Meetings & Conventions: Money Makers - July 1998
6 ways to make your convention more profitable
BY DANA NIGROT
he association is floundering. Its members
are balking at paying higher membership fees. Publication sales
have dropped precipitously. And the costs of providing education
and other services to its constituents keep going up. The situation
is critical. Can the annual convention save the day?
For many associations, that's where the money is, with meetings
and conventions bringing in more revenue than any other source
aside from dues. According to the 1997 Association Operating
Ratio Report produced by the American Society of Association
Executives, associations collect an average of 24 percent of their
total income from conventions, expositions and other educational
programs. That figure breaks down to 8.9 percent from registration
fees, 6.8 percent from exhibit fees and 8.4 percent from
educational program fees.
But traditional registration and exhibit fees don't have to be
the only source of available funds. Even if your convention is
already bringing in the bucks, you can still strive to increase
those numbers. And as your organization's dollars grow, you can
offer members more services, programs and value overall. Here's
#1. One price does not fit all
That $500 fee for your event may look pretty steep to some
attendees, even if it really is a great bargain. There may be a lot
included in that price, but it's likely that not everyone wants the
"The old one-size-fits-all concept - here's the convention,
here's the price, you all come - is no longer meeting [attendees']
needs," says Gary LaBranche, vice president of education and
convention services for the American Society of Association
Executives in Washington, D.C.
Planners need to provide price options that appeal to different
segments of their membership. Breaking down the total registration
fee - by day, by session, by making meals or evening events
optional - may encourage more people to come. "Variable pricing can
be seen as a revenue generator, even though it is driven more by
the membership's needs," says LaBranche.
For its March 1999 annual convention in San Antonio, the
American Pharmaceutical Association is creating a weekend pass for
area pharmacists. "In addition to attracting the folks who fly in,
we want to get the niche of people who have the opportunity to
drive in for a portion of the meeting," says Windy Christner,
director of meetings and expositions for the Washington, D.C.-based
association. "There are a huge number of pharmacists in Texas.
These people can drive in and spend the weekend with us and not
have to take any time off of work."
The association is also offering an exhibit hall-only pass for
people who aren't interested in attending the conference but want
to find out about new products. Explains Christner, "Getting the
money, even if they don't pay the full registration, is better than
not getting it at all."
#2. Anything can be sponsored
Suppliers have always been a great source of support for the big
things that associations couldn't provide on their own budget - the
splashy opening night reception, high-profile speakers and the
like. Now, it's time to think small.
Don't overlook any possible way companies can get their name or
logo in front of your association's members. "Sponsorship has
gotten much more sophisticated on both sides," says Nancy Green,
vice president of education and special events for the Greater
Washington Society of Association Executives. "I don't know what
isn't sponsored these days - even the rope that holds the nametag
around your neck."
The San Francisco-based American Academy of Ophthalmology has
put together some new sponsorship options this year. "We are trying
to add some convenience items to our meeting that would make it
more pleasurable for attendees, but that we can't afford to do,"
explains Debra Rosencrance, CMP, vice president, meetings and
exhibits. "Our meeting has grown; it's now 26,000 people."
Among the items the academy would like sponsors for: totebags
for meeting materials, relaxation stations with massage chairs
within the meeting facilities and a pocket guide that attendees can
carry in lieu of the cumbersome 350-page final program.
The American Pharmaceutical Association now gets sponsors for
shuttle bus service; sponsors' names are featured prominently in
the advertising space on the sides of the vehicles. For its most
recent meeting in Miami, the organization also distributed
commemorative conference pins featuring a local scene. The pins
were attached to a card with the sponsor's name and a message
saying that if they dropped the card off at its exhibit booth they
would be entered in a prize drawing. Attendees ended up with a nice
momento, and the happy sponsor got a lot more booth traffic. For
the 1999 meeting, Christner is proposing some ideas new to her
group. The association drops off its on-site convention daily at
attendees' hotel room doors. "A sponsor could put a band around it
to promote their booth and save us the cost of delivery," she
suggests. She also would like to establish rest areas in the
exhibit hall showing CNN news clips to keep people informed about
world activities even while they're immersed in the show. Those
news clips could be interspersed with sponsors' ads.
And Christner wants to provide voice directionals at the
convention center, since "it's pretty confusing for the first
couple of times that you go there." Speakers set up at various
points would play a continuous loop tape that provides directions
to major points and to upcoming sessions. The tape could
incorporate informational blurbs about the sponsors.
#3. Tack on specialized education
Many organizations are attaching a premium day at the beginning or
end of their conference for extra training. Says ASAE's LaBranche,
more associations are "extending the learning experience."
The Mississippi Association of Realtors in Brandon, for one, has
begun offering a technology track separate from the continuing
education included in the registration package. People pay an
additional fee to take hands-on computer classes to keep them
up-to-date. "We do it on the first day of the conference schedule
to encourage members to come in early so they'll be present for the
entire convention," says Katie Bodiford, director of member
Condensed versions of conferences offered at other times during
the year can be a way for some groups to lure participants who
skipped their big meeting. "There's a trend toward more
segmentation," elaborates GWSAE's Green. "People want programs that
are very specialized to their needs. There are more programs for
smaller and smaller audiences."
GWSAE, a regional association for the D.C. area, is now holding
mini-trade shows, selling 5 to 10 exhibit booths around very
specialized topics. "We'll offer two educational programs in an
area like finance, and then try to pick out the best informational
vendors to partner with," says Green. "We are creating new kinds of
bite-size packages so not everyone has to fit into our annual
#4. Sell educational programs
Like some of the associations mentioned above, the American Academy
of Ophthalmology offers subspecialty programs that start a day or
two before its annual meeting. In this case, the academy has
partnered with several related associations - the American Glaucoma
Society, Retina Society, Macula Society, Vitreous Society and the
Club Jules Gonin Society. "They create the programs each year. We
have them do it because they are the leaders of their
subspecialties," says planner Debra Rosencrance.
For the majority of the academy's attendees, registration is
included in their membership. So these pre- meeting programs, for
which participants pay a separate registration fee, are a way for
the academy to generate more revenue. Its partners, in turn,
receive a royalty - a percentage of the registration fees - for
developing the programs. They then can use the extra funds for
research or other projects.
The American Pharmaceutical Association is looking into
licensing some of its educational programs to its state pharmacy
association affiliates, which would then be able to use the
programs at their own local meetings. The association has already
been selling a basic pharmaceutical skills program to 18 of its 50
affiliates for about three years, but hopes to expand the offerings
to include five additional disease management programs by early
next year. "We are trying to determine what's the best arrangement
so our costs are covered and we make a small profit that we can use
to update the materials," explains Elizabeth Keyes, director of
Two years ago, the association also started selling programming
to outside companies. The education department will develop
videotelecasts for chain pharmacies; the programs are broadcast
over the companies' in-house satellite networks to anywhere from
several hundred to several thousand pharmacists. Last year, the
association created one program; this year, it will produce four.
"The goal is to generate extra revenue that we can put into other
programs," says Keyes.
#5. Promote distance learning
Associations have been in the business of distance learning since
the days of correspondence courses. Then they branched out into
selling audiotapes and videotapes. Now, new technology is opening
up opportunities to bring the kind of education normally available
only at conferences to members who might otherwise not plunk down
the registration fee.
Associations have begun using satellite broadcasting,
videoconferencing, audioconferencing and the Internet to deliver
their programs. "The kinds of technology available today give
fantastically increased access and interactivity and sense of
community to learners dispersed throughout the country or the
world," says LaBranche of ASAE, which recently started an
Internet-based education program.
DesktopASAE offers 13 different online courses. Eleven of them,
which are three hours in duration and can be taken any time of the
day from anywhere in the world, are priced at only $35. The
highest-priced course is $395 for an eight-week,
instructor-mediated program. "Not only is it a competitive price,
you don't have the travel costs," says LaBranche. "When you compare
it to face-to-face education, it is, generally speaking, a
bargain." In the first two months after DesktopASAE's rollout,
about 100 students participated.
The American Society of Landscape Architects in Washington,
D.C., has been pleased with the early results of another form of
distance education - interactive audioconferencing. Its first
program was conducted in March of this year, and it has put on
three others in the first three months. Aside from cutting down on
travel costs, the audioconferences save participants money because
they are registered as a conference site. "For the one-time fee
[$129 for members], they can have as many people as they want in
their office listen in on speakerphone," explains James Tolliver,
director of continuing education. "It offers economy of scale." At
the same time, it's highly interactive. Listeners can ask questions
of the speaker, and all the participants hear the question and the
The topics the audioconferences cover are essentially the same
as those the association presents in its face-to- face seminars.
(The course is constructed differently, since the subject is a very
visual medium, and every participant receives handouts in the
"We realize that not everyone can afford the time and expense of
going to a central location each year," comments Tolliver. "One of
the objectives was not only to expand the learning opportunities
for our members and the profession but also to enhance our non-dues
revenue and use that to build our education program."
Tolliver also hopes the programs may bring in some new members.
Aside from marketing to its existing audience, the association
targets affiliated groups and people in related professions, such
as architects, planners and real estate developers. The association
is a registered education provider with the American Institute of
Architects, so it markets its program to AIA's national membership
by posting its offerings on the group's Web site.
The association has had an "enormously positive response" from
participants, says Tolliver. "We do evaluations after each one. On
a scale of one to five, our lowest rating was 3.8 for the first
program and the highest was 4.6. That's pretty widespread
acceptance as far as distance learning goes."
# 6. Create virtual trade shows
Technology has also opened up a whole new way of charging exhibit
fees - electronic expositions. LaBranche estimates about 10 percent
of associations are currently experimenting with virtual shows, and
that number is rapidly growing. Virtual shows can take place in
conjunction with an existing show or they can be staged
For the second year in a row, the Produce Marketing Association,
based in Newark, Del., has created a virtual trade show in
conjunction with its annual convention. Companies who purchase
exhibit booth space at the convention are listed free on a Web site
created specifically for the show. If exhibitors want to put up
more detailed information to lure attendees to their booth, they
may purchase an ad on the site. The association charges different
levels of fees for everything from a one-page link of basic text to
fancy links with multiple pages and video clips.
"The [exhibitors] who are doing it are very enthusiastic about
it," says Patricia Quinlan, the Produce Marketing Association's
director of conventions and meetings. "It's taking time to catch
on, but we see an increase already from last year. We expect it to
increase as more people become accustomed to doing business over
The trade show site (www.pma tradeshow.com), which was
introduced this spring for the group's upcoming October convention,
is updated frequently as new exhibitors sign on. It includes
searchable company listings, colorful logos to highlight those with
ads, and the trade show floor plan for the convention. The site
also is linked to the convention schedule and program topics,
registration and housing for the event, detailed information about
exhibiting and the association's home page. This encourages
visitors to the site to sign up for the show right away.
As an added bonus for the association, the virtual show has
boosted interest in the live convention, particularly from
international attendees. Knowing in advance which companies will be
exhibiting makes it much easier for potential participants to
decide to make the trip, according to Quinlan. In 1996, the group's
total international attendance numbered 1,311 people. In 1997, the
year the association instituted the virtual show, international
attendance jumped to 1,871 - almost a 43 percent increase. Although
that wasn't the main objective of the initiative, collecting those
additional 560 registration fees certainly didn't hurt.Trade show turf
"We're not accusing
anybody of anything." Many for-profit, independent show operators
are starting to take a closer look at the activities of their
counterparts in the nonprofit, tax-exempt association sector - and
seeing what they consider to be unfair competition.
Most association trade shows are tax-exempt as long as
the show is part of a meeting that promotes the association's
industry and/or contains an educational component. But insiders say
an increasing number of associations are stepping beyond the tax
code to manage or buy the shows of other nonprofits.
Are associations moving en masse onto independent
producers' turf? Robert Harar, chairman of the Framingham,
Mass.-based Society of Independent Show Organizers, set out to find
the answer. Harar sent out a letter in late March to 15 trade show
industry associations - including the American Society of
Association Executives, the Professional Convention Management
Association and the International Association for Exposition
Harar's letter stated that the competition between
independent producers and the associations "appears to be a growing
concern throughout the exhibition industry." The letter went on to
note that some associations have been "acting as show management
companies for shows other than their own," as well as "acquiring
other shows." Harar's goal is to find out how extensive these
practices are. "We're not accusing anybody of anything," he adds.
"We're just curious."
As of press time, about a half-dozen associations had
responded "very openly" to the letter, according to Harar.
"Probably, our next step will be to survey our own membership," he
said. "We would also like to get together with the other industry
associations and have a roundtable on the subject." DAVID
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