As the economy slows and travel costs skyrocket, planners now find themselves having to work a little harder and get a little more creative to entice people to come to annual meetings — certainly more than they have the past few years when attendance was spiking. “It's getting more challenging,” says Linda Schwartz, director, marketing and communication services at SmithBucklin, an association management company based in Chicago. “One compelling reason used to be enough, but now people need two or three compelling reasons to go to the conference.”

Here's how some associations are keeping attendance up in a down economy.

Power Surge

To say that the Solar Electric Power Association has experienced attendance growth would be an understatement. An off-the-charts explosion might be more appropriate: In only four years, attendance has grown by leaps and bounds.

In 2003, before Al Gore's documentary on global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, kicked off the current “green” movement, Washington, D.C.-based SEPA was attracting about 300 people to its annual meeting. The niched event focused on research and education for professionals in the industry. Then, in 2004, SEPA officials recognized the need for a more business-focused event to serve a growing awareness from business people from outside the industry who were suddenly interested in the field. So SEPA teamed up with the Solar Energy Industries Association to jointly sponsor a conference that would fill that void — the Solar Power Conference and Expo.

In 2004, year one of the Solar Power Conference and Expo, attendance soared to 1,100, which was more than twice what the two associations had been getting, combined. The next year, attendance gained slightly, pulling in 1,200. That wasn't bad, explains Emily Brown, director of membership and education at SEPA, but that conference did reveal something to planners that hampered its growth: its location.

Where The Attendees Are

The 2005 event was held in Washington, D.C., for a very good reason — to be near the influential movers and shakers on Capitol Hill. But before environmental issues exploded into the American consciousness, there was really only one place where solar power was a mainstream idea: California. For the 2006 conference, the organizers decided to forget the policymakers and book the meeting where the action was. Specifically, they chose San Jose, right in the heart of Silicon Valley, or what people are starting to call “Solar Valley.” If the growth of this conference is any indication, any comparison of a solar power surge to the technology boom of the late 1990s may not be far off.

That first year in San Jose, there were 6,500 attendees and 160 exhibitors. Organizers were not prepared for that kind of growth as they had booked meeting rooms in only one part of the convention center; so they had to use some meeting rooms in the headquarters hotel, too. All the meeting rooms were overflowing, standing-room only, and the room block was exceeded. But no one was too upset: “So many people in the solar industry had been waiting for that moment, so the space restraints in 2006 weren't that big of an issue because people were excited to be there,” says Brown. It also established the conference as the must-attend event in the industry.

In 2007, attendance jumped another 3,000, reaching 9,500, and the number of exhibitors climbed to 210. The event was held at the Long Beach Convention Center, but even that couldn't contain the growth, so the nearby Hyatt was used for some of the exhibits.

For this year's meeting in San Diego, another 30 percent increase in attendance is expected; Brown anticipates 12,500 attendees and 420 exhibitors. But even though they booked three times the exhibit space as in 2007, they are still bursting at the seams as exhibit space was sold out in a month, with 300 on the waiting list.

The explosive growth of the meeting has made it difficult for Brown and her staff to gauge space requirements. “The biggest issue that we struggle with is the space issue, trying to predict what the show is going to be in three or four years.” Right now, they are looking at booking entire convention centers in top-tier cities and are expanding their view outside of California.

Coming up, 2009 is booked in San Jose, 2010 in Los Angeles, and beyond that, destinations are not yet determined. SEPA is seriously considering destinations in Texas, Florida, Colorado, and other places that are not only big enough, but are committed to green policies and initiatives.

Accessible, Affordable, Successful

While the growth of the Solar Power Conference can in large part be attributed to explosive growth in the industry, SEPA meeting managers have taken steps to further spur that growth. In addition to knowing where one's market and prime audience is, opening the exhibit floor up to the public for three hours on one day of the show was another winning tactic for SEPA. The first year they did it, 2006, they got 2,000 walk-in guests interested in looking at some of the latest innovations in solar power. The next year they had 3,000 walk-ins, not counting the 9,500 registered attendees.

The free walk-through helps the association create buzz in the city leading up to the conference, turning it into “a solar city” for the week. It not only gets the community interested, but it creates an atmosphere where the attendees are immersed in networking opportunities and all things solar. It also exposes the conference to more people in hopes that they become registered attendees in the future.

Conference officials are very conscious of the financial and time restraints that people and companies are under in this economy, so they offer access to the event at a variety of levels to make it more affordable. Full registration gives people full access, but people can also register for just exhibits, or just the educational part of the conference, or they can buy a one-day pass. Plus, all exhibitors are given complimentary “expo only” passes that they can give out to customers or whomever they like. Additionally, a number of scholarships, i.e., paid registrations, are offered to members.

The event has gained a great deal of exposure — and attendees — by reaching out to tangential industries such as construction. Based on SEPA's status as the biggest solar power show, SEPA executives have been able to form relationships with these associations and communicate the value of the conference to their members. The result has been a broadening of horizons that has established the conference not only in the U.S. but internationally as well. Last year, 20 percent of attendees came from about 70 foreign countries.

But ultimately, says Brown, it all boils down to the experience for attendees. Which is why they strive to present quality, cutting-edge education in this fast-growing and ever-changing industry; showcase the latest products; and make it all accessible. If they don't, “you can lose people very quickly no matter how much marketing you do,” says Brown. “If they don't feel like it's worth their while, and they are not getting the information they are seeking, there's a good chance they are not going to come back.”

Teach and They Will Come

The Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association has not had the benefit of a booming industry, but growth for its CEDIA Expo has been full speed ahead for several years now, thanks to a strategy that focuses on education.

Five years ago, CEDIA created CEDIA University, an education program for the industry put together with input from five colleges that specialize in the area. This is not just your basic association education: CEDIA offers some 200 courses at four different levels (beginner to advanced) in five different fields or career paths. All lead to certification. “Whether you want to take the technician path or the customer-relations path or the business path, there is a college for you,” says Jamie Antcliff, director of public relations and marketing at Indianapolis-based CEDIA. “Think of it like a college: You have your electives and you have your core curriculum, then we have full-day workshops and seminars, anywhere from level 100 to 400.” While the courses are offered year-round through a variety of channels, the highest concentration of courses is at the annual meeting. The annual meeting is also where the high-profile instructors teach courses, so it has become quite a draw for attendees.

In fact, CEDIA University has been one of the key reasons for attendance gains over the years, explains Antcliff. Convention attendance has gone up every year since CEDIA created the University, from about 26,000 in 2005, to 28,000 in 2006, to 29,000 in 2007. This year's meeting in September in Denver is trending to hit 30,000, despite the slow economy. In part, it's because of the education, but also, increased attendance this year may be related to some incentives that CEDIA has put in place. “With the economy the way it is right now, it's very important for us to bring that education to our members, especially at this time when they may be struggling to keep their heads above water,” says Antcliff. In response, CEDIA is offering 14 free core curriculum classes to members. Also, it is introducing learning labs, which are hands-on workshops that allow learners to touch and see the actual products they will be installing in homes.

A Younger Demographic

Another factor that has enabled CEDIA to keep moving forward is a new marketing strategy to attract a younger demographic. “Because a lot of our industry is young, and getting younger, we have shifted our marketing focus,” she says. The look of the brochures and marketing materials is edgier, and the look and feel carries over into the design of the meeting.

CEDIA also uses Internet outlets like MySpace and YouTube to attract young professionals, and it has created a cocktail reception for the younger crowd. “We want this [show] to relate to them; We don't want them to shy away because they think it's a good old boys club.”

The Science Behind Record Attendance

When it comes to explaining the American Association for Cancer Research's record attendance at its 2008 annual meeting, Linda Still is a realist. “I would love to say that the reason why attendance spiked is because the association finds great locations to put on our annual meeting, but it's not the top factor,” says Still, director of meetings and exhibits at AACR, Philadelphia. “Science is what drives attendance.”

And this year, a particularly strong year for clinical science and research, AACR had a record 17,437 people attend the meeting at the San Diego Convention Center. It beat attendance at the previous year's meeting in Los Angeles by about 1,000 people.

In addition to the science, AACR has benefited from a strong influx of international attendees. True, it's the American Association for Cancer Research, but in reality, about 30 percent of attendees come from foreign countries. Why? In part because cancer research is flourishing overseas, and researchers are coming to AACR's meeting for the education and latest developments.

But AACR also has raised its profile overseas by launching meetings around the world. AACR just finished a meeting in Jordan and has meetings coming up in Israel; Hong Kong; and Amsterdam, Netherlands. “We go where our membership needs us to go,” says Still. If 10 people come to the U.S. meeting from China, there are thousands more there who couldn't come who need the education. That exposure, in turn, creates a pipeline for more people to come to the U.S.-based annual meeting.

But while the content is paramount, high prices, travel issues, and the favorableness of the destination can certainly affect attendance, says Still. Attendees generally like cities that are walkable, with hotel rooms close to the convention center, and San Diego fit the bill. Plus, the meeting was held in April, just before airfares started spiking, so travel costs weren't a big issue. “We have not faced fallout from the fuel prices as of yet,” adds Still, but she knows that rising airfares and fees certainly could have an impact on next year's annual meeting in Denver. Still may have to do more targeted marketing for 2009, focusing on certain segments of the membership, or even tangential organizations that may be interested in the topics on the agenda. Of course potentially life-saving science is a compelling enough reason to attend; you just have to let attendees know what they'd miss if they skipped this year, says Still.

It's like SmithBucklin's Schwartz says: In hard times, it's critical to focus marketing on what appeals most to that group — and then give them another strong reason or two to attend.

Attendance-Building Tips

When markets start to turn, as they appear to be doing now, associations can find themselves stuck in the awkward spot of meeting in an expensive city in a bad economy. That happens because associations book so far out — three, four, five, even 10 years. When the expensive city was booked, the economy might have been going strong, but when the meeting actually rolls around, the economy's in the tank and people stay home because they don't want to pay the high hotel prices or airfares.

“If you could pick the locations the same year you were doing the conference, I think a lot of these groups would have chosen different locations,” says Linda Schwartz, director, marketing and communication services, SmithBucklin, Chicago. But you can't, and when it's an expensive city, that's when you start having some problems and that's when you look for creative things you can do about it, she says.

Here are some attendance-building strategies for a down economy, when giving attendees more than one compelling reason to attend is critical.

  1. Provide incentives and discounts

    Early-bird registration discounts are pretty standard, but you may want to couple that with a personal incentive, such as an iTunes or Starbucks gift card. In cases where the company is footing the bill, it gives incentive for both the company and the individual to attend.

  2. Offer free registration

    Give first-time attendees or new members free registration.

  3. Build buzz

    Use public relations or try to get articles published in newspapers and magazines about some unique aspect of the conference to build buzz. Maybe it's a big-time speaker, although that doesn't work for all associations, particularly medical. “It's really difficult to find a gastroenterologist to the stars that people will travel across the country to see,” says Schwartz

  4. Choose destinations wisely

    While it may not help you this year, convenience may be more important then ever going forward because of airline industry woes. Attendees don't want to change planes two and three times, so consider hub destinations. Also, meet near high concentrations of members and look for cities accessible by train service, as more people may opt for that in the future.

  5. Entice companies to send more people

    Offer bulk discounts for companies to send more than one person to a conference. But beyond that, offer teambuilding activities and entice corporate executives to send entire teams to engage in the activities.

  6. Provide ROI stats

    Send companies or individuals a simple ROI statement to let them know why the meeting is worth their while. Include the cost, what they'll get out of it, and what they'll bring back to the office.

  7. Use video

    Post a video welcome or introduction on your Web site by an association executive. Sometimes, people respond better when they hear about the conference rather than read about it, especially if it's from one of the leaders of the host organization.

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