Last year, Fargo, N.D.-based Great Plains Software held eight meetings across the country to introduce its e-commerce products to potential customers. The sessions were all well-attended. The Seattle meeting, however, threatened to explode at the seams. A week or so in advance, 200 people had registered for a morning event that had been planned for half that number. Despite her budget constraints, Janice Harter, U.S. marketing programs manager for Great Plains, saw no way out except finding a bigger room (if she could) and calling all her prospects to tell them of the new venue.

Harter's partner in producing the seminars was Portland, Ore.-based First Contact, the division of American Show Management that focuses specifically on orchestrating seminars. When it comes to managing meeting growth, the crew at First Contact is among the most experienced. Since the company's founding in 1990, it has organized and run nearly 15,000 tech industry meetings. Its managers have seen both the fat and the lean in meeting organization.

When advance registration exceeds expectations, no planner wants to tell customers to stay home. "These are expensive events," says Kristin Dickinson, managing director of business development for First Contact. "And you can't ask people to come back again."

Harter's situation in Seattle was enough to make anyone sleepless. She wanted 100 prospects, had 200 registrants, and was about to search the city for a larger room when she took a second, closer look at her attendee list. Roughly half of them, she noticed, weren't potential customers at all but were already loyal clients. At Great Plains, such folks are known as "partners," and Harter decided to see if she could get these company friends to cooperate with her. She phoned them, told them about the limited space, and asked if they could come in the afternoon for a session that would be devoted entirely to their needs. Enough of them agreed to the rescheduling to permit Great Plains to hold two filled, but not overfilled, presentations of its new e-commerce line.

Where Do They All Come From? The overflow meeting is the exception, not the rule, even in the at-times overheated world of high-tech, says Traci Wheeler, First Contact's managing director. She says she is more likely to have to get her clients to scale back their expectations than to convince them to open their wallets to rent a bigger hall. She makes predicting the size of an audience sound practically scientific.

Wheeler explains that most clients arrive with a meeting history and experience is usually a good indicator of future performance. In the "not very common" instances when an organization has no history, she begins by defining the event audience and then going to a list broker. Registration applications go out by direct mail to likely prospects. One to three percent of them will register and 50 percent of the registrants will actually show up at the event. "In most cases," Wheeler says, "clients have a good feel for the size of their audience. Their products are very specifically

targeted."

In most cases, but not all. A number of factors can undermine the most carefully considered estimates and the world will beat a path to your door, whether you are ready or not.

Geography, for example, can be destiny. It's tempting to think that these days a seminar on e-commerce would be packing them in anywhere in the world. But Great Plains' experience argues otherwise. In San Diego, San Francisco, and five other sites throughout the nation, the crowds were large but manageable. Only in Seattle did Harter have more folks than she could handle. Seattle, as home to both Microsoft and Amazon.com, can lay some claim to being at or near ground zero of the Internet revolution. E-commerce may be a cool topic, but in Seattle, it's waaay cool.

Smaller Town, Bigger Crowd Seattle is also not the largest metropolis, and planners note that smaller cities tend to have lower attrition rates. Harter is not sure whether the phenomenon is due to less traffic, fewer distractions, or a combination of both, but she says that if she has 100 registrants for a New York City meeting, she can count on an attendance of only 50 people. In Minneapolis, by way of contrast, she would expect 75 out of 100 to show up.

Going north of the border also tends to boost attendance, says Connie Maysonnave, group marketing manager for San Jose, Calif.-based Adobe Systems. This spring she ran a series of seminars, organized with the assistance of First Contact, on graphic design for the small business user. Her mailings had produced audiences of the desired size until she arrived in Toronto on April 22. There she was holding an event originally designed to draw 500. "We knew there were going to be more than 500," recalls Maysonnave, who says she always expects her sessions in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver to be heavily attended. "We were prepared for 600. We had an audience of 750. And a transit strike had just ended the day before. If not for that, we could have had even more people."

Offering people an interesting program is generally a good way to build an audience. Publicizing that program is another way to get folks out to an event. Unfortunately, too much of too many goods things can lead to a system overload, as it did for Great Plains recently at a half-day event in New York City. Advice was offered not only on e-commerce products, but also on how to handle the euro, along with several other timely topics. What's more, Harter didn't limit herself to direct mail, but also took out print and radio ads, as well as posting news on the event of the Great Plains Web site.

The result: Out of 600 registrants, 500 showed up, far more than the expected 50-percent attendance rate. Fortunately, Harter and her allies at First Contact had, in this case at least, expected the unexpected. There were no space problems at the event. And lunch had been ordered for 450. "We didn't panic," she said. "We didn't even run out of food."

Overflow: Low- and High-Tech Solutions When confronted with more attendees than expected, as well as more than there is room or food for, not panicking is a good place for meeting planners to start. If they have followed First Contact's Ten Commandments of planning for growth (see page 58), they should be ready to handle the overflow crowd. They will know how much extra space is available and have told the hotel to call in extra staff for the front desk, bell station, and valet parking. And even at the last-minute, there are still several tricks of the trade they can conjure up.

Kathleen Pagurek is conference planning manager at the AT&T Learning Center, a 171-room hotel and conference center adjacent to the telecommunications giant's international headquarters in Basking Ridge, N.J., about a 45-minute drive from New York City. An International Association of Conference Centers member managed by Benchmark Hospitality, the Learning Center hosts both AT&T and outside events and has evolved both high-tech and low-tech approaches to crowd control.

The low-tech approach focuses on that most humble of modern meeting necessities, the chair. Pagurek says her center has two types of chairs. Usually conference rooms are furnished with large arm chairs. But when she needs to get, say, 45 people into a room set up for 30, she will replace the large furniture with smaller, armless chairs.

The newer high-tech approach, broadcasting the session over the Internet (Webcasting in the jargon of the industry) has won acceptance only in the last eight to 10 months, says Pagurek. To accommodate an overflow crowd, the Learning Center can set up rows of personal computers in its foyer, with two people following the meeting on each monitor.

The Webcast can also help alleviate crowding at the meeting site by allowing folks to follow the session from the comfort of their office desktop computers. While it's highly unlikely that Webcasts will be the future of all meetings, there are increasingly the mode of the present. "They've really gotten very popular," says Pagurek. "People just can't get away from their work stations."

Webcasts also relieve meeting planners of some of their most basic worries concerning overcrowded meetings. At the virtual gathering, at least, no one ever runs out of doughnuts and coffee.

These commandments have been handed down by Traci Wheeler, managing director, and Kristin Dickinson, managing director of business development, at First Contact, the Portland, Ore.-based seminar and event management division of American Show Management.

1. Expect the unexpected.

2. Investigate what else is happening in town. (That way, you will know whether it's possible to move the event or rent additional space if, two weeks out, your demand exceeds your supply. Wheeler says that if a popular event is coming into a city at the same time as many other meetings and conventions, she advises her client to consider an alternate date or location.)

3. Determine the cost implications of handling the overflow. (Is your budget flexible enough to pay for more space and food to accommodate additional attendees? If it isn't, you will need to limit registration, rather than expand the meeting.)

4. Understand the capabilities of your venue and suppliers. (For example, you may have to change the type of audiovisual equipment you're using if you move a session to a larger room. Can your vendor supply you with a document camera and data monitors when you move from a 30-person meeting room to a 800-seat ballroom?)

5. Communicate with attendees if--and only if--the change will affect them. (They don't need to know that you were up until 3 a.m. the night before the session photocopying extra handouts.)

6. Avoid on-site chaos. (If you've changed the meeting rooms from those on the printed program mailed out a month before the conference, have lots of signs throughout the facility directing people where to go. If possible, also have your staff help attendees find their sessions.)

7. Ensure that the meeting registration area can handle the increased volume. (Call the convention bureau or temp agency and have them send more people.)

8. Tell speakers that they'll be talking to a larger group than they expected. (They may have to adjust their presentation if they had planned to hold an intimate discussion with two dozen attendees and instead find themselves in an auditorium addressing a crowd of 300.)

9. Make sure the property knows to call out extra front desk, bell station, and valet staff.

10. Don't let the stress of an unexpected spurt in attendance affect the success of the meeting or the way you and your staff relate to attendees. Overflow crowds may be a headache, says Wheeler, but for her clients, "they're a sign of success."