Sometimes, all it takes for a meeting to succeed is a little reinvention.
No doubt about it, we have entered a time of uncertainty, economic challenges, and transition. The financial pundits drop their prognistications for a tough first half of the year, next two years, next five years … and then move on, leaving meeting planners shaking their heads in consternation over what might become of their meetings in that gray area between now and “when things turn around.”
Some may be burying their heads in the sand, hoping that if they ignore what's happening to their constituents' jobs, it'll somehow not wreak havoc on their attendance in 2009. Good luck with that.
For the rest, it's an opportunity to take all that stress and use it to propel change, as Steven Hacker, president and chief executive officer at the International Association of Exhibitions and Events, Dallas, points out. “Associations now recognize that they need to operate in a more businesslike manner, rather than relying upon their legacies to get them through to the next year.”
Yes, times are hard, but this also is a unique opportunity to try some new strategies. Sit down, relax, and have an hors d'oeuvres or two with us as we explore how some association meeting planners are rethinking everything about their meetings — and coming up with solutions from forming strategic partnerships and relocating to all-out reinvention. As Hacker says, “There needs to be a lot of rethinking and innovation. More and more, the old ways aren't working.” Here are some new ways that just might.
Second Act for SuperComm
Remember SuperComm? It was that mega telecommunications event that, having once dominated its market, faded away in 2005 after the tech bubble burst. You could look at its fate as a cautionary tale — or as a peek into the future for your once-thriving event, should the market you serve be hurting in today's economy. Or you could look at it as an example of how persistence can pay off, as this meeting's organizers kept on reinventing, retooling, and relaunching until they reached what they hope will be a resounding success in 2009, despite today's tough climate.
First, a little history. The Telecommunications Industry Association and the United States Telecom Association — the two organizations that jointly produced SuperComm — had a good run with the show, which at its peak in 2000 drew as many as 53,000 technophiles. But by 2005, attendance had sunk to an untenable 20,000, and the two associations elected to part ways and put on their own events. In 2006, USTA ramped up TelecomNext, while TIA created GlobalComm.
The divorce lasted only one year. Membership and vendors protested the split, so the associations agreed to join forces again and jointly produce one event in 2007 under the name NXTcomm. “The two associations felt that the SuperComm name had run its course so they thought rebranding was the best thing to do,” explains Jim Forlenza, executive director at SuperComm.
But it appears that SuperComm by another name did not smell as sweet — the combined show in 2007 attracted about 15,000 attendees, well below SuperComm's historic low. So the two organizations made another stab at reinvention by co-locating NXTcomm with another communications show, InfoComm, in Las Vegas last year.
But attendance sank even lower. “We probably ran into an identity crisis because of the mixed branding that had been going on,” says Forlenza.
After extensive interviews with attendees and exhibitors, TIA and USTA decided that the show would return as SuperComm in June 2009 at McCormick Place in Chicago. Going back to the well-recognized name “gave us a greater opportunity to re-establish ourselves with our communities,” says Forlenza.
Seeding for Future Growth
Forlenza recognizes, however, that if the name was all that stood between SuperComm and success, it never would have faltered to begin with. The show needed to make strategic changes to reflect the changing telecom industry.
This means that the program has to move beyond just wire-line communications to also cover broadband, wireless, satellite, and other forms of telecommunication that are the industry's future. The hope is that this will allow SuperComm to expand its market of exhibitors and attendees without turning its back on the traditional “wired” customers.
Specifically, show organizers hope to rope in a new segment of their market by focusing more on case studies that show how “edge providers” use telecom systems. Edge providers are what Forlenza calls users who are on the periphery of the traditional SuperComm universe of attendees — the information technology professionals from hospitals, universities, airports, government facilities, and other organizations that have major IT infrastructure that SuperComm has not courted in the past. “We're hoping this will help us tap into some new markets, because these areas are doing much more work directly with our customers now than ever before,” says Forlenza.
To reach these new markets, this event is relying on grass-roots promotions and strategic partnerships, such as relationships with the chief executives or chief technology officers of these edge providers. They hope to recruit them as evangelists for the show — people who go out to their communities and their associations and tell them why SuperComm is relevant to them.
They also hope to form their own partnerships with other associations to explore cross-promotion opportunities. Would home builders, for example, interested in the idea of the connected home, be interested in attending SuperComm? How about broadcasters? “Our exhibitor community has bought into this new direction — it's the visitor community now that we really need to get to buy into this,” Forlenza says.
Expectations are tempered for the relaunch, given the state of the economy and the cutbacks happening throughout the telecom industry. “If we could post numbers like we did last year, I think we would consider that a success. Zero is the new growth,” he quips.
Whether SuperComm can return to its former glory is unknown, but Forlenza is hopeful. “It's a matter of re-establishing the brand and making people aware of the direction that we're going in. If we can sell this new direction, the opportunities to grow the show are very good.”
Double Your Pleasure?
While growth in a recession is close to impossible for many, a little collaboration between related organizations can go a long way toward bolstering attendance and revenues. One way associations are partnering is through co-location — running a meeting with another organization in the same destination, concurrently but separately.
Meet the Association of Progressive Rental Organizations, which is co-locating its annual meeting this August in Las Vegas with BrandSource, a retail buying group with a rental division.
The economy figures prominently in the decision, explains Shelley Martinek, CMP, education director at Austin, Texas-based APRO. Although APRO's 2008 numbers held steady, attendance has been trending downward overall in recent years. In 2008, the association haddue to some changes in the program. By co-locating with the larger BrandSource show — which attracts about 3,500 attendees compared to 600 for APRO — attendees will get access to both events for one registration fee. BrandSource is a good fit for APRO members because both organizations have members in common.
The association also stands to save money on food and beverage, audiovisual costs, entertainment, and other services by sharing with BrandSource. And because BrandSource is in charge of the room block, there is no risk of attrition for APRO.
On the negative side, there is some loss of control for APRO planners in terms of booking venues, registration, and meeting space. However, APRO maintains control of all content, programming,, and exhibits. To attendees, states Martinek, the show will look much the same way it always has.
But APRO will be cutting its exhibit space from 60,000 square feet to about 30,000 square feet, which will mean a drop in exhibit revenues. And since there is some overlap of exhibitors between the two organizations, there will be a loss of some exhibitors to BrandSource.
But many exhibiting companies were indicating that they would have to cut some shows this year anyway due to the economy. APRO is in effect taking one show off of their calendars with the co-location. “We heard what our vendors are saying, and we hope we've met their needs,” says Cindy Ferguson, APRO's marketing director.
This will be a trial run for APRO. If the co-location is successful in terms of revenue, attendance, exhibit floor sales/ traffic, and member satisfaction, APRO may do it again next year.
IAEE's new strategic partnership with National Trade Productions is similar to APRO's coalition, with a few twists. Through the partnership, IAEE will develop an educational track for its members at NTP's annual meeting, TS2, which is aabout trade shows that takes place in June. In return, NTP will develop an educational track for its members at IAEE's annual meeting, Expo! Expo!, which takes place in December.
“It's about enhancing value for the key participants — whether they are exhibitors or association members,” says IAEE's Hacker.
Previously, IAEE had a mid-year show but had to eliminate it in 2003 due to declining attendance. Since then, however, membership has tripled, so IAEE leaders have been talking about reviving it. But to launch a new meeting in this economy would not be prudent, so leadership sought out partnerships with existing events that might fit their needs. Hence the TS2 partnership.
Hacker says the move also connects IAEE members with their customers: IAEE members are event organizers, while NTP members are exhibitors and event marketers. Show organizers can interact with exhibitors at both meetings and have a chance to deepen their relationships. “For the first time under one association umbrella, we are able to connect all of the pieces that move together and create these events — that's the strategic piece,” says Hacker.
For the association, it creates additional growth and revenue opportunities while supporting the strategic mission. “I don't think it would be successful if it was just one or the other,” says Hacker. “You can't do it just for the revenue — it wouldn't be successful.”
The Push and Pull
Auto Associations Gear Up
The power of partnership helped two associations in the beleaguered automobile industry turn a potentially disastrous 2008 meeting into a relative success. But more changes are in store for 2009.
The Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association and the Specialty Equipment Market Association have had a marketing partnership for years, holding their respective conventions in Las Vegas during the same week every year and jointly marketing them as “Automotive Aftermarket Industry Week.” AAIA runs the Automotive Aftermarket Products Expo at The Sands in Las Vegas, while SEMA runs the SEMA Show at the Las Vegas Convention Center.
The shows are separate and serve different segments of the aftermarket industry (which manufactures the bells and whistles that go on cars post-production), but there is overlapping interest among attendees and buyers in each. So for one registration fee, attendees can go to both events. The partnership has been very successful, routinely attracting more than 100,000 to the shows during the week.
But for the November 2008 event, with the automobile industry in meltdown, AAIA and SEMA were concerned. A month or so out from AAIW, attendance and exhibitor numbers were lagging considerably. They'd need to take drastic measures to get the numbers up and avoid attrition.
Leadership from the two associations, along with the show's producers, called a meeting with hotel partners and asked them to reduce rates. “We've never, ever done that before. We've never all gone to Las Vegas as a group and asked, ‘What can you do to help us?’” says Kathleen Schmatz, president and CEO at AAIA. More than 15 hotels agreed to modest rate concessions or incentives, while show organizers also offered discounts to exhibitors. The discounts sparked a rush of last-minute registrations that enabled the associations to avoid any penalties. Attendance and revenues were still off by about 5 percent, but it could have been a lot worse, says Schmatz.
Of course, few conventions have the negotiating power of a show with 100,000-plus attendees, but that type of leverage would not have been possible without the partnership. It shouldn't have taken a crisis for this meeting of the minds to happen, says Schmatz. “We should have been going to meet with the hotel owners before now, not just to save money, but to talk to them about various ideas.”
For this year, the partners do indeed plan to meet with hoteliers in advance. They also plan to meet more often with their partner, SEMA, to discuss the best ways to leverage their combined resources.
As far as this year's AAPEX show goes, Schmatz says they will look at all costs and programs with a microscope to see what changes need to be made to have a successful show in 2009. What specific changes will be made haven't been determined yet, but the “blue sky” strategy sessions are already under way.
“Frankly, I think everything's on the table for change,” says Schmatz. “We're going to closely examine every single thing we do in the show. It will very much be like starting over again.”
Welcome to 2009.
A major force pushing associations to change is demographics. “You're seeing a huge exchange of generations — the older baby boomers are beginning to move out of center focus and the Gen Xers are moving in, with the Gen Ys right behind them,” says Steven Hacker, president and chief executive officer at the International Association of Exhibitions and Events, Dallas.
Many associations have attempted to appeal to the emergent generations by developing social media sites, which are online gathering places popular with the 40-and-under crowd. But few, if any, have taken it as seriously as the International Facility Management Association.
Last May, Houston-based IFMA hired a new media and social networking director, Sonal Mehta, whose job is dedicated to promoting and marketing the association through social media outlets. “For Millennials, social media is an important way to communicate, socialize, network, and do business. We knew we had to add a full-time person in order to be engaged continuously and apply the right focus,” says Don Young, vice president, communications, IFMA, of the decision to hire Mehta.
Mehta's first assignment was to determine which social media sites IFMA would use to establish a presence. Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Flickr, Twitter, and Wordpress were chosen. On Facebook, for example, there is an IFMA Group and an IFMA fan page. Some of these sites were places where individual members were already active, so they were encouraged to gather on the official IFMA sites. These sites are constantly updated with news, information, content, activities, and contests to keep people checking back in.
For the annual conference, Mehta created a page on Wordpress called Worldworkplace, which is dedicated to the conference. On this site, IFMA posts videos and photos, and features bloggers who promote the event. It's a good way to keep the conversation about the conference going all year long to spur more interest in attending the next meeting.
In 2009, Mehta's first full year on the job, she will be looking for new social media hotspots to gain entry to these sites as they are taking off, not after the fact. “I keep monitoring and looking for the next big thing,” she says. She is also looking to partner with an industry publication to put an IFMA blog on the publication's Web site to get additional exposure. Another idea: a contest through YouTube where members submit videos of their facilities and the winner gets a prize.
Overall, Mehta hopes to get more members involved in social media — not just Gen Xers and Millennials — and to tap into new markets.
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