Launching a 1,500-person user conference is one more sign that this design software developer is on the fast track. You can fall into a trap, doing too many meetings and trade shows," cautions Sabine Gossart, director of marketing for software developer and marketer SolidWorks Corp. But Gossart and her six-person staff are already responsible for 35 meetings and trade shows that the company runs or participates in each year in the U.S. and Canada. If scheduling a lot of trade shows is a trap, why is management about to add to its annual three-day reseller conference a three-day user conference, conceivably tripling total attendance and dramatically increasing its need for meeting space, meeting technology, and sleeping rooms? Is Gossart about to fall into the very trap she cautions against?

No way.

Her department may have the pedal to the metal, but there are solid reasons for launching the new meeting. To begin with, the young company, not yet five years old, has already reached the critical mass that justifies such a meeting. It shipped the first release of its 3-D modeling software for mechanical engineers in November 1995. Also called SolidWorks, the product is now in its fifth release, and there are more than 15,000 installed sets of software at 6,000-plus sites worldwide. End users include such industrial Godzillas as Alcatel, Alcoa, Beckman Instruments, Life Fitness, Lucky-Goldstar, Polaroid, Sandia National Laboratories, and United Technologies.

End users had been clamoring for a user conference, "but we never thought about having an international user conference until we had a large enough installed base to get the attendance," says 36-year-old CEO Jon Hirschtick. With about 1,000 users expected to attend the first such conference in late January 1999, he says, "it will have meaning and impact in the marketplace."

Quality Time with Resellers SolidWorks is not only ready to hold the conference, it's eager. The user meeting is expected to further raise the company's profile and strengthen its market position, just as its reseller meetings have done. SolidWorks has no direct sales force.

It sells its products to engineers through a network of 200-plus authorized resellers worldwide. About 30 percent of attendees at reseller conferences come from outside the United States. The resellers range from independent, two-person businesses to major organizations with multiple offices. In addition to SolidWorks software, they sell complementary software applications, hardware, training, support, and consulting services. They are not exclusive resellers--they carry other companies' products also--which means that in the course of everyday business, SolidWorks is competing for their attention.

At the conference, however, SolidWorks has resellers all to itself for a little quality time. "We can preach the gospel," says Gossart, 33, who joined the company in 1995, four months before the first product was released.

"Resellers are an extension of our company," Gossart points out. "They can make us, or they can break us, if we have a weak channel. So it's very important to keep them informed on how to sell the product, to educate them on the benefits of the product. Then they carry our message to the masses." With sessions on technical training, plus sales and marketing strategies, resellers get the tools they need to get out there and sell more SolidWorks software.

Networking, Networking, Networking As with the reseller conference, the user conference creates another opportunity to spend quality time with an important audience. "Users come for hands-on training and product information," says Gossart. "We can communicate to them what we do. Keeping them up-to-date and involved increases loyalty and customer retention." Users will learn, as well, by networking with other users, sharing problems and solutions.

The user conference will follow the reseller conference, with a one-day break in between. Resellers will be encouraged to stay on for the new meeting. "It's an opportunity for resellers to network with their customers," says Gossart.

SolidWorks is soliciting ideas for conference sessions from users, but "we also want them to host sessions," she says. "If the sessions are run by users, resellers can learn what's of interest to those customers."

There are, in fact, so many advantages to the user conference that SolidWorks would have held it even sooner had a venue been available. "We couldn't find the space," says Gossart. "Very few hotels can host a group this size." The reseller meetings usually drew 450 to 500 attendees and were held at hotels in downtown Boston, close to SolidWorks' Concord, Mass. headquarters. When the users come in, attendance could hit 1,500. After checking out many facilities, SolidWorks concluded that only a convention center could fill the bill, and finally settled on the Palm Springs Convention Center in California.

Heavy Electricity Gossart needs the facility for nine days: three each for the two meetings, plus another three for set-up. And she has very demanding meeting room requirements. "We need heavy electricity because we use big projection systems and very specific lighting and sound systems; we bring in a production company for the lighting. We also need a high-ceilinged room with no pillars. We need facilities for hands-on, computer-based training and multimedia productions." Adding the user meeting greatly increases those needs. "We need better lighting, bigger screens, and more space," says Gossart. "We need more computers and more power. Instead of 50 extension cords, we might need 300. And we need bigger dock doors because we need to be able to drive a car into the exhibit hall."

A car? It's part of a reseller promotion, Gossart explains. Those who achieve specified sales levels earn chips for a drawing; the prize is a BMW Z3 sports car.

Despite the stiff requirements, Gossart was confident she could wield plenty of negotiating power. Some of this power, obviously, comes from being able to shop around. If she's considering several properties, she says, she's in a stronger bargaining position. The rest of it comes from being able to say "no" and mean it. As a professional marketer, negotiation is no mystery to her. Gossart seeks what she calls a BATNA--the Best Alternative to Negotiate an Agreement. That is, she determines where she can be flexible, and where she must hold firm. "You have to decide what's your bottom line. Can you take bad dates, or high rates? Can you walk away and rethink the meeting? We could do that." And so they did until they could find the right place, price, and dates.

Once the venue was chosen, Gossart could budget for the new meeting--a detailed, methodical process. "We have to do it line by line," she says. "We have a list of items--exhibit hall, productions, conference materials, travel, food and beverage--and when we selected the facility, we started plugging in the figures. Then we try to cover our costs through exhibitor fees and sponsorships so we can keep the fee low for our users."

The Importance of Partners Exhibits and sponsorships involve yet another group of players--SolidWorks' business partners. There are 150-plus Solution Partners (hardware vendors such as Hewlett Packard and IBM) and 18 Gold Partners (software vendors including Design Automation, Surfware, and Working Model). Partners' products and services complement SolidWorks' software.

"Our customers need a solution, not just a product," CEO Hirschtick explains. "They can't use our product alone." By establishing strategic relationships with these partners, SolidWorks gives its resellers additional products to sell and facilitates end users' search for the solutions they need.

Business partners have in the past paid to exhibit at the reseller conference and have also sponsored meals and receptions. Picking up the tab was worth it to them because they had direct access to the resellers of their products. At the new conference, they'll also have access to the end users. "We won't accept an exhibitor for just one portion of the conference or the other--it's all or nothing," says Gossart. "If they leave early, they pay the same. But why would they leave? They have an opportunity to reach our resellers and end users worldwide in one venue."

The Mission: Increase Awareness Does planning this new meeting sound like a challenge? In fact, planning all the meetings is but one part of Gossart's extensive responsibilities. And marketing has to come first. "My number-one mission in life is to make the market aware of the product and thus help us sell more product," she says. "When I hit my desk in the morning, the press release du jour for the product takes precedence. I ask myself, 'Does what I'm going to do increase the awareness of the company and the product?' If not, I stop doing it."

In addition to writing press releases, Gossart, who has a BA in journalism from George Washington University and an MBA from Boston University, communicates with the press daily, provides resellers with tools such as data sheets and brochures, and educates the 12 field salespeople and 12 technical field people who are the company's link with resellers. Then there are the marketing programs--direct mail, advertising, seminars, conferences, user meetings, and trade shows--which "help drive the sell-through." There's also "the Web stuff--that's the fun stuff." Gossart juggles it all "with the help of six very dedicated people whom I love. They're awesome--they're the best."

The pace is relentless, but Gossart finds it exhilarating. "Planning the meetings is work, but we look forward to them. We see resellers we haven't seen in a year, and we'll see users we've spoken to but never met. It's like a family reunion."