The American Bar Association's annual meeting began 125 years ago as a place to conduct the association's business, but over the years it's become too big for its own good. Last summer's conference involved approximately 2,500 individual events, including 400 continuing legal education (CLE) programs. In trying to provide a little something for all its 400,000 members, about 20,000 of whom usually attend the meeting, the largestprofessional association in the world instead found its meeting attendance flagging, its attendees confused and overwhelmed, and its CLE providers out of control.
Last year, ABA's president Robert Hirshon assigned a task force comprised of the different ABA section leaders, policy-makers, meeting organizers, and technology specialists. “They dissected the meeting to see where our high and low levels of satisfaction were, and looked at the general trends we were seeing — not just dropping attendance, but shorter stays and less spouse attendance,” says Martin Balogh, director, ABA Meetings and Travel in Chicago.
“Given these trends, we thought that the way we had been doing registration — a one-size-fits-all, all-inclusive fee — was no longer working for us. Why should our meeting be any different from the ‘cafeteria’ way we do things like employee benefits programs? Everyone wants more control over what they're buying, and they don't want to have to buy what they don't need,” Balogh explains.
So instead of charging a flat fee of $350 ($450 for nonmembers), the ABA decided to make the meeting “a la carte,” reducing the registration fee to just $95, with CLE available on a pay-as-you-go basis. Not only did the task force come up with this strategy amazingly quickly, given the size and complexity of the association, but the board approved it in time to put it into action for this year's meeting, held August 8 to 13 at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C. While bottom-line numbers weren't available at press time, the impact of the new pricing structure already was showing some of the expected results — and a few surprises.
All in the Numbers
The preregistration numbers as of the end of July were holding even with last year, which Balogh says is pretty great, given the state of the economy, terrorist-related member concerns about meeting in Washington, D.C., and the fact that one of ABA's largest sections meets every year in D.C., so they weren't sending the usual full complement of people. Also, since Chicago is historically a better draw for the meeting, “if we end up equal to what we did in Chicago last year, we'll consider it a big success,” he says.
The new pricing fee structure also should make it easier for folks to get the time away from the office: “They have a better chance of getting approval if they can say it's only $95, and they will be there for only a couple of days,” says Balogh.
The new pricing structure may be more cost-effective for attendees, especially those who are just coming in for a day to do the governance part of the program, but it also is stricter. There are no price breaks for judges or young lawyers anymore, although law students can still come for the old $50 registration fee. ABA also is no longer fee-exempting session speakers — and with 400 CLE programs, that can add up.
The groups holding the CLE programs were free to set their own pricing, but most held their session fees to $50. Some groups also instituted a “passport” program, where the attendee could pay one lump sum to go to as many of that group's sessions as he or she wanted. Because each section draws a different demographic — one might attract higher income corporate lawyers, while another draws civil litigators — there are price variants between the sections.
Social programs that used to be included, such as the Presidents Reception, also are a la carte now. “There was some concern that people wouldn't see the value in having to pay for what they used to get for free,” says Balogh. A month prior to the meeting, though, 3,000 had already signed up for the event, which typically draws 3,000 to 4,000. “Looks like they're willing to buy the tickets after all,” he sighs.
The only grumbling so far has come from what Balogh calls the “grazers”: people who don't need the CLE credit and tend to hop from session to session. “The new pricing definitely discourages that.”
Pros and Cons of Going on a Diet
Putting the individual CLE session pricing in the hands of the groups that put on the programs, rather than leaving it to the ABA, may seem like an odd choice, but Balogh says it was the right one to make.
“One of the complaints we used to get from these groups is that they got a very small percentage of the registration fee historically. They had all the costs of putting on the programs, but they collected very little revenue because we based their slice of the pie on how many registrants came overall, not how many attended their sessions.”
The ABA also instituted a facilities fee for all those educational programs, which means that groups putting on the CLE now are charged by the size of the room. “We always had meeting space problems previously, because we needed 350 meeting rooms but we had less than 7,000 sleeping rooms on peak night — not a great ratio,” says Balogh. “One interesting fallout, from a hotel perspective, is that now that individual session organizers are paying a facilities charge based on the size of the room, all of a sudden they are requesting appropriately sized rooms, instead of the biggest room they can get.”
This strategy did have one unexpected result, though: “We had a huge drop in the number of CLE programs this year — we went from more than 400 to about 220. It's good news and bad news,” says Balogh. “We went on a diet and lost weight, but now our clothes don't fit.”
Attendees, however, are happy: In every member survey the ABA did, the biggest complaint was that people couldn't possibly go to all the programs they wanted to, especially when there were similar topics closely scheduled. But the downside is that ABA had been counting on the revenue from those cut programs. “We were told they [education providers] couldn't possibly reduce the number of programs they had planned for this year. But they did. It wasn't exactly the partnership we had in mind.”
He estimates that the conference might be off by $100,000 or so as a result. “When you go from 400 sessions to 220, and you've got smaller rooms, it affects your revenue in that category.”
Despite the anticipated shortfall in this area, Balogh says ABA remains 100 percent behind the new strategy, and is looking forward to further tweaks that will come when they get the technology end of it on board.
“We don't yet have technology — at least not affordable technology — to implement a smart card attendees could use to automatically add and deduct credits for the sessions they sign up for and attend,” he says.
While the passport idea would solve the problem for individual sections, the ultimate plan would be to offer a super-passport that would enable attendees to pay a larger general registration fee and go to whatever they want. [It would cost more than the old $350 flat fee, too.]
In the meantime, it will be interesting to see how a la carte registration plays out both this year and in 2003, when the conference goes to San Francisco. “San Francisco is historically our best draw,” says Balogh. “We'll have to wait and see how it goes.”
More Registration Trends
When asked what trends he sees in meeting registration, Jack Chaisson, CMP, director, registration services with the Fairfax, Va.-based registration service provider J. Spargo & Associates, has just three words to say: “online, online, online.” Well, if he has to add a few more, they would be, “and more-sophisticated online tools that members can use.” Most of his company's clients now have 70 to 80 percent online registration, he says. “It's just boomed, which is great. It can be a little more expensive on the front end due to the programming and Web site development, but in the long run it's much more cost-effective.”
J. Michael Tydings, president of Ellicott City, Md.-based Attendee Interactive Services, LLC, a Web application service provider, has been surveying his association clients to see what they really want in terms of more sophisticated online registration, with the plan of eventually being able to provide a product that would give them what they want. “The key thing we're hearing is that they want to be able to use their member databases not just to prepopulate a form with contact information, but also to market certain sessions or events to specific members based on their event history and their specialty areas.”
The biggest request he's been hearing from attendees? “‘Why do I have to enter my contact information when I register for the meeting online, then enter it again when I get to my hotel? Why can't I just use my member number?’ It's our plan to be able not only to store information for future marketing efforts, but also to be able to pass it back to attendees so they can track speakers and topics of interest to them. It is possible, but it would entail some customization,” he says.
Other registration trends of note:
Self-registration on site — attendees can either register at terminals in the registration area that are linked to the Web site, or register on laptops in their hotel rooms, walk downstairs, and pick up their badges.
Dump the paper badges — even organizations that have sworn by the paper badge for time immemorial are starting to make the switch to electronic card badges. Because they are twice as expensive as paper badges, some associations still are hesitant to make the change, even though it's a better way to serve their registrants and their exhibitors.
Real-time payment systems — you now can sign up for an account with a credit card processing company like Mountain View, Calif.-based VeriSign, which will post the charge the instant an attendee registers with a credit card, rather than posting it on a daily or weekly basis. Registrants get all their information in real time, and associations can get live, up-to-the-minute data.
How Do You Figure Fees?
There are probably about as many formulas for determining what to charge for registration as there are meeting planners, but here are a few examples:
The Convention Industry Council Manual (seventh edition) suggests these formulas:
To determine the break-even total:
Break-even Units (No. of attendees) = Total Fixed Costs/Contribution Margin (Registration fee — Variable Costs)
To determine the registration fee:
Registration fee = Total Fixed Costs + Variable Costs/Number of Attendees
But that just gets you started. Jack Chaisson, CMP, director, registration services with Fairfax, Va.-based J. Spargo & Associates, offers the following strategies to take you the rest of the way:
“One way to go is to base the registration fee calculations on the largest anticipated group that will pay the lowest fee — usually your members. For example, to break even, say your fixed costs are $2,500 (that number doesn't change no matter how many attendees you have); your variable costs (total per-person charges) are $1,000; and your anticipated number of attendees is 100 (50 members, 25 associate members, 15 nonmembers, 10 students).
$2,500 + $1,000/100 = $35
Now assume that you also want to make a profit of $1,000 on the meeting (note: profit should always be calculated as a fixed cost):
$3,500 fixed + $1,000 variable/100 = $45
Nonmembers generally pay the highest fees (say $75). Associate members generally pay a little more than regular members (say $60). Members pay $45, and students generally get a break-even price.
Assuming that all attendees will be members, do your budget based on bringing in $4,500. Associate members and nonmembers will provide the “gravy” (additional revenue) for this meeting, and your students will be able to afford it — thereby building good will for future members.
In our example,
50 members will pay $45 = $2,250
25 associate members will pay $60 = $1,500
15 nonmembers will pay $75 = $1,125
10 students will pay $35 = $350
So your income will be $5,225, with $725 in “gravy.”
What if your numbers drop, or you don't get your anticipated attendance? Then your variable costs will also drop…and you should recalculate to make sure you will still meet your financial goals. One final note: If you have advance and late prices, make sure you do all of your calculations on the advance rates; the late prices become additional revenue.”