Despite the tough economy, some associations, including the United States Institute of Theater Technology, exceeded expectations with their annual conference from the get-go.

USITT’s Stage Expo attracted 4,400 attendees to Cincinnati in March, a 10 percent increase over the previous year.

How did they do it? Several strategies may have contributed to the increase in attendance. “Everyone is mindful of attrition, especially in this economy” says Barbara Ellen Lucas, public relations and marketing manager at the Syracuse, N.Y.–based association. To avoid it, USITT worked on several fronts. First, it negotiated with the hotels in the block to offer attendees an amenity with their room—an incentive to get them to book inside the block. It was a win-win, says Lucas, because the hotel got the rate it wanted, USITT filled its block, and attendees got something extra. USITT not only met its room block, but also had to book an additional 125 rooms for guests.

Second, they marketed more aggressively in the Cincinnati region to increase drive-in traffic, and they informed all attendees of accessible, alternative airports in the area. “Some of our members are extremely sensitive to price, so this gave them more options,” says Lucas. As a result, 50 percent of the attendees drove to the meeting, the highest percentage of drive-ins ever.

Staff also sent out more brochures and e-mail blasts than in the past and also relied on viral marketing. In each of the communiqués, they asked members to pass it on to other nonmembers in a similar line of work who might be interested in attending.

A similar strategy worked for the Receptive Services Association of America, a Lexington, Ky.–based organization managed by IMG. RSAA, which serves international inbound tour operators and suppliers, had a 20 percent increase in attendance at its annual meeting in New York this past February.

Think Locally
“We were worried to death about the recessionary climate,” says Todd Hamilton, executive director at RSAA. But one advantage they had was the destination—a large portion of RSAA members were based in the New York region. So, RSAA staff basically drew a line on a map around the city and focused their marketing efforts on members within that radius. They did a lot of individual marketing, says Hamilton—personal calls and e-mails telling members about the event. They helped make the case by showing members their own personal ROI of attending the meeting. They calculated for them how it was more cost-effective to meet potential customers in one place, the meeting, as opposed to visiting them each individually. “We really laid it out there,” says Hamilton. “Come to our show and you’ll spend this amount of money and meet this many tour operators. If you tried to fly around the country and meet with them, it would cost you this much—a lot more.”

Up until the last two weeks, attendance was tracking close to last year, says Hamilton. “But then we really poured on the gas to get the numbers up,” he says.

That final rush of registrants in the last two weeks may have also been influenced by a late addition to the program, which featured a discussion of a very timely, relevant topic in the industry. Hamilton advises other associations to leave a session open as late as possible so that it can be filled by a current issue that may be relevant enough to attract those sitting on the fence.

In the end, RSAA did not have to worry about attrition. But leading up to the meeting, Hamilton wasn’t so sure, so they negotiated to do away with an attrition penalty in exchange for spending a little more on food and beverage—just some insurance for the association in case stormy economic skies never cleared up.