leaders in their space, so the value of membership tends to be reputationally established. And many young professionals found themselves challenged by operating in the new remote-work environment and sought out mentorship and education opportunities that were no longer being provided in the in-person office via association membership.”
However, as Haddix points out, where associations did struggle was how to continue to provide value to its membership base and prospect attendees amidst the transition to a virtual event environment. Associations were suddenly faced with how to continue facilitating networking — and driving engagement — through digital channels and platforms. “Many association event planners had already begun to host shorter, topical, education events via online webinars, but most of the association networking had still been conducted at in-person events,” Haddix says.
Almost three years later, many associations have invested in event technology platforms that prioritize their needs for centralizing educational content, supporting tiered access for various membership segments and maximizing engagement. Haddix suggests that as workforce norms continue to shift, associations will need the right events strategy that prioritizes the following:
Covering the relevant content and appropriate format that appeals to a wide range of membership, which likely needs a new segmentation analysis.
Interpersonal networking, which is an even larger priority for members, since it’s no longer happening at the office in the same capacity.
Consistent, convenient and easy access to content via multiple digital platforms — members don’t want to have to log in three times or only access content at a desk.
“At the end of the day, whether in-person or virtual, events must still demonstrate value to an association’s membership and prospects, while also minimizing unnecessary financial costs and resources,” Haddix says. “Yet, what members and prospects value has become complex to measure and accomplish, given a wide range of membership segments and uncertainty in the market environment and costs. This requires planners to have the right tools to collect membership data, sentiments and preferences, as well as a thorough analysis of the fixed and variable costs associated with their event calendar.”
Berman says one of the key indicators on ROI for any event is simply demand. Are ticket sales strong? Is there a strong response from potential attendees and sponsors? Does the event model allow for feedback? The event should be tailored around a target audience and all aspects of the event should be evaluated based on audience needs.
“If the audience is association CEOs, for example, does the event format allow CEOs to maximize their time? If the event is designed for students or entry-level professionals, can participants meet speakers who may have valuable knowledge or industry connections? Planners need to always keep in mind who they are serving, and all decisions should be based on the priorities of the audience,” Berman says.
Also, when association meeting planners re-examine their calendar of events for the year, it’s important to step back from looking at what the traditional events have been — even your annual conference — and examine the purpose of the event, the goals of the event and if those goals will be met using the previous budget, format, etc.
As Haddix explains, every event on the calendar comes at a cost. The more visible and measurable costs are the direct impact to the association’s budget, hours required and other trackable, key performance indicators. The more long-term costs are the opportunities that aren’t prioritized, or even worse, your members or prospects perceiving a lack of cohesive strategy or inability to provide the content in the ways they need, which is often reflected in a decline in new membership or renewal rates.
“Most association planners know to first examine how to minimize costs. One large cost that should be looked at is the annual conference venue,” Haddix says. “Associations may not see the same in-person revenue that they could once depend on, so try to get a sense of if venue sizes need to be adjusted when it’s time to renew contracts.”
A second way to minimize costs is to increase contributions from sponsors by examining where a trade of services could supplement event needs — speakers, entertainers, technology, etc. Haddix points out that planners may even want to partner with their marketing teams on looking for areas where promotional costs can be minimized. For instance, if you understand the segmentation of your membership and attendees better, you can understand where to invest your marketing efforts better, such as acquisition or retention.
“Hours and resources must also be examined when calculating long-term costs,” Haddix says. “Most planners are aware of where the bottlenecks are, whether it’s the need for more labor at conference check-in, or the manual time required to learn too many disparate technologies that don’t integrate across the entire event program.” Over time, these “hidden” burdens add up and take away from the association’s ability to allocate resources to new areas of growth, and can reduce overall impact. It is important to track and measure these for a strategic discussion on the total event ROI.
Also, make sure event goals are clearly communicated. For example, a large-scale networking forum may not be the right place for someone who is more comfortable with one-on-one networking. Berman thinks it really goes back to looking at your target audience for any event and ensuring that you are meeting their goals with all aspects of any event.
To further enhance the ROI of an association’s event, it’s also important to establish strong partnerships with your largest expenditure vendors. “You also want to create a compelling testimonial story of why to attend,” says Sean Ewell, national account manager for the event production company, Projection. “Also, consider potentially developing a strategy to attract ‘Next Gen’ association members to the event. This could include a less-than-five-year professional who can advocate their journey or a success story of a 10- to 20+-year seasoned professional telling the story of why ‘X’ Association helped their career or community.”
For many associations, revenue from events can be a large portion of their annual revenue. If that is the case, Ewell says meeting and event planners should budget the larger expenditures before announcing the event so that the right expectations are set for members/attendees from the very beginning. It’s all about focusing on the experience you can deliver for the right value.
“You should also use measurable planning tools and software. Software-as-a-service (SaaS) tools can keep an overall view of your event starting from the beginning, and help planners hit milestones and measure key performance indicators,” Ewell says. “And be sure to involve your vendors and partners in conversations as early as possible. Collaboration and open communication are key to staying on the right path toward those pre-determined ROI goals. Today’s meeting and event planners are dealing with shorter timelines and, as a result, should have a working and effective plan that is accessible and aligned across partners.” | AC&F |