By Faith Wood, CSP, and Lani Donaldson
When it comes to attending conferences, who is responsible for ensuring that delegates utilize the experience to assist the company they represent and not as extra vacation time? In an era where every dime counts, is it time to rethink or clarify expectations around return on investment?
Typical case: we’ll call him Bob
Bob works for a large oil and gas company. During his seven years with the company, he has always looked forward to attending the annual conference as a way of reconnecting with friends and colleagues as well as 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 feels it’s been beneficial for both him and the company.
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) from the annual conference and is contemplating discontinuing sending staff in the face of higher priorities.
As many companies face similar decisions, the number of delegates attending events may be declining. If organizers want 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 the potentially unspoken value of attending?
When we interviewed a number of attendees at a recent conference, they noted that a lot of emphasis had been placed on early-bird registration campaigns, venue selection, catering and offering celebrity keynotes to entice them to attend. However, the elephant in the room question was, “Does this translate into enough ROI for those who cut the cheques?”
CASE IN POINT: when above par is a good thing
When a high-end golf resort in the heart of the Kootenays in B.C. 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. In an area where consumers have extensive choices (approximately 16 courses within a two-hour drive of one another), competition for attendees is fierce. As a result, the course managers needed to set up their resort as a deliberate choice. While it is a championship-level course with some of the most picturesque views of any, that wasn’t translating into paying guests at the desired volume.
For some local residents, access to the course seemed to be a bit annoying. A ferry crossing was necessary for local golfers and, although they were offered a no-fee crossing, the line ups during the peak summer season posed a real deterrent – imagine waiting 90 minutes in the blazing heat. Why would they do that when there were other options? Staff at the resort 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 touch points 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 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 plus 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. 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. The delegates’ experience is impacted by every point at which they intersect with the conference team: registration process, marketing, etc. 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.
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?
- Networking opportunities at conventions 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 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; and,
- 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 isn’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; and,
- Invite concurrent and keynote presenters to develop experiential learning and handouts that support the sharing of new ideas back in the workplace.
Back to Bob
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.
Imagine if Bob was able to respond to his boss that while he recognized how important it was for them to cut costs at this time, he wanted to remind them that his attendance at this conference had allowed him to build strong connections with two people who eventually became key employees at their company. As well, he felt the tradeshow would a great opportunity to test out and compare several software programs that the company had been thinking of purchasing and report back on his findings; potentially saving them countless dollars in the process.
He might reference the think-tank sessions in which he participates where new processes and procedures are openly shared, analyzed and expanded upon (a process that simply isn’t possible with his five-person department) and he could mention that the conference planners were connecting attendees virtually before (and after) the event which would allow him to seek out potential clients and request a lunch date or meeting while at the conference.
As the golf resort case study illustrated, it is often the little things that generate the greatest impact and the long-term loyalty with your clients. So, keep this in mind when contemplating ideas for expressing compelling ROI for delegates and decision makers, then weave this information into every aspect of your delegate’s experience with you and watch your events grow regardless of market conditions.
Faith Wood, CSP, is the founder of Inspiring Minds Consulting. She is a conflict navigation and communication expert and an author of five books. Faith has accumulated some well rounded experiences in the area of influencing human behaviour. • www.imind.ca
Lani Donaldson is the president and co-founder of Engaged Educators. Lani is one of the top educational skills and motivational speakers in her field and one of those rare trainers capable of combining personal growth with educational development. • www.lanidonaldson.com
Speaking of IMPACT Fall issue 2015