Listen to Members for Meeting Success

By: Tracy Krughoff

Meetings can easily fall prey to external factors. One association learned that by listening carefully to what its attendees said they wanted, it could deliver in creative ways and ultimately fill its exhibition and session rooms, despite a down economy. (Titled "Tune in to Your Members' Wavelength" in print version.)

At the beginning of 2009, the outlook for the BIO International Convention was intimidating.

The recession and resulting tight credit markets had hit biotech hard, as the industry is largely built on investor and venture-capital support. As the 2009 convention for the Biotech Industry Organization (BIO) approached, our industry was smaller than it was at the start of 2008. Some companies had been forced to cease operations due to a lack of capital. Investment in the industry had waned, and many companies were struggling to stay afloat.

Emerging biotech companies often have small travel budgets, and the economy forced company executives to pinch pennies and cut costs. Even our larger member companies were slashing funding for travel and promotional opportunities.

Compounding our concern was the fact that the 2009 convention was heading to Atlanta, a city we had never been to before. Unlike many of our other host cities, such as San Diego and Boston, Atlanta is not home to a large and thriving biotech community. Rather, it is home to a growing biotech community that is trying to attract more biotech investment in the city and surrounding region.

This was our challenge: With a shrinking industry, shrinking budgets, and an untested location, we had no choice but to find a way to deliver exactly what our attendees wanted. We learned a lot along the way, first and foremost that success arises from careful attention to the member's perspective. Several guiding principles became apparent, that can help any association event, in good times or bad.

But First, Some Numbers

In past years, the BIO International Convention has attracted approximately 15,000 to 20,000 industry leaders from 48 states and 60 countries. It's the gathering place for the global biotechnology industry, and the BIO Business Forum, which is part of the convention, enables attendees to easily connect and discuss potential partnering and collaboration opportunities. In 2009, the BIO Business Forum hosted more than 14,000 partnering meetings among 1,800 company representatives.

Attendees do not want to hear from us; they want to hear from other industry leaders. They want to hear from other like-minded indivudals.

The convention also offers hundreds of educational sessions on critical issues facing the industry, as well as keynote presenters ranging from global leaders such as former President Bill Clinton and General Colin Powell to renowned patient advocates including Michael J. Fox and Sir Elton John.

The first BIO International Convention took place in 1993 and drew approximately 1,000 attendees. Many refer to the early days as the "golden age" of the convention. The atmosphere was generally collegial, and all the major players in the emerging field attended. In the time since, biotech has grown rapidly. The industry has created more than 200 new therapies and vaccines, including products to treat debilitating diseases such as cancer, HIV/AIDS, Parkinson's, and many rare and "orphan" diseases. More than 400 biotech drugs and vaccines, which target more than 200 diseases, are currently in clinical trials. Biotech also innovates in industries such as transportation, agriculture, and ecology.

Clearly, important work is being done in the biotech industry, and BIO believes strongly that progress needs to continue so we can help heal, fuel, and feed the world. Our convention, of course, provides a critical platform to help drive that growth. Maintaining a successful convention was an imperative for our industry.

So, we learned to establish clear principles for our efforts and continually look for ways to improve upon them by paying attention to positive attendee feedback. We sifted through hundreds of pages of survey research on what attendees wanted. We talked to major stakeholders and board members. We opened up social media networks and listened.

Events present an opportunity to introduce your association to attendees and likewise build loyalty with current members.

We heard that attendees wanted us to have a dialogue with them based on their unique needs and, most important, they wanted to be able to easily and quickly identify and connect with the people and companies most relevant to their job functions. Attendees wanted all the benefits of a big event: high-quality speakers, robust programming, and a variety of networking opportunities. We had to take advantage of every opportunity to connect, be personal, relevant, and accessible at all times.

Simply put, we had to bring back the "golden age" while still providing the opportunities afforded by a large event. It was no easy task, but the strategies that carried us through the 2009 BIO International Convention can serve as a recipe for success at any association.

Below is a glimpse at these principles and what we did to stay true to them.

Scratch Your Niche

In many ways, attendees wanted us to capture the spirit of the first BIO International Convention.

"The industry was smaller back then, and everyone knew each other," says John Sterling, editor-in-chief of Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News, one of the leading industry trade publications. "Large lecture halls are by their nature impersonal and formal, so it's important to find ways to create an inviting atmosphere and help attendees connect with each other at the event."

We knew that we had a reputation for hosting partnering discussions and that these discussions were critical for business development within the biotech industry. We needed to eliminate the intimidation factor that was presented by the size of our event by creating informal meeting spaces and making it easier for attendees to easily identify and connect with like-minded attendees.

What we did:

  • Focused messages on the efficiencies created by business development opportunities at our event. We marketed the rationale that multiple meetings could be scheduled, helping attendees avoid multiple business trips.
  • Killed the shallow "register now" promotions and created deeper, editorial-based promotions with content that empathized with current business challenges.
  • Created events and networking opportunities for niche audiences, including a blogger happy hour, a reception for public officials, and "think and drink" forums.
  • Hosted our second Leadership Summit to engage the growing areas of food and agriculture and industrial and environmental biotechnology. Attendees from these sectors typically have a hard time finding each other as their numbers represent approximately five percent of our total registration.
  • Created "Product Focus Zones" and free theater presentations, which made it easier for attendees to find exhibitors on the floor.
  • Created neighborhoods, or areas, for attendees who share common interests. We added speed networking events for groups, such as "Women in Biotech."
  • Encouraged attendees to use myBIO, an automated, online personal-planning service that helps attendees manage their schedules, sessions, and exhibitor visits based on their needs.

Sacrifice for the Long-Term Goal

Obviously, revenue reigns supreme among goals, as does return on investment. In a tight budget year, we needed to contain costs while protecting revenue streams for the long term.

"It was critical that we continue to build on the momentum created in past campaigns, maintain the sophisticated brand image, and tap new media," says Megan Campbell of Fixation Marketing, an event marketing firm in Bethesda, Maryland, and a marketing partner of BIO's since 2007. "BIO realized they needed to do more in terms of marketing, not less, and that the core messaging had to evolve, not completely change course."

What we did:

  • Thought carefully and strategically before making any budget cuts and worked with vendors to make our dollars go farther. We had to make some cuts, but we tried to identify line items where no one would notice changes, such as decorations, keynote staging bells and whistles, and minor food and beverage adjustments.
  • Made all staff more aware of the focus on the net of the event so that they understood the importance of budgeting well and managing expenses.

Connect Industry Leaders With Each Other

Attendees do not want to hear from us; they want to hear from other industry leaders. They want to hear from other like-minded individuals. Industry thought leaders provide a significant draw for the event, and by leveraging their attendance and participation in the meeting, we were able to attract other senior-level execs.

What we did:

  • Hosted podcasts with speakers and industry leaders discussing the major topics and elements that would be highlighted at the event. Developed insights and editorials with industry leaders for the Show Daily publication.
  • Held a press conference with local leaders a few weeks prior to the event to release a survey focused on the state of Georgia's biotech industry.

There's No Substitute for a Personal Connection

We needed to ramp up all our efforts to personalize the meeting, connect with potential attendees, and demonstrate the true value of attending.

What we did:

  • Participated in presentations and events throughout the region to encourage attendance and participation several months prior to the event.
  • Used more photos of attendees in our marketing materials.
  • Extended two extra free visitor registrations to all exhibitors to pass along to their personal contacts and customers.
  • Spread the word that professors could bring two postdoctoral students for free. We knew that postdocs would not attend without encouragement from a mentor.
  • Developed Show Daily newsletter editorials from industry and association leadership to personalize our organization and industry (for example, daily must-attend session picks with brief descriptions written by BIO leadership and event organizers).
  • Promoted Flickr photo uploading so attendees could support the personal event feel.

Empower the Audience

Most attendees want to share their ideas and perspectives, engage with other industry leaders, and otherwise contribute to discussions in some way. Many attendees already are online and accustomed to regularly engaging in conversations.

What we did:

  • Promoted discussions on our LinkedIn group, which has more than 6,500 members.
  • Engaged attendees through social media platforms, including Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and LinkedIn, among others. We had 1,300 tweets posted to our hashtag during the convention.
  • Launched a digital marketing contest to highlight emerging companies and their innovations. We likewise encouraged and empowered the finalists to promote their success in the contest.
  • Encouraged ride and room sharing on our Facebook page.

The Audience's Greatest Need Must Be Your Biggest Asset

We made a strategic midstream change to shift our marketing and promotional focus from the large scale of the event (i.e., "the world's largest biotech gathering") to the personal business benefits and practical solutions for challenging economic times. Because the industry is largely composed of small, emerging companies, company executives tend to look for programming that will provide a well-rounded education on various business-development practices.

What we did:

  • Secured the quality of our attendees to maintain a core of representatives from senior management, recognizing that companies would trim their delegations.
  • Developed editorial content tailored to attendees' unique interest areas.
  • Worked with a trade-publication partner to produce editorial content that was relevant and intriguing for our target audiences.

Leave a Lasting Impression

Events present an opportunity to introduce your association to attendees and likewise build loyalty with current members. Ultimately, we wanted attendees to be aware of the activities that we engage in year-round and support the association through membership or more active engagement.

What we did:

  • Focused on our association's mission statement in marketing materials. We included details of our organization's strengths and major successes in the past year in marketing and promotional materials. We added the association logo with a "service of" tag to the event logo to provide some extra play for our association.
  • Created a visual graphic for printed collateral that explains how the event's net proceeds support association programs and mission year-round.
  • Used the association's booth to host a networking event, lounge, and vodcast interviews.
  • Placed the association CEO on the same level as other top speakers and promoted his keynote speech similarly to the other keynote speakers.

After the event wrapped up, we learned from attendee comments and survey data that we did, indeed, leave them with a lasting impression. Like so many other associations' events, we did not exceed our previous year's attendance numbers, but 14,000 was still a healthy number in our eyes. More important, by tuning in to our audience we succeeded in maintaining and promoting the value of our event, securing quality attendees, and establishing long-term loyalty. We hope the lessons we learned through this experience can help your association do the same.

Tracy Krughoff is the director of event communications at the Biotechnology Industry Organization in Washington, DC. Email: [email protected]