I’ve heard a lot of doom and gloom lately from meeting managers and hoteliers who, as gas prices rise and bring the cost of pretty much everything up with them, are worried about the future. Corporate America is cutting back on travel, and even those who go to meetings on their own dime are starting to think it isn’t worth all the bother and expense.
And in fact, when we conducted our 2008 Annual Meeting Attendance Study this spring, we found that attendance had been flat or declining for half of respondents for their past two annual meetings. The interesting thing, though, is that despite these trends, planners were still optimistic about holding attendance steady (38 percent) or even increasing it (40 percent) at their 2008/2009 annual conferences. We explore why they anticipate growth in these tough times—and how some associations are actually hitting new record highs—in our cover stories that start on page 22.
This is all good: Attendance is important. Registration, along with sponsorship anddollars, are the economic lifeblood of many associations. But I think that sometimes we get blinded by the who and how many and how much, and lose focus on the all- important why behind attendees’ willingness to spend their dollars and days at your conference. In most cases, it’s not just because your association is so uniquely wonderful they can’t stay away from you. (Sorry!) It’s what they will learn from the educators, exhibitors, and each other that makes it worth the hassle and expense to attend.
When we asked in our survey what factors, other than attendance and revenue, meeting professionals consider key to their annual meeting’s success, the No. 1 answer by far was “positive evaluations”—in other words, the smile sheets where you ask if they liked the program and speakers, and had a good time at the expo. I wouldn’t rely too much on those forms, though.
That’s because learning, real learning, isn’t always fun. It can be downright uncomfortable to be asked to let go of old ways of doing things and try something new. Uncomfortable sessions might not score too high on evaluations and may even cause those who are coming just to get away from the office for a few days and have some fun to not attend. In a way, good, challenging education could even be detrimental to your financial and attendance goals.
But does that mean you should concentrate on providing education that keeps them coming back for more and not education that challenges them to do and be more? I don’t know the answers, but I do think it’s important to keep asking the questions.