by Hunter R. Slaton | November 30, 2009

Given the past year's economic fallout, it's become increasingly difficult for would-be attendees to get management approval to take part in -- and travel to -- a conference. "No one can just go on a trip anymore," says Dorothy Friedlander, senior director for the American Bankers Association. Instead, employees must first present their superiors with a compelling business case for attending a conference.

Amy LedouxTo aid that effort, a number of associations have begun to offer so-called "justification toolkits" and sample letters that interested participants can use. One such kit was created by the American Society of Association Executives. Amy Ledoux, CAE, CMP, vice president of meetings and expositions for ASAE, says her organization always has had "some type of information to quantify the experience at our conferences -- but not to the extent that we did this year."

ASAE created its first official justification letter for its Springtime Expo in 2008. It was modeled on a letter that International CES, the consumer electronics show, had provided to potential attendees. This year, however, "a lot more folks have had to give justification with regard to the value of the meeting," notes Ledoux. "The onus is on the organization that's putting on the meeting to do that for their attendees. You want them to attend, so you need to give them all the information they can use to make the pitch."

As such, ASAE expanded its letter into a full-fledged toolkit, which can be viewed online at The kit encompasses four parts: general tips, an article about how to calculate a conference's ROI, a justification letter and an education cost comparison.

The organization did not track how many of the 5,900 attendees of ASAE's 2009 Annual Meeting & Exposition, held this past August in Toronto, used these tools. (No questions relating to the toolkit were asked on the post-show evaluation forms.) However, from the time it was posted until the day before the meeting began, ASAE's toolkit home page received 2,554 page views, with 426 to 646 views for each of its four component parts.

Following are tips from ASAE's toolkit that any association can suggest to those seeking approval to attend a conference or trade show.

• Focus on specifically what you will bring back to your organization as return for the investment.

• Offer to prepare and deliver a short presentation to colleagues to share what you've learned, and encourage follow-up questions.

• Share the conference's syllabus and speaker handouts with colleagues.

• If you are working to obtain or maintain a professional designation (such as, for ASAE members, the Certified Association Executive credential), remind your supervisor that the conference is a great way to earn required education hours.

• Be ready with a plan that shows who will cover for you or how you will handle key tasks during the period when you are out of the office.

• Offer to share a room with a colleague to reduce hotel expenses.

As for the letter itself, it should be crafted in a formal business style that offers a brief description of the conference, including when and where it will take place; a formal request to attend, along with a request for financial sponsorship; enumeration of speakers and educational sessions that have direct relevance to the attendee's job function, and a summary of the costs that will be involved.

For a planner preparing to create a justification toolkit or letter, Ledoux recommends ASAE's materials as a good starting point. "Look at what we have that applies to your organization, and manipulate it to serve your members' needs," she says.

However, ABA's Dorothy Friedlander cautions against the wholesale copying and pasting of another association's letter. "My particular audience needed it to be shorter, so I rewrote it myself," she says. "My bankers aren't marketing people; they just want the facts." Friedlander also eliminated the expenses worksheet. "I didn't want to call attention to the fact that our hotel is $200 a night, times three nights," she notes.

While some employees present the letters to their superiors, others simply find them helpful in providing talking points -- or convincing themselves that attending would be worthwhile. "Some people literally print out the letter," notes Friedlander, "but what is more important is the thought process" it engenders.