by Jonathan Vatner | July 01, 2006

Karen MaloneMeeting professionals are experiencing the best attendance levels since the dot-com era. Despite skyrocketing hotel rates (PricewaterhouseCoopers forecasts record occupancies for the U.S. hotel industry in 2006 and 2007), members of associations are showing up in droves; and because Internet hotel bargains have begun to subside, attendees are even booking within the block. So why does Karen Malone (right) find it more important than ever to market to attendees?
    It’s really a matter of improving attendee behavior for the long term, explains Malone, vice president, meeting services, for the Chicago-based Healthcare Information Management Systems Society. Attendees might book within the block this year, but it takes serious work to teach them to do the same in a down economy. Plus, marketing only improves attendance and, therefore, the future negotiating power of your meeting.
    “When you’ve got a great pickup with very little wash, it not only helps your show that year, but it also helps your show for many future years,” Malone says. “It’s critical that you do all the marketing you can.”
   Following are some of the techniques Malone and other planners use to convince attendees to come to the meeting as well as to book within the block.

Marketing mastery
Convincing attendees to come to the meeting often requires a comprehensive marketing plan, such as the following.
    Hit members the right number of times. Whether by e-mail or snail mail, Bruce Harris, founder and president emeritus of Conferon, a seminal meeting planning company based in Twinsburg, Ohio, advises sending five types of messages:
    1) A save-the-date;
    2) A message that explains any new registration policies and incentives to book within the block;
    3) A notice when registration opens;
    4) A reminder every six weeks to two months, increased to once a month for the last four months, to anyone who hasn’t yet booked; and
    5) A last-minute call for registrations before the housing window closes.
    Any more would be overkill, and any less might result in missed opportunities, says Harris.
    Enlist help from the city. For the New York City-based Public Relations Society of America’s 2006 International Conference, Nov. 11-14 in Salt Lake City, much of the push has come from the very eager Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau, which leverages Salt Lake’s status as an Olympic city when sending out promotional material to attendees.
    Look to the chapters. PRSA also uses its own local resources to solicit attendance. “Each chapter starts marketing immediately for the International Conference a year out,” says Catherine A. Bolton, the society’s executive director and COO. The year before the group’s 2001 event in Atlanta, for example, the local organization “gave everyone a can of Coke and some peanuts,” notes Bolton. “For the 2003 conference in New Orleans, everyone got beads.”
   Tap exhibitors. Karen Malone works in tandem with exhibitors to reach more attendees. “These big corporate guys have much greater resources than we do,” she says. Malone reaches out to the largest conference exhibitors and offers a deal: If they’ll share their mailing lists, the prestigious HIMSS will send out a logoed brochure invitation, including a note saying the exhibitor will be participating in the event. In doing so, Malone has found 15,000 new prospective attendees.
   Customize mailings. Malone sends the society’s brochures and invitations under different cover wraps, depending on who’s receiving them. Physicians will get one, nurses will get another and a hospital CIO might get a third. Each explains how that category of attendee will benefit from attending.
   Limit the paper. Malone also has worked in recent years to relieve attendees from the massive amounts of marketing collateral they receive, specifically from exhibitors. “I realized our attendees get 300 to 400 mailings within a week’s time before our conference,” she says. “It’s absurd and totally defeats the purpose.”
   Instead of providing the attendee mailing list to all 860 exhibitors, Malone now invites those companies to be part of a special HIMSS mailing, which attendees will be more likely to open and read. Each participating exhibitor is allotted a card in a pack of 30, which is customized depending on the type of attendee. Those exhibitors who opt not to participate have other opportunities to market their services, such as an ad in a “yellow pages” sent to attendees.
   “We get many compliments,” Malone observes. “It’s much more concerted.”
    Send a message from the top. Especially after a disaster such as 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina, a moving letter from a higher-up might encourage attendance. Peggy Marilley, president of Alexandria, Va.-based Precision Meetings & Events, tells of an association client that held its centennial meeting in Washington, D.C., in October 2001. The association’s CEO wrote a heartfelt and personal letter to members entreating them to show support -- which they did. (For related stories, see “Attendee Marketing After Katrina.”)