Forget what you have learned about what it takes to market and execute great events. Forget the glossy brochures. Forget the fancy binders filled with handouts. Forget the evaluation forms piling up at the back of the meeting room. Erika Brunke is here to say that meetings — at least her meetings — have been just fine without the paper, printing, and mailings that are meeting professionals' standard tools.

Until very recently, Brunke directed the marketing events for Palo Alto, Calif.-based Garage Technology Ventures. To understand her practically paperless management technique, you need to understand the company she worked for over the past two years and its audience. Garage Technology Ventures (formerly Garage.com) arranges early-stage financing for high-technology companies from venture capital firms and corporate investors. Since Garage started in 1999, it has closed 77 deals, raising $285 million for venture-stage companies. Of course, the 35-employee company couldn't take on every eBay or Amazon hopeful, so early on it created an educational arm (recently dismantled, see box below) to reach out to a larger universe of entrepreneurs. That's where Brunke came in. The company held two-day Bootcamp for Startups in cities across the country (six this year, eight last year) to focus on the issues critical to startups: how to perfect your company's positioning, how to pitch your company to investors, how to find the right people for your management team, and so on.

Since the Bootcamps targeted high-tech entrepreneurs, doing everything online and electronically was more feasible than for, say, a conference of doctors or lawyers. (See sidebar, page 34.) “One of the primary success factors for paperless events,” Brunke says, “is compatibility with your audience, their working styles, and their accessibility to the online environment.

“If they can't register online, I try to talk them out of coming,” comments Brunke, only half jokingly.

Leveraging Media Sponsors

Brunke didn't print a single brochure to promote the Bootcamps, yet the 2001 events each attracted close to 500 people to hear CEO Guy Kawasaki and other startup experts. In the heady dot-com days of 2000, the Bootcamps drew crowds as large as 1,100 per city. And every one of her events finished at break-even or better.

In place of printed pieces, Brunke's primary promotional campaign consisted of two e-mail blasts — an invitation and a follow-up — to Garage's in-house database, as well as to the databases of its media sponsors and affiliate organizations. “Forbes and The Industry Standard blast to their lists as part of their sponsorship agreements,” Brunke says. “We also had affiliates, such as the California-Israel Chamber of Commerce, that blasted e-mail to their [members]. Our e-mail only went to sanctioned groups. We didn't buy lists.” (Because of the recent demise of The Industry Standard, Brunke at press time was unsure whether its database would be available to promote the fall Bootcamp.) As part of the media sponsorships, Brunke also negotiated a trade for advertising space in the sponsoring magazines and their Web sites, which gave the Bootcamps visibility in front of a broad base of potential attendees.

Brunke did, however, print one piece of marketing collateral: an inexpensive postcard. The Bootcamp logo — a spike-collared bulldog you wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley — was pictured on the front, and the back had verbiage about the event and a label for the city where the conference convened. The postcards were never mailed, just supplied to speakers in the months prior to their Bootcamp booking.

“I think it [the postcard] helped, but I don't know if we'd do it again,” Brunke says. Instead, she's looking further down the paperless path. “For the Silicon Valley event this October, we used MC2 Las Vegas, a creative marketing agency … to create an electronic invitation. I would see that replacing the postcard,” Brunke says. “It is more dynamic than an html e-mail. It's an e-mail with a link to a 30-second movie. It is very animated, giving the impression of how beneficial Bootcamp is and how different it is from any other conference.

“The thing about Bootcamp for Startups is that people literally walked in and said, ‘This is so different.’ It was kind of a combination of a conference and a rock concert. We had moving lights. The music was loud. We played The Goo-Goo Dolls or the soundtrack from ‘The Sopranos’ — very high-energy. These entrepreneurs were typically 25 to 35. They're young and more hip, and we wanted them to understand, before even registering, that ‘Wow, this is not my dad's conference.’” Brunke says the cost of the e-vite was comparable to a direct mail piece, but without postage and fulfillment costs.

Partners: In-house and Outsourced

The goal for Brunke's promotional programs was to drive people to the Bootcamp Web site, where Garage gets into its next level of marketing. The site featured the agenda, sponsor recognition, and the ability to register online.

“The best thing about paperless events,” Brunke says, “is that the agenda on the Web was the agenda I referred to on a daily basis. If there were speaker changes, if there were schedule updates, it went through our Web mistress and straight onto the site.” And that quick turnaround from the Web department is what Brunke calls a “critical success factor” for her meeting management process. “If we had to wait in a queue for a week or two weeks to get Web updates, it would not have been possible to do paperless events.”

Another partner who helped to make the paperless process possible was Portland, Ore.-based First Contact, which handled registration. When potential attendees clicked the registration link at the Bootcamp Web site, the address on their browser switched to the First Contact server. “They managed the entire registration experience,” says Brunke. “We took very few phone calls. We encouraged everyone to e-mail bootcamp@garage.com, which went to First Contact. They handled all e-mail customer-service issues, batch processing of the credit cards, and credits for people who canceled before our deadline.” First Contact also handled one small piece of paper: They printed all the badges. They also worked with Brunke to stuff sponsor items into the Bootcamp backpacks that were given to attendees.

The Other Print Job

Besides a name badge and the sponsor materials in the backpacks, Bootcamp attendees received only one other piece of printed material. Brunke created a small agenda, a trifold piece about the size of an index card (when folded), that slid into attendees' clear-plastic badge holders. The piece was produced at a quick-print shop 72 hours before the conference, and then shipped in one small box to the meeting site. “That way, unless a speaker canceled within a couple days of the conference, we had the most current speakers on the agenda,” Brunke says.

The only other printing bill Brunke saw for the Bootcamp for Startups was for some “very limited” signage. Attendees didn't get binders at registration, and they weren't asked to fill out on-site evaluation forms. Post-conference, Brunke sent an e-mail to all attendees that included survey questions about the conference, a way to refer a friend to a future Bootcamp, information about how to buy audiocassettes, and an attendee-only URL where pdf files for every presentation were posted for two weeks.

I Want Paper!

Of course, not everyone loved the paperless system. Eight to 10 people per conference complained about not having copies of the slide presentations. “The tradeoff is that the materials could be outdated because our speakers were used to changing things at the last minute,” says Brunke. “That's just the reality of it. We provided them with a notebook to take notes.”

Brunke also heard concerns about the e-confirmation system. Once attendees registered online, they received a confirmation e-mail with four messages: this is your receipt; this is how much you were charged; you are confirmed; this is your receipt. “Even though it clearly said in two different places ‘This is your receipt.’ People e-mailed back asking, ‘Are you going to e-mail me a receipt?’ It was almost too simple.”

About 72 hours before a Bootcamp, attendees got another e-mail reminding them of the conference dates and to bring their confirmation e-mail. It also told them when to arrive, appropriate dress, provided an emergency number at the venue, and gave directions and a link to the agenda.

Mental Roadblock?

The Bootcamp for Startups conferences were fairly simple, as events go. There were no breakouts and therefore not a lot of session-management issues. Brunke is confident, however, that meeting software exists that could have helped her remain paperless, by managing session registration and changes, even for the most complicated meetings. A more critical roadblock to paperless events is the “value perception,” she says. The concept first came to her consciousness when she was working at Marimba, a Mountain View, Calif., company, selling a high-end systems management software. “When you bought their half million-dollar product, all you got was a password for the Web site to go download your software. People thought that was highly anticlimactic. We ended up printing manuals just so we could send people something.”

The cost of attending a Garage Bootcamp started at $695, so people were OK with the lack of handouts, says Brunke. “But if they were paying more, people might have the perception that they should be getting something tangible. … With entrepreneurs, it's lean and mean. I didn't want to charge them a penny more than I had to.”

Brunke did get requests to create printed material for the conference, but her practically paperless management was effective, and she remained firm. “We didn't need to,” she says. “I was the stake in the ground saying we could still be really effective and be paperless.”

In a late addendum to this story, Garage Technology Ventures has decided to make its October 2001 Bootcamp for Startups its last. The company will no longer plan events, a move that it hopes will allow it to focus more intently on its core mission. Brunke planned to leave the company at the end of October.

The Bottom Line: A Tale of Two Meetings

Garage Technology Ventures, Palo Alto, Calif., took a paperless approach to its Bootcamp for Startups, but when the company planned a second conference last December, Bootcamp for Lawyers, it couldn't use the same model. “We had to do a binder with the handouts so the lawyers could obtain their continuing education credits,” says Erika Brunke, former director of event marketing. “We did find that the lawyers were less tech savvy. We were dealing with venture lawyers, so they were probably better than most, but they felt more comfortable mailing their registration [rather than registering online]. Also, they were using company checks much more than credit cards. Our entrepreneurs [attending Bootcamp for Startups] were OK registering online with a credit card.”

Comparing the two conferences, Brunke calls the cost savings for the paperless Bootcamp “unbelievable. … When I compare my Bootcamp for Startups with my Bootcamp for Lawyers, I would say I saved $18,000 to $20,000 per event. If I just look at my incremental costs for printing binders and brochures for Bootcamp for Lawyers, that was about $18,000, and that didn't include postage. Plus there was the aspect that you don't even think about: the time it took my assistant to collect the presentations to have in the binder.”




If you would like to discuss paperless event management further, contact Brunke at erikabrunke@yahoo.com.