The days of meeting marketing being mainly an association issue are over, if the number of corporate planners who attended a strategic marketing session at the 7th Annual Boston HSMAI Meetings Quest trade show, held at the Hyatt Regency Boston September 18, is any indication. The interactive morning session, led by Michele Wierzgac, CMM, president of Chicago-based Michele & Company, was packed with more than 100 planners from both sides of the fence who wanted to learn about identifying target markets, choosing appropriate marketing techniques, and achieving good return on investment for their marketing dollars.

Wierzgac kept the discussion mainly on the strategic level, focusing on the importance of understanding the organization’s "big picture" goals and motivators, and then translating them into meeting objectives and expected outcomes. Only then, she says, can you get into identifying your target markets and developing a meeting marketing plan. But to do that, she told the planners, "You have to sit down with all the interested parties—execs, marketing, the whole stakeholder community—to determine what the purpose of the conference is. Have them visualize what the conference will look like, and how it will affect each stakeholder’s department and bottom line." And, she added, "Make sure the stakeholders reach a consensus—don’t let them leave the room until they do." She also suggested putting a dollar value on the outcomes the stakeholders want to see, such as raising X amount of money, increasing the number of attendees by X percent, etc.

Once you get the background work done, start developing a marketing plan by first determining where your organization stands: Is it a leader? A follower? A challenger? A nicher? Each type of organization will need to brand its meetings accordingly, she said, adding that "branding is an emotion, not a logo. People identify products—and meetings—with emotion." Using the airline industry as an example, she showed how different airlines were positioning their brands in today’s market place. The airline example also showed why marketing plans need to be revisited regularly. As the industry an organization serves changes, leaders might become followers, and challengers could become nichers. "Marketing plans are only good for 18 months," Wierzgac warned.

Many of the planners, particularly on the corporate end, complained that they can’t get too involved in marketing their meetings because their marketing departments won’t let them touch the process after initial input. Wierzgac suggested making some clear lines in the sand for marketing—"Tell them you don’t want artistic control, you just need to be involved in the strategic messaging that’s involved in the marketing process. Don’t try to micromanage them."

The hot new thing, she said, is database mining, in which planners can find interests in their target markets that aren’t being covered by your meetings. "You could end up adding new products or services, or new sponsors, based on the additional information you get from adding questions about unrelated interests." However, warned several in the audience, you have to be careful about asking too many questions or appearing to be intrusive, which will make the target audience uneasy about why you want to know that information. Wierzgac added that it helps to explain why you’re asking the questions, and what you plan to do with the information. But whatever you do, don’t try to market to everyone: Segment by geography, demographics, behaviors, and other factors to find the right mix to market to. Also, look at recent industry trends, such as the increase in women travelers, and in increased emphasis on healthy food and fitness, and determine where they fit with your meeting’s demographics.

Of all the marketing tactics out there—Internet, e-mail, print mailers, direct marketing, fax broadcasts, etc.—the most underused is public relations, Wierzgac said. "It’s all about relationship marketing. Get to know the reporters most likely to cover your meeting."

And for the marketing materials themselves, she advised making it as easy as possible for potential attendees to find the benefits and features. "You’ll see a lot of materials actually saying right up front, here’s what’s in it for you, with a bullet list of benefits," Wierzgac said. "Don’t make them search for what’s in it for them," whether it’s being a part of something important or being the first to see a hot new product.

The morning educational session was followed by a luncheon and an expo packed with exhibitors from New England and other areas of interest to New England-area meeting planners. Additional one-day shows are scheduled for Anaheim, Calif.; Atlanta; Chicago; Dallas; and Minneapolis. A Meetings Quest in St. Louis was held earlier in September. For more information, go to www.meetingsquest.com/MeetingsQuestHome.--Sue Pelletier