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Get More Out of Your Meeting Without Squeezing

ASSOCIATIONS NOW, April 2011 Small scale

By: Joe Normandy

Summary: One small-staff executive brought in more revenue when he created a dynamic exhibit hall.

Planning and executing a meeting with a large staff can be difficult. Imagine doing the job when you are a small-staff association. One idea I've had and one that's created lots of additional net revenue is moving away from a meeting where exhibitors are secondary players and moving toward a meeting where they are the stars of the show.

At a former association, we did like most other organizations and sold booth space for a static fee of $800 or $1,200 for an eight-by-ten-foot booth. We met revenue goals, but we weren't really giving attendees and exhibitors what they wanted, and I realized we needed a change. So I sat down with the key players at a breakfast and told them what I planned to do: charge exhibitors by the square foot. That's right, for the first year, exhibitors were required to buy a minimum of 80 square feet, which would run them about $1,500. Sure, the aisles would be jagged and the visual impact of the hall would change, but I was able to show everyone that the more that was charged per square foot, the more that registration fee would be driven down for our members. And it worked: Four years later, exhibitors were jumping at the chance to be included, and the price per square foot was so high that members received free registration, bringing in nearly 90 percent of the membership decision makers to the show.

I know the question you probably want to ask: How'd you do that? Really, it was a matter of creating what I referred to as a dynamic exhibit hall. I made sure the meeting attendees were the decision makers for their organizations. Doing this meant the exhibitors also had to bring their decision makers, which allowed for business transactions to happen on the show floor.

And when this magic happened, the door was kicked open for other sponsorships. Those jagged corners that people were worried about? We were able to sell them to sponsors as seating areas. We were increasing the cost and quality of face time, and exhibitors and sponsors were eager to pay for it.

And with the extra money, we were able to bring in significant speakers. Eventually sponsors wanted to fund the speakers in return for a small breakfast or photos with the speaker. But more importantly, they were able to create marketing buzz, which would attract potential clients.

As for us, we were experiencing significant net revenue. This was not the plan in the first place. Rather, we were looking to increase participation and boost the meeting experience. After all, if you always chase money, you're just stepping over dollars to pick up a nickel. But at the peak, we were able to charge $92 per square foot of exhibit space, and our two-and-a-half-day meeting earned $1 million in net revenue.

If you want to try to replicate this at your own organization, here are a few lessons that I learned:

Hire significant people. Find the people who are excited to go to work each day and figure out how to play to their strengths. This will pay off for your member benefits as your staff will continue to push for what's best. And make sure you have a meetings professional to keep meeting expenses in line.

Get the right people to your meeting. Make it so that the decision makers in the field want to attend your meeting. Offer them the opportunities they may not know they need, but when you tell them they're available, they don't want to miss it. Exclusivity rocks! Zero registration fees really rocks!

Be patient. It takes time to get everything in place, and you can't give up easily. You need to engage your exhibitors and create opportunity for everyone. Continually ratchet up face time for decision makers on both sides of the booth to meet. If an item has a budget line, sell it for anything. Once it's institutionalized, you can raise the fees and make money.

Doing all of these things will turn your exhibitors and sponsors into kids in a candy shop. They will want to have a part in every piece of your meeting. But the greatest lesson to remember: Don't chase money; chase member benefits. Only then will net revenue come.

Joe Normandy is executive director of the Vermont Insurance Agents Association in Montpelier, Vermont. He is trying to convince VIAA that this program is worth adopting. Its first no-registration meeting took place last month. Email: jnormandy@viaa.org


Small-Staff Stats

Name: Vermont Insurance Agents Association
Location: Montpelier, Vermont
Staff Size: 4
Members: 130 insurance agencies
Budget: $500,000

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