How planners are keeping attendance up in the face of a turbulent economy.
The dollar is down, hotel rates in many destinations are up, inflation is looming, and air travel is becoming increasingly difficult as routes are cut, fares rise, and security hassles increase. With trends like these, it's not surprising that many meeting managers are starting to worry that their attendees may be thinking twice about sending in their annual conference registration forms. Or are they?
According to the results of' exclusive 2008 Annual Meeting Attendance Study, half of respondents indicated their organization either saw a decrease in attendance (31 percent) or no change in attendance (19 percent) over their two most recent annual meetings. Among the reasons cited for their meetings losing attendees were — no surprise here — the impact of the recent economic downturn and the cost and hassle of travel.
Despite this recent history, meeting managers also were optimistic about the future: More than 75 percent of respondents said they anticipated the attendance at their organization's next annual meeting would increase (40 percent) or stay the same (38 percent). Only 14 percent said they were expecting to draw fewer people to their next annual conference.
Here's how they plan to draw record crowds in 2008 and beyond, no matter what the economic and travel trends may be.
While the recent past was a bit grim, attendancewise, for half of respondents, 43 percent did see an increase over the two most recent annual conferences. Almost a quarter saw it jump 5 percent to 9 percent; 17 percent said their most recent conference snagged 20 percent or more additional attendees over the previous year. While domestic members and prospective members accounted for the lion's share of this attendance bump, exhibitors and sponsors also were up 11 percent, respondents said. The international members/prospective members and students categories also were up about 5 percent each.
So how did they do it? The top three tactics those surveyed used to increase their attendance at their last meeting were selecting a more attractive and/or convenient meeting locale (55 percent); improving/increasing Internet and e-mail(52 percent); and improving their educational sessions (48 percent).
Interestingly, 32 percent said they were reaching beyond their traditional attendee base to find new attendees by expanding their offerings to attract new attendee segments. Almost 30 percent also credited improved networking opportunities, and almost a fifth said enhancing their print marketing campaigns scored more attendees for their organization. Despite the undeniable draw of big-name headliners, only 18 percent said high-profile speakers did the trick, and only 5 percent credited offering more enticing entertainment for drawing a bigger crowd.
Almost a quarter of those who reported declining attendance at their most recent annual conference said their losses were in the 5 percent to 9 percent range. Fourteen percent only saw 1 percent to 4 percent decreases, and fewer than 2 percent took a hit of 20 percent or more.
The biggest factors behind the decreases were things they couldn't control: the economy and the increasing hassle of traveling. When asked to rate the impact of the recent economic downturn on their attendee base, 45 percent said it was a four or a five (with five being “very significant”). About a quarter put this factor in the middle slot, and only 15 percent said it really didn't have much impact at all. The numbers were even higher when we asked about the impact of travel costs and hassles on their attendance: 55 percent rated it in the top two levels of significance, and only 14 percent said it wasn't at all significant. When it comes to other factors behind the decreases, many appeared to be bucking the trends:
Despite the sometimes bleak job news hitting many industries, almost 50 percent of respondents said changes in the total number of professionals in the industry their organizations serve were not a significant factor in their attendance decline; only 13 percent said it was very significant.
As associations move more of their educational and social networking online, some have worried that it could satisfy their members' social and knowledge-related needs to the point where it could have a negative impact on their annual meeting attendance. Not to worry, said the more than 50 percent of respondents who labeled increased educational and networking opportunities offered online by their organizations “not at all significant.” Only 3 percent saw this as a significant drain on their most recent annual meeting's attendance. They also say they aren't robbing Peter to pay Paul when it comes to their local or regional events, with more than 50 percent saying this hasn't been a significant negative factor.
And despite all the buzz about social networking and online education offered by third parties being a threat to association meetings, more than half of meeting managers surveyed again said it hasn't yet been a significant factor for them. They were a little more worried about third-party face-to-face local and regional events, but not by much: 40 percent rated outside events not at all significant.
The good news, 40 percent of respondents reported, was that they expected attendance at their next annual meetings to increase, and another 38 percent expected it would remain the same. Only 14 percent were anticipating a decrease. Among the top reasons for a gloomy outlook were continued economic pressures globally and in the U.S., high airfares and hotel rates, travel budget cuts, increased registration fees to make up for increasing food and beverage costs, decreases in membership, and problems foreign attendees would have obtaining visas.
On the plus side, meeting managers are depending on many of the same factors that worked for them in the past to help bump up attendance, including careful site selection and finding the best hotel rates. With many of the survey respondents belonging to organizations in the healthcare/medical/pharmaceutical (18 percent) and business/finance/banking/real estate (11 percent) fields, it's not surprising that continuing-education needs are expected to continue to be a big draw; several said they were beefing up their CE credit opportunities.
Some are pinning their hopes on an economic recovery to pull their industry out of the doldrums and spur new attendees to flock to their meetings. Others were stepping out of their comfort zones to bring in the big numbers. One organization had a “huge success” in filling its room block by having the association pay for one room night when a minimum of two room nights were booked, and they planned to repeat the tactic. Another said they planned to “go green this year. All presentations and abstracts will be offered online, so those who could not attend can access them.” Another planned to merge itswith a similar event “so attendees that only attended one of the two before will not have to decide which one to attend.”
So while some may grumble and worry, it seems that most meeting managers are looking at their future attendance numbers with optimism tempered with reality. While acknowledging that today's challenges are real, these professionals are prepared to do whatever they can to make their annual conferences the one business travel cut their attendees can't afford to make.
Association Meetings' 2008 Annual Meeting Attendance Study also asked planners to put attendance and revenue aside for a moment and detail what other factors they consider important to the success of their organization's annual meeting. Here are some of their answers:
Positive feedback/evaluations from attendees, exhibitors, and board members
Increased skill levels of members
Met the organization's desired strategic outcomes
Sponsorship and exhibitor income
Participation levels in sessions
Positive industry press
The post-meeting “buzz”: percentage of people who will recommend the conference to others and other word-of-mouth praise.
As one person summed up, the conference would be considered a success if attendees “have added value to take back to their workplace. They don't travel to these for fun, so we must prove the value. That's it!”
Data was collected for Association Meetings' 2008 Annual Meeting Attendance Study from May 6, 2008, to May 19, 2008. In an online survey, Penton Custom Research e-mailed invitations to a total of 6,573 participants, subscribers to Association Meetings selected on an nth name basis. Not including bouncebacks and undeliverables, the survey went to 5,584 subscribers. To encourage prompt response, a drawing was held for one of four $50 Amazon.com gift certificates. We received 141 completed surveys, a response rate of 2.5 percent.