Six weeks away and the only thing that was confirmed for the inaugural annual meeting and conference of an association of online journalists was the venue.
Not a single.
Not a single piece of promotional literature.
Not a single corporate underwriter to help defray costs.
Not the caterer.
Not a means to take reservations and accept payment online.
Plus, the space left much to the imagination. In fact, it required a lot of imagination to make it work for this particular event.
My company, Rob Seitz Communications (RSC), a New York City — based meeting and conference planning and production company, was hired to help pull all of the details together for this nascent group of high-powered journalists with lots of enthusiasm, energy, and expectations — but little budget.
The site was chosen for us: A prestigious university at the northwest tip of Manhattan lent us two classrooms and two lecture halls. Despite lack of electrical outlets, phone lines, and even pay phones, and the fact that the site was far away from major hotels, restaurants, and most of the city's other attractions, we pulled off the event, due in no small part to use of an online registration service.
At the time, the nation was in the final month (or so everyone thought) of the presidential election, not a minor distraction for most of the working journalists who volunteered to be on the conference planning committee.
Once the election was over, we expected to have nearly a full month to focus on the final details and sail into the event without sweat. Naturally, no one anticipated the Florida recounts.
Consequently, several members of the committee needed to focus even longer hours than usual on their jobs, which delayed and complicated the confirmation of the speakers, the finalization of conference details, and getting the group to take immediate action on their conference assignments.
As the presidential election went on and on — well after Election Day — it became clear that we were going to have to shift more responsibilities from our client's column to our column.
Having a fully automated registration system in place that conference attendees could access over the Internet, 24/7, and receive real-time credit card approval and instant confirmation, was critical to bringing off such a short-term meeting. The system also became the epicenter of the day-to-day management of the conference.
Our client had already successfully used the vendor eRSVP for accepting nominations and entry fees online for an awards program, which was a major focus of this conference. It is one of many reputable online registration services (see box, page 20). Headquartered in the heart of New York City's “Silicon Alley,” eRSVP had a reputation for service, a very dedicated staff, patience, and the ability to turn around a finished product within days. For this particular conference, eRSVP was compensated strictly by commission on credit card sales.
Because time and budget were both limited, we elected to use a basic template registration form that we created in conjunction with eRSVP. While this core registration form was suitable for the bulk of the attendees registering online, we discovered over the course of the six-week planning period, that we actually needed four different registration forms. While this created some management headaches, it was necessary to accommodate the various registration categories, such as multiple registration discounts and non-rev attendees. Conversely, we couldn't have changed paper forms as easily and efficiently, and without major cost. We also didn't have the luxury of time to mail or even fax a paper form.
Had there been more time to plan, and the budget to pay for customized design and programming, eRSVP could have created a single registration form that would have accepted all forms of registration and been able to calculate the various registration rates and discounts.
Conference attendees were directed to our client's Web site that seamlessly linked them to the registration form residing on eRSVP's site. The form was secure, a critical requirement for accepting credit card payments over the Internet.
The majority of conference attendees registered online, and because they typed in their own information, we dramatically reduced the likelihood for human error, including misspelled names and incorrect credit card data.
As conference managers, we had password-protected access to an up-to-the-minute list of conference registrants. This allowed us to follow up on any registration where there might be a problem. For example, occasionally, a would-be registrant would unwittingly exit the system before completing all of the required fields. We were able to catch this in advance of the conference, thereby avoiding on-site disappointments and some anxious moments for the registration staff. Key members of our client organization also had password access to registration status.
There were some glitches in the form that needed to be fixed as our planning and production moved forward, such as changing some required fields to optional fields. This correction took just minutes, and we were able to do it with a built-in editing tool and without eRSVP's intervention.
Some special situation registrations, such as companies registering multiple attendees that entitled them to a discount, individuals who paid by check, and non-rev registrants, had to register either by e-mail, snail mail, or fax. Most of these special-situation cases registered by e-mail. If using e-mail, the online registration form could be copied, filled out, and submitted. It was because we were using a template registration form that had not been customized to accept multiple discounts that we had to re-key these few registrations upon receipt. We also would later need to merge all of these customized registration forms into a single Excel spreadsheet. This gave us a complete list of advanced registrants for name badges, for attendance reconciliation at the door, and for submitting various final reports to our client, including a separate list of all new members who signed up in conjunction with their conference registration.
On-site registration — about 20 percent of the attendees — was labor-intensive. The space where the registration was held — the only available space in the university building — did not have a single electrical outlet for plugging in a computer and printer. Forget about telephone lines for accessing our online registration system! All on-site registration had to be done by hand and there was a lot of follow up after the event, including credit card confirmations. (Fortunately, this was a very honest group and not a single credit card payment was rejected.)
Once the online registration system was in place, we shifted our focus to other details. But as already noted, having all of the registrations in a single place and online was critical to the management of almost all other aspects of the conference. For example, using Excel we were able to create a list of the registrants' e-mail addresses only. As the conference date approached, we were able to send a reminder to the pre-registered. A few responded seeking substitute representatives. No-shows for the conference were minimal.
To our client's very large credit, they were absolutely right when they said all they would have to do to get speakers was to “pick up the phone and call.” There was none of the research,, and eleventh-hour speaker cancellations typical of most conferences that we've been hired to help manage and produce.
The other major component that did not require much of our time was. “Build a conference and people will come” was our client's philosophy. And although only 50 people had registered just two weeks before the big day, out of the originally anticipated 150 to 200, it was the association that kept its cool and kept assuring us not to worry. “Online people do everything at the last minute.” In this case, the client was right. Nonetheless, we worried.
The separate awards program was also well under way and into the final stages of judging when we were brought on board. Still, it created some logistical challenges and raised registration issues. Much of the rest of the conference had to be worked around this event-within-an-event. Many of the conference registrants were award finalists who wanted to come only for the luncheon awards ceremony. But due to meeting space limitations and restrictions, the events had to be separate, and registering and paying for them alone was not an option. As a result, many people showed up right before lunch and paid the full conference rate (plus an on-site late fee). This skewed our head count for the luncheon, afternoon refreshments, and evening reception. Fortunately, we were working with a very cool-headed, cooperative, and flexible on-site meeting manager and caterer. More chairs and tables could be brought in, more name badges found, more sandwiches made, and more cookies baked on a moment's notice.
How much more symbolic could this have been? The conference was held on the opening day of New York's busiest Christmas holiday shopping and tourism season, and not a room was to be had in Manhattan that wasn't $350 per night or more. Also, the event was being held in a section of Manhattan where several of the few hotels that exist rent by the hour.
After trying unsuccessfully on their own to find an appropriate hotel, prior to hiring RSC, the client was inclined to let conference attendees fend for themselves. This was not a good idea, in our opinion, especially this very busy weekend in New York.
Before finalizing the registration form, we shopped for hotels. We wanted to make this information available as soon as possible, including advice for traveling in and out of New York's three major airports. And we wanted to make online registration as simple and as complete as possible.
We were able to secure blocks of rooms at two major hotel chains just outside New York City, near public transportation and a suburban commuter train. They were almost as convenient to the conference site as hotels in midtown Manhattan. And even with van service to transport our guests to and from the conference, the cost of these hotel rooms was about a third of Manhattan prices.
While the ideal situation would have been to have had a block of overnight accommodations available in Manhattan, it also would have been ideal to have secured hotel space six months in advance and not try to do it on six weeks notice.
However, there is something to be said about using conference hotel space just outside the heart of a major market like New York City. Besides keeping costs down for both the conference host and registrants, more suburban settings typically are without as many distractions, keeping conference attendees in attendance and assuring speakers a full house.
“Never say never.” As a “lean and mean consulting team” it's not likely we will ever learn how to say: “No, it can't be done.” Although this “never say never” policy has caused us some anxious moments over the last 25 years, it has also made us extremely resourceful when both time and money are tight.
A conference of this nature for a demanding client with high expectations would have been extremely difficult to produce on such short notice without on-site assistance from another professional meeting planner familiar with the space. Having an easy way to manage registration and to accept online payments was not only critical to the conference's success, it was essential to making it all happen.
Rob Seitz is president and founder of Rob Seitz Communications, a meeting planning company and marketing communications firm with offices in New York City and New Rochelle, NY. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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