Re-thinking Conference ROI

During the Mastermind Retreat at the end of July in Nelson, a good friend (Lani Donaldson) and I tackled an article for Speaking of Impact magazine.  I don’t know if this will be published or not, but thought I would share it here for those who are interested in the concept of Return on Investment as it applies to conference attendance.

When it comes to annual conferences, who is responsible for ensuring that delegates utilize the experience to assist the company they represent and not use it as extra vacation time?  In an era where every dime counts, is it time to rethink or place some clarity around expectations, return on investment?

Let’s look at the following case study:

Bob works for a large oil and gas company.   During his 7 years with his company, he has always looked forward to attending the annual conference as a way of reconnecting with friends and colleagues and exploring what’s new in the industry.  The time spent at these events helps him to refocus his energy and his productivity and, as a result, he looks forward to it every year.   However, this year, Bob’s Manager advised him that the company was looking to cut expenditures as a means of adapting to the economic slowdown and the decline in oil prices.  The boss indicated that the company has not seen significant ROI (Return on Investment) in relation to the annual convention and, as such, were contemplating discontinuing sending staff so they could focus funding on higher priorities.

As many companies face similar decisions, the number of delegates attending conventions may be realizing a decline in registrations.   If organizers seek to reverse such a trend, how much emphasis should there be on defining ROI for companies who send staff to participate?  How much dialogue needs to take place between employees and their bosses as they determine the best way to share (perhaps) the unspoken value of attending?

When we interviewed the perceptions of a number of attendees at a recent conference, it seemed (to them) that a lot of emphasis had been poised on early bird registration campaigns, venue selection, catering and attracting celebrity keynotes to help put bums in seats.  But, the elephant in the room question was, does this translate into enough of a perceived ROI for those who cut the cheques?  Let’s ponder this away from the meeting industry for a moment…

When Kokanee Springs Golf Resort (located in the heart of the Kootenays in British Columbia) perceived a decline in non-member, local golfers and vacation bookings, they set out to discover what would need to improve or change in order to attract golfers to their course.   In an area where consumers have extensive choice (approximately 16 courses within a 2 hour drive of one another), competition for attendees is fierce.   As a result, the course needed to set themselves up as a deliberate and intentional choice.   Yes, they are a champion course with some of the most picturesque views of any area course, but that wasn’t translating into paying guests at the desired volume.

For Nelson area residents to play the course, access seemed to be a bit of an annoyance.   A ferry crossing was necessary for local golfers and, although it posed a no-fee crossing, the line ups during the peak summer season posed a real deterrent.   Players could find themselves waiting in line ups for upwards of 90 minutes in the blazing heat.   And why would they do that when there were other options?  Staff at Kokanee Springs remedied this by offering a free shuttle service to and from the ferry crossing on the course side of the lake.  This afforded golfers the opportunity to avoid the big vehicle line ups by simply walking onto the ferry with their clubs and walking off into an awaiting shuttle.

Staff didn’t stop there with the added customer touchpoints either.   Once at the course, golfers are provided with ice cold bottled water with a cart rental and a variety of ice refilling locations strategically placed around the 18-hole course.  A freshly pressed towel is also carefully placed between the golfers on the seat at the first tee off.  In addition, staff are expertly trained and groomed to build rapport with each guest by inquiring about how they are enjoying the course and then casually asking more marketing related questions once the conversation has progressed.   Clearly, these are very low cost initiatives which help golfers feel good about choosing the course and staff are able to gather valuable bits of information to help them improve their offerings or simply validate that they are on the right track.  Now that is a lesson on ensuring clients feel good about their return on investment.

So how can the meeting industry adopt some of these problem solving strategies as a means of helping employers see the conference as a source of great value?

Let’s start with the rapport side.   Your delegates experience is impacted by every point at which they intersect with the conference team, registration process, marketing, etc.   Is it possible that rather than focus on a 1 to 5 ranking of experience at the end of the event, perhaps having staff greet delegates throughout the convention and build rapport through dynamic questioning would be a more useful and value based strategy. Being purposeful about identifying the post conference needs of employers may also help delegates articulate the value of attending the event – and not as an additional holiday moment.

ROI has a shared element of responsibility that should not be ignored.   If you were the employer and holder of the purse strings, what are some of the takeaways that you would want to learn about to avoid seeing the conference as too expensive an investment?  A few thoughts on that might be:

Networking opportunities at convention build relationships faster than non-face to face formats.

Conventions bring together diverse points of view through presenters, trade shows and other delegate interactions. When companies are looking for greater problem solving and innovation initiatives, diversity renders a broader expansion of thought processes.
Maximizing on opportunities for developing creative thinking applications helps companies streamline and improve operations. Due to factors such as globalization and outsourcing, there is an increased push to improve efficiency and effectiveness of organizations.
In today’s economy, organizations need more than good products to survive; they require innovative processes and management that can drive down costs and improve productivity. Conferences offer a great way to bring a multi-faceted approach to these challenges.

Conferences may also do well to include experiences throughout the convention that nurture opportunities for group brainstorming and mentorship.  This could be facilitated by:

  • Developing quick and effective pre and post-registration industry needs assessments.
  • Provide opportunities in the programming for product demos where attendees can test new equipment or programs during the event prior to purchasing.
  • Encourage delegates to vet speakers they hear on stage for in house training initiatives. Why hire a presenter who wasn’t able to hold the attention of the room or transfer high quality ideas relevant to the industry.
  • Some employers use conference attendance as a means of shopping for new hires as well.

Provide re-certification training so that employers can maximize the time period of low productivity that occurs while staff are away from the office.
Provide continuing education credits that meet professional designation requirements.
Invite concurrent and keynote presenters to develop experiential learning and handouts that support the sharing of new ideas back in the workplace.

Think like Kokanee Springs when contemplating ideas for expressing compelling ROI for delegates and decision makers.  It is often the little things that generate the greatest impact and the long term loyalty.

For Bob and countless others like him, the touch points carefully crafted at each convention can help them think about how they relay the value of attendance to their superiors.  This might just be the secret sauce of gaining growth should you be seeing a decline in registration numbers.