by Jennifer Nicole Dienst | November 01, 2007

Banquet in purple

Banquet in green

Banquet in blue






At recent final-night galas in New York City, attendees were dazzled by creative lighting and centerpieces from Fourth Wall Events.

If an association planner’s worst fear is miniscule attendance, then the second biggest fear is attendees scooting out before the final night banquet. Often commanding the biggest chunk of the budget and requiring a lot of legwork, the final night gala is the last chance for planners to make an impression, get the message out and send attendees home thinking, “Wow!”

“Toward the end of a conference, the most important thing you can do is keep the energy going and keep it flowing beyond the conference,” says Jennie Campbell, CMP, CMM, who is CEO of New Orleans-based Meet Your Market, a meeting planning, public relations and research company.

Easier said than done. “We found no matter what we did, a certain percentage of the group is going to ditch early,” says Stephanie Marshall, CMP, director of meeting services for the American Council on Education, based in Washington, D.C. In agreement is Beth Hecquet, director of member services for the Cincinnati-based National Association of Sports Commissions: “It’s always hard to find a way to keep attendees around for the last function of any conference or show,” she says. “We’ve tried a few different approaches, and no matter what, we’ve had drop-off.”

“I’m even guilty of going to a conference and leaving early,” admits Barbara Parker, CMP, vice president of meetings and conferences for the Institute of Management Accountants in Montvale, N.J. “People are just very busy, and I think associations are a little less important to people than they were in previous years.”

To add to the equation, there’s a lingering impression that a final night event is a big, bloated to-do, where attendees are expected to break out their gowns and tuxes and sit through an endless multicourse meal. Parker, a planner for more than 20 years, says a conference services manager at a hotel got a kick out of the fancy awards dinner she still plans for her group’s annual conference. “He said, ‘I didn’t know people even went to those anymore; those are dinosaurs!’?”

But, for the most part, times have changed, and so have final night festivities, which now can range from a crowd-thumping concert to a laid-back cocktail reception. What follows are the top 10 tips from planners -- call them “wrap artists” -- who have learned how to end the agenda on a high note.

1. Get the word out. Create some buzz from the start so attendees are thinking about the big night ahead of time. “We include an advertisement for [the awards ceremony] in our e-newsletters,” says Tammy Seldon, conference and membership director for the Giant Screen Cinema Association in Leesburg, Va. “On our final night of the conference, we hold an awards program, dinner and closing ceremony. It’s kind of like the Oscars.” Even so, she says, “We see a decline of about 25 percent.”

This year, however, Seldon says the association is mailing out real paper invitations to attract notice. “We’re continually talking about the awards ceremony to generate more interest,” she says. “During the conference, we’ll attach ‘award nominee’ ribbons to badges, and the only way people will be able to find out who wins is by staying.”

2. Use star power.Saving the biggest celebrity speaker or flashiest entertainment for the ultimate event is a proven way to keep attendance numbers high.

“We know that people will be strong in the beginning of the conference, so we anchor the keynote speaker at the end so attendees will stay,” says Karen Malone, vice president of meeting services for the Chicago-based Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society.

Amy Ledoux, CMP, CAE, and vice president of meetings and expositions for the American Society of Association Executives in Washington, D.C., booked singer Natalie Cole for the final night of the group’s annual meeting this past August. The event was sponsored by the Chicago Convention and Visitors Bureau and held at Northerly Island, a stretch of parkland that juts into Lake Michigan. “It’s key to build excitement,” she says. “Pique people’s interest early. If they hadn’t planned on staying before, maybe they will change their minds.” Ledoux had Natalie Cole record a voice message that was sent out to every attendee. For past conventions, she has had gifts, such as a CD from a sponsor, delivered to attendees’ rooms.