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Managing Optics

How a recession changed our perspective

By Garth Roberts

In these days of major cost constraints and financial accountability, many seem to feel it’s as important to manage the optics surrounding an event as it is to manage the content. The recent recession challenged meeting planners to balance budgets and continue to provide great return on investment, the ROI, for their clients.

To determine what’s changed when planning events, it seemed logical to check in with a city that was hit hard by the recession. Chris Meyer, CEM, CMP, vice-president of sales for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, says: “The meeting and convention industry continues to see growth. Las Vegas hosted nearly 22,000 events in 2012, the highest total in the last five years. International CES, MINExpo, MAGIC, SEMA and other shows have recently experienced record attendance. In fact, International CES 2013 experienced its largest ever trade show, covering more than 1.8 million square feet.”

From inside our industry, it’s not always clear what’s happening. Past National Speakers Association president, Mark Sanborn, CSP, CPAE, summed it up this way: “Here’s the definitive answer – I don’t know. I know we’ve ‘recovered’ much of the cutback (but not necessarily all) from the 2008 drop. I think it is safe to say that most organizations are spending more cautiously on their off-site meetings, both for practical and perceptual reasons (nobody wants to look irresponsible). Speakers are part of a bigger budget?programming?but I don’t have a sense if more, the same or fewer speakers are being hired.”

An international speaker who retooled her business is Debbie Allen, CSP. “I’ve seen a big turn around that started in the latter part of last year. The opportunity door has reopened,” says Allen. “I don’t see it returning to the way it was before the recession, because companies have now learned to do business a bit differently. Plus, the speaking industry continues to grow in numbers, therefore the competition has been raised.”

Having more presenters to choose from should help meeting planners when it comes to return on investment for their clients. However, can meeting planners really be confident that valuable content is being shared? Paul Bridle, CEO at the Bridle Group, says: “I think the emphasis on content is a bit misleading. While content has become king because of ROI etc., it is slightly misleading to many speakers. Most speakers will convince themselves that what they say has content then try hard to sell what they refer to as content to their clients. After all, isn’t the story of your accident or climb up Mt. Everest content!” says Bridle. “What really matters is the value of your interaction with and for the client. The perceived value of using me is that I am willing to work with the client to craft something of value to their issues/needs. I challenge the people that hire me in a way that makes them realize that I care enough to make an effort to understand their business and their ambitions.“

Former president of the Global Speakers Federation, Kit Grant, CSP, HoF, also feels ROI is tied to what we deliver. “I still believe that expertise is the distinguishing factor,” says Grant. “That would include expertise in delivery and in marketing/sales. While there is no barrier to entry into the business, people who cannot deliver what they promise and find an audience willing to pay for that are going to find it increasingly difficult to stay in the business.”

Tim Gard, CSP, CPAE, of the National Speakers Association says: “Perception plays a key part in all aspects of event planning and although that has never changed, I think companies are more sensitive than ever, sometimes to the point of over-reaction,” he says. “I think time is the new currency in our lives and who we spend our time with is becoming more and more an informed critical decision. From the attendee’s point of view, is the event worth the time investment from a personal and professional standpoint? From the employer’s point of view, is the lost production time worth meeting in person? This is now a pass/fail system of choices,” says Gard.

In Canada, it has been said that we live next to a sleeping elephant and, when the elephant moves, we definitely feel the movement. The concern about optics and ROI have always been present, but the scandals in the United States certainly put a spotlight on the dollars spent for conferences, conventions and training in Canada. The concern isn’t going away.

Meeting planners rely on a partnership with speakers to deliver superb ROI to convention organizers and attendees. For both meeting planners and speakers, renewed awareness of the optics and the perceptions of our industry should make all of us step back from our businesses and ask, “Am I delivering full ROI, every time, to these participants?”

Garth Roberts, CSP, uses effective communication to inspire leadership. He speaks, coaches and facilitates SIMPLER SYSTEM workshops to give leaders more time and more productivity.

Appeared in Speaking of Impact, Summer 2013 Edition

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