Thursday, April 23, 2009

Creative Conference Planning

by Bunnie Riedel, Host of Nonprofit Conversation

I’m hearing it from everybody. Conference attendance is down. Conference sponsorship is down. Conference revenues are suffering. And if your organization relies on conference revenue as an income generator, these are scary times. Are there some things you can do to adjust how you create and budget for your conference so that at the end of the day you won’t be hit so hard?

Think about the barriers to conference attendance. Many organizations, businesses and most government agencies have scaled back travel budgets. What changes can you make in your conference to accommodate these reductions?

Location, location, location

Where do you normally hold your conferences? First tier cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami or Philadelphia? First tier cities pose a challenge because room rates are typically much higher. Could you hold your conference in a second tier city such as Sacramento or Reno or Richmond or Dayton? Will you find less competition in these cities and more cooperation from the convention and visitors bureaus? Is the city willing to “throw in” incentives for your bringing your conference to them? Perhaps free space at their convention center or special accommodations at city owned attractions such as the museum or the zoo or perhaps free bus transportation to special events?

The only caution I will provide in looking at second tier cities is sometimes (not always) airfare is more expensive and direct flights are harder to find. But other than that, I have always found that the smaller cities are very willing to go the extra mile to make sure they win conference contracts for their hotels.

Do you really need to have a national conference?

National conferences are wonderful because they bring your members together in one place. But, if your attendance has been waning, perhaps it’s time to think about smaller regional conferences. Perhaps it’s time to take the conference to the membership with conferences that could draw attendees within driving distance from surrounding regional areas. It’s like breaking up the conference into manageable bits. Let’s say rather than a four or five day conference, you create several two to three day conferences. You lower the actual conference registration rate, provide trade show vendors with the opportunity to show at one or several “regionalized” conferences (package deals) and increase overall attendance because more people can attend these regional events than the one large national conference.

Lower your overhead

Do you really need to serve all those cookies at the break or could you just serve coffee, water and sodas? Will people be offended? Not usually. Especially if they understand that your trimming back is part of the organizational trimming back. Members actually like when the organization is spending their membership dollars wisely. By the way, never-ever buy the “tea,” you will be paying $65-$85 per gallon of hot water with very few people actually using the tea bags. Or if you live in a country where you absolutely have to have tea as a beverage option, negotiate that you will only pay for tea bags that have actually been used.

Can you negotiate meals with the hotel? I once booked a cruise on the Potomac as our conference party and was able to afford it because I negotiated a lunch menu rather than a dinner menu. It dropped the cost per attendee from $75 per person to $35 per person. And guess what? Nobody noticed that the chicken entrée wasn’t a dinner entrée but instead the luncheon entrée.

Can you contact members with an online brochure? Do you really need to print the brochure? And if you really do need to print it, can you print it two color rather than four? One of my favorite tricks is to use lighter weight paper, it reduces mail cost.

Is it possible to replace staff with volunteers so you can reduce travel costs and staff hours (and potential overtime)?

Is it time to move from a cloth conference bag to a plastic one, can you use clip on badges rather than lanyards, do you really need to provide a notepad to every attendee?

Did you know that people really do like the “dinner on your own” night? That way they can have time with friends and catch up with one another.

Can you combine special events? Perhaps you can combine an awards ceremony with the keynote luncheon.

I’m not saying be cheap, I am saying be frugal. And right now, as we see all across the globe, “frugality” is in style.

Offer special registration incentives

Make sure your early bird registration is discounted enough from regular registration to make it attractive (and do have an early bird registration, it helps so much in conference planning). Offer a special discount to attendees coming from the same organization or business. Perhaps one at full price and the other 25% off; two at full price and two at 50% off, etc. Have a contest: those organizations or businesses sending the most attendees will receive a certain number of free conference registrations next year (and include hotel expenses). Offer a discount on membership with each registration, combine the package: membership = $100 and conference = $100, combine them for $135.

Make sure your trade show vendors also receive special perks

You can hang on to charging $2,000 for a booth or you can charge $1,200 and have more vendors. And while the cost of drayage will be more overall (more booths), at least you will have a trade show that will be worth attending and your vendors will be more likely to come.

Remember that trade show cotton candy is the attendees’ list. Don’t scrimp on that, these vendors have paid to be at your trade show give them the attendees list, with phone numbers included, and I prefer email addresses but some organizations have policy against that. Combine your trade show charges with advertising charges and provide a discount.

Start early

A previous post discussed negotiating with hotels and recommended you always be looking three or so years in advance. The same with conference publicity, let your members know where your conferences are going to be and when, well in advance. Having advance notice allows attendees to budget for the cost of attendance or make special arrangements with their organization or business.

I hope these tips help you in conference planning. Re-thinking how you “do” conference can save you quite a bit of money and increase attendance.

Contact Bunnie info at riedelcommunications dot com


  1. Good blog. I was in national confidence before a year during my business trip in Miami thorough LMT. Thank you for your advices!

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  5. So cool that you wrote here about the creative conference planning. I am sure that it is very useful for people who are going to do that