With attendance expected to be down by 20 percent or more at many association events this year, the talk of the town is all about how to boost attendance with better marketing. This special section on “Marketing 2002” surveys industry pros for tips and insights, and a new way of looking at marketing in general.

When it comes to the latter, no one seems quite the visionary that Linda Higgison is. Over the last 25 years, the president and CEO of The TCI Companies Inc., Washington, D.C., has grown her enterprise from a local destination management company to a multifaceted organization that offers marketing and sponsorship development, meeting planning and teambuilding, and destination management services nationwide. TCI has produced some 50,000 events for 5,000 clients since 1977.

Association meeting organizers must see themselves “with new eyes,” says Higgison, who also teaches two industry-related courses at George Washington University. In particular, planners need to learn from professional sports teams, which excel at leveraging their franchises. “In the past, planners thought doing something like that would compromise their integrity. But now with so much competition for attendees' time, they can't afford not to. They may be out of a job otherwise.”

Am: You've said that planners need to redefine the business they're in — not meetings and events, but marketing and education. Why?

Higgison: Meetings and events are commodities, and there's a price cap on what people are willing to pay for a commodity. Marketing and education, on the other hand, are creative and individual — they are priceless. Meetings and events are about activities; education and marketing are about opportunities.

What's always been curious to me over the years is that people who plan association meetings never saw these events as marketing strategies. But meetings provide an incredible opportunity to create brand loyalty. For example, when child care [at meetings] is a service instead of a bottom-line decision for an association whose membership is predominately women, that tells me they understand how to create brand loyalty. The barrier to making many of these decisions is funding. Well, you don't have to go it alone. Innovative sponsorships can improve the quality of the meeting content and the experience.

Am: And that's where sports marketing comes in?

Higgison: Associations bring to the table something corporate America is dying for: a clearly defined, pre-formed group of consumers who can be reached 12 months a year with marketing vehicles that already exist — meetings, events, periodicals, and e-mails. Remember that experiences create the strongest bonds with consumers. That's why marketing at sports events has been so successful, and that's why meetings have much more sponsorship potential than most organizations realize.

Look at the Olympics and notice the leveraging of the official sponsors. Buying the sponsorship for the Olympics is only the beginning of their investment. Most sponsors end up spending much more on events, ads, and consumer contests to reinforce the Olympic affiliation.

Associations have this business model in place but very few take advantage of it. They can take the same corporate partners program approach that the Olympics team does.

Am: How do they do that?

First, identify categories for potential sponsorship — they could be technology, auto, food, consumer products. Don't be afraid to think outside of the usual box of sponsors. Do market research to identify those companies whose consumer profiles match your membership profile and whose corporate values match yours. Second, create a sponsorship package that drives both the business strategy of the association and that of the firm's consumer product. This means that you really have to know the company you are soliciting and where the association can bring value to them.

Am: Can you give an example of applying this approach?

Higgison: Here's a hypothetical one off the top of my head: The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons could offer a bike ride as part of its annual meeting's leisure package. The AAOS could have a bike company sponsor the event and Lance Armstrong to lead the bike ride. The AAOS membership profile is the same targeted audience as the bike company's, so the bike company would have a chance for a high-profile consumer group to use the product and test market it. The docs would have a chance to meet Lance Armstrong, and the event becomes part of the marketing strategy to pump attendance.

If the bike company just took out an ad in the association publication, it would not garner the same emotional relationship with the product as the experience.

Am: What are some of the obstacles to this approach?

Higgison: It requires the association to talk business-to-business with the potential sponsor so that they can match up the association's marketing vehicles with the needs of the sponsor. It requires building a strong relationship between the sponsor company and the association. For example the CEO of the sponsoring corporation will want to be seen with the CEO of the association.

It also means much more collaboration between membership services, marketing, and the meetings department in order to reinforce the message of the association in a unified manner and to support the sponsorship relationship across all the association's departments.

Am: Associations don't like to think of themselves in the consumer marketing business.

Higgison: In our market-driven economy, they can't afford not to.

Am: In 1996 you took a sabbatical to work with the Carolina Panthers NFL franchise. Why?

I was bored with my job, with putting out a message people weren't ready to hear. And in 1995 I attended a meeting where I heard that if you weren't, on some level, in sports or entertainment, you wouldn't be in business in the 21st century. So I decided to delve into the world of sports. The opportunity to help write a book on the Charlotte franchise presented itself and I accepted. The [resulting] book, “Carolina Panthers Sunday,” is the first to capture the initial emotional and economic impact of an NFL franchise on the community it serves.

Among several marketing innovations, the Panthers created the Personal Seat License concept to finance their stadium. This allowed the fans to own part of the process. I own four seats in Ericsson Stadium, so even though the team is not winning and I no longer live in Charlotte, I remain loyal because I have an intimate stake in the team. Working with the team's owner, his staff, and players, helped me to really grasp the concepts of sports marketing, and to see that meeting and event management is the ultimate team sport. We have to win every game.

Am: You've said that events that have an emotional impact will have an economic one. Explain.

Higgison: People want to be part of something bigger than themselves. If you can tap into that current, you can create a transformational event. A few years ago, we produced an event for Eli Lilly at an American Psychiatric Association meeting. The evening focused on success stories for people suffering with depression. The guest of honor was Christopher Reeves.

Being around Christopher is an uplifting experience. Just for him to speak requires such discipline and commitment. His message that evening ennobled the work of the guests in the room. He spoke to the heart of the audience and told them how important their work was and to never give up. The individuals who came to the event will always remember that night; and they will always remember Eli Lilly. I call these events “goose bump experiences.” We all have them. We can also create them.

Am: Can you give an example of an actual event in which your company was able to turn around an attendance problem?

Higgison: Several years ago we worked with the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, which was having its annual meeting in Anaheim. For a variety of reasons, they realized that the city wasn't going to be a big draw that year, no matter how high-end their educational content was. We spent a year developing and executing a marketing strategy on how to position Anaheim as a great destination. We realized that getting the wives to attend was going to be key.

So we encouraged the association to do a separate travel piece on Anaheim instead of including the information in the traditional meeting brochure. Three different mailers were sent out, each time to members' homes.

It just so happened that the meeting coincided with the opening of the Getty Museum and a touring exhibit on Van Gogh. It would have been impossible for the members to visit either of these attractions had the program not offered them. We encouraged the association to break from tradition and offer Maya Angelou as the keynote speaker. Her son's life had been saved by an orthopedic surgeon, which made her message even more poignant. They loved her. We even had a special tea with Maya, and 50 people were willing to pay the price to spend the afternoon with her. They ended up having more people in Anaheim than the year before in New Orleans.

Am: You've made reference to the “peacekeeping” power of meetings. Can you elaborate?

Higgison: Meetings today are national and international in their makeup. They provide a platform for bringing people together with different views, and a place to share those ideas. Through the shared experience, common ground is formed. People fight one another only when there is no common ground. Meetings provide common ground for the human experience of the global community.

Am: Why are you so passionate about your message?

Higgison: I've been talking about sponsorships for 10 years. I am committed to teaching associations about the benefits of this business relationship. In the past, I've been disheartened and have let go of some of my ideas. But I am not going to let go of this one. The time is right.

Any other obstacles?

Higgison: Marketing strategy needs to be fully integrated. What happens within an association is that the meetings people are doing the meetings, the membership is doing the membership, and the marketing is doing the marketing. Until they all collaborate, the association isn't going to be really effective at marketing.

Am: In your workshops you've mentioned that contests and other forms of “engaged learning” are excellent marketing techniques. Can you elaborate and explain the significance for meeting planners?

Higgison: Contests in particular are great marketing strategies because they engage the audience at a very intimate level. The South Carolina Chapter of the American Lung Association sponsored a local high school essay contest on why you should not smoke. As meeting planners become more familiar with how people learn, they will understand that those same principles apply to marketing. When you tell people the facts they will remember a small portion of the material and some may not hear at all because they are visual or kinesthetic learners. However, when you ask people to think about something, then they own it. It is their idea, no longer yours. The contest offers recognition and a chance to win; we are a society of winners so the contest engages people who might normally not participate.

The contest creates loyalty with the general public on several fronts- the participants remember what they learned in the process and it begins to change behavior, the community supports the American Lung Association for delivering an important message to their youth in a way that they could receive it and the Association gather data from the contest entries that will continue to support their campaign and research so a contest is a win win. This business model is excellent for an association who wants to reposition themselves in the market place. If they want to be known as an industry thought leader, than hold an annual contest - it brings name recognition to the association and brings marketable research data.