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, which sponsors NEMICE.

The economy—combined with some bad press for the meetings industry due to last fall’s brouhaha 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 lowering expectations to about half that amount. By March, leaders had abandoned all thoughts 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. What they ended up accomplishing is a lesson in damage control.

They renegotiated with their supplier partners—the Seaport Hotel, the Seaport World Trade Center, Projections AV, and Freeman Decorating—to mitigate the damages.

First, they worked with the facility, the Seaport World Trade Center, to lower the food and beverage minimum. “We did not incur any guest room attrition due to the fact that we had intentionally kept the group guest room block small, there are a number of hotel chains in the vicinity of the event, and exhibitors typically stay within their own chain,” says King. “We did renegotiate the F&B minimum a few weeks prior to the event: In the initial agreement beverage was not included in this number. The hotel changed this and reduced the total minimum spend by 33 percent of the original contract.”

Next, they negotiated with the general contractor to reduce the cost of carpeting on the exhibit floor.

And finally, they worked with the contractors and the AV company to move the general session out of the exhibit hall and into an auditorium, saving the significant costs for constructing and lighting/sound required to build a stage in the exhibit hall. Why was the general session in the exhibit hall in the first place? It was part of an effort to redesign the event experience for attendees. The event had gone stale, organizers thought, so they planned to try some new twists. One of them was to create a stage in the exhibit hall for the general sessions as a way to drive traffic into the hall and integrate business, networking, and education. For now, it would have to wait another year.

Upping the Head Count
To boost attendance, NEMICE offered exhibitors the opportunity to send free passes to the event to their best clients. While that move resulted in 100 more attendees coming to the event, it also cost the chapter a loss of $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.

Further, the pricing structure was revamped. Historically, NEMICE has been a one-day event, but this year, it was extended to two days. To accommodate those who didn’t want to spend the night or 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. While that was well off of the initial attendance goals, the event did manage to break even financially, which, under the circumstances, was a success. Plus, the revamped conference was well received, garnering the most press coverage and social media buzz that the conference has ever gotten. That should serve NEMICE well in 2010 and beyond.