One month out from the meeting, things were looking bleak for the New England Meeting Industry Conference and Exhibition. “Although the dark clouds were forming during the months of planning and reinventing, no one anticipated the extent of the impact of the economic meltdown or the ‘AIG effect’ on NEMICE,” says Karen King, CMP, CMM, principal, meeting strategists llc, Boston, and vice president of education for the New England chapter of MPI, NEMICE’s sponsor.

With less than a month to go before the meeting in Boston this April, registration was abysmal— less than 15 percent of an already reduced goal. For the newly reinvented event, it was a disaster in the making.

But thanks to some strategic planning and creative solutions, attendance rates boomed at the 11th hour with roughly 85 percent of attendees registering in the last two weeks.

Here’s how NEMICE, and other association meetings, are making the best of a bad economy.

The Comeback Kid
The economy—combined with some recent bad press for the meetings industry over lavish meetings held by financial companies receiving federal bailout money—really took its toll on NEMICE. Initially, conference organizers were expecting 700 attendees; they ended up shooting for around 350. By March, leaders had abandoned all hope of meeting revenue goals and just hoped to break even. But with fewer than 50 registered attendees just weeks out from the event, they were still a long way from the break-even point. So they renegotiated with their supplier partners to mitigate the damages.

First, they worked with the Seaport World Trade Center and Seaport Hotel in Boston, to lower the food-and-beverage minimum. “In the initial agreement, beverage was not included. The hotel changed this and reduced the total minimum spend by 33 percent off the original contract,” says King.

Next, they negotiated with the general contractor, Freeman Decorating, to reduce the cost of exhibit floor carpeting. As part of the effort to redesign the event, the organizers had planned to create a stage in the exhibit hall for the general sessions to drive traffic into the hall and integrate business, networking, and education. Instead, they worked with the contractors and the audiovisual company to move the general session into an auditorium, saving the significant costs for constructing and lighting/ sound required to build a stage in the exhibit hall.

Upping the Head Count
To boost attendance, NEMICE offered exhibitors the opportunity to send free passes for the event to their best clients. While that move resulted in 100 conmore attendees coming to the event, it also lost the chapter $30,000 in potential revenue. But it was worth it because it increased planner traffic, “which is critical to the success and ROI of supplier partners,” says Deborah Matteson, director, strategic development, meeting strategists llc, and a member of the board of directors at MPI New England.

They also revamped the pricing structure. Part of the reinvention was to extend the historically one-day event to two days. To accommodate those who had financial or logistical reasons for not wanting to attend both days, they offered one-day packages at a reduced rate.

These measures did the trick. The event ended up with 305 meeting planner attendees, with 85 percent signing up in the last two weeks. The event also broke even financially, which, under the circumstances, was a success.