1. Be Strategic

    Michele Wierzgac is downright evangelical about the importance of strategic marketing, branding, and communications. Wierzgac, CMM, president/CEO of the event planning and consulting firm Michele & Company, Oak Lawn, Ill., is a frequent speaker on the topic.

    “If you want to plan meetings that deliver meaningful results, you need to have a strategy,” she says. But how do you get strategic about meetings if you're not calling the shots when it comes to strategy? “I encourage planners to understand the strategic plan of the association and its mission statement,” Wierzgac says. If at all possible, the planner also should sit in on the initial marketing strategy development meeting. If you don't know how to get in on the process, find a mentor who can help you.

    Learn how your meetings further the association's goals, and what its current priorities are. “You want attendees to walk away talking your association's language, being passionate about what your association is passionate about. It's up to the planner to control the message, the brand statement, that is communicated through every aspect of the oragnization's meetings,” Wierzgac says.

  2. Research, Segment

    To start, listen to your members, says Cindy Lea Panioto, marketing program coordinator with Hartford-based Connecticut Business and Industry Association. “Every time I go to a program, I talk to people about what they did and didn't like about the program. Evaluations, of course, are also invaluable. It sounds simplistic, but it's the foundation for everything we do.”

    It also makes sense to survey your members ahead of time so you can tailor the program to what they need. Panioto adds that CBIA also has been working to identify the specific educational needs of different areas of its membership, and segmenting its seminar marketing so promotions for each seminar reach those most likely to want to attend. “That way, we also avoid bombarding our full membership with mailings,” Panioto says.

    That's the way to go, according to John Fuhr, director of business development with Arlington, Va.-based Cvent, which offers online registration, e-marketing, and meeting data analysis and reporting. Almost every database program these days allows you to sort members in a number of ways. Take advantage of it. “Segment your audience, send out e-mail or postal mailers, and measure the response rates,” says Fuhr, who also stresses that while you can do this with direct mail, e-mail is more immediate, less expensive, and easier to track.

    Still, many associations worry about offending their members by spamming them with unwanted e-mail. CBIA minimized this risk by using an opt-in approach, in which only members who say they don't mind electronic promotions get the e-mails. Or you could do a test-drive with a low-risk group, says Fuhr, adding that you can use your prospect database to do an e-mail campaign, and see how it works.

    “Play around with different pricing levels and incentives for different segments,” Fuhr advises. “It's not very meaningful just to say you expect attendance to be down. Which segments of your membership will be down? Members? Students? Once you know that, you'll have a place to begin targeted marketing.”

  3. Prospect for New Audiences

    One place to go might be other associations whose members' interests intersect with your association's mission.

    The Northern California chapter of the National Speakers Association is exploring that idea right now, having put out feelers to Toast-masters, the Institute of Management Consultants, and the Association for Training and Development, among others, according to Philippa Gamse, a professional speaker and e-business consultant based in Santa Cruz, Calif., who also is in charge of marketing for the NSA chapter.

    Down the road, she thinks it might be possible to tackle an even more ambitious initiative: finding unrelated local professional associations whose members might be interested in NSA meetings, such as financial analysts who are interested in doing speaking engagements to further their careers.

    Or you could go even further afield and merge-purge some lists with a vendor, says Nancy Frede, president of MarketSense, Framingham, Mass. Perhaps an unaffiliated magazine whose readers are potential attendees would be willing to merge-purge their lists with yours and send out a mailing that lists the magazine as a sponsor, she suggests.

    “Associations are concerned about giving away their lists, but no one's giving anything away,” Frede says. “This just gives you the opportunity to reach potential attendees without having to spend more money.”

  4. Think Outside the Booth

    According to Charles Allen, chairman and CEO of American Exhibition Services in Birmingham, Ala., just a few years ago virtually all trade shows were owned by nonprofit associations; now independent show operators own 40 percent.

    “My educated guess is that within five years independents will own 60 percent of the shows,” he says. Some show managers are looking to buck the trend by co-locating shows, as Canon Communications LLC did by combining its MD&M West, PLASTEC West, Pacific Design & Manufacturing, Electronics West, and Nutritionals shows into one event this month, thus creating perhaps the largest design and manufacturing event in the U.S.

    “Co-located shows bring higher return-on-investment for exhibitors and attendees because it lets them halve their costs and double their effectiveness,” Allen says.

    “When times were great and people were slinging money at everything that moved, it was easy for show organizers to say, ‘It's my job to get attendees to the show; It's the vendor's job to get them to the booth,’” says Allen. Now that vendors are cutting back on the number of shows they exhibit at, it's up to show producers to “take more responsibility to help exhibitors set measurable goals and help them maximize their ROI for exhibiting at your show.” Retention rates, as well as acquisition rates, of attendees and exhibitors are only as good as the value you deliver to them this year, he adds.

    So don't try to squeeze every dollar possible from vendors to maximize today's bottom line, he warns. “There's always another show organizer who would be glad to serve both your attendee and vendor constituency.” Instead, make the show worth their while in the here and now. You don't want to have to spend tons of money on big four-color brochures to lure exhibitors back.

    Allen points out some of the things savvy show organizers are providing for their exhibitors these days: lower exhibition costs; more personalization in sponsorship strategies; connectivity to the outside world such as news network monitors in the exhibition to keep attendees on the trade show floor (these also can be sponsored); sponsorship opportunities at multimedia stations offering wireless e-mail and Web connectivity; and more entertainment on and off the show floor. “Keep in mind that it's all about show business,” he says.