How to manage a successful conference

Beyond the Rhetoric

By Harry C. Alford & Kay DeBow | NNPA | 8/22/2019, 1:18 p.m.

The general intent of holding a conference is to present a current agenda that will aid an association in its promotion, growth and future. A significant portion of annual revenue should come from an organization’s conference. The most successful conferences are annual events. Some organizations like to promote several conferences per year. 

This can be very laborious and risky. The general membership of the association may use the excuse to “pass on this one and catch the upcoming later”. Thus, to miss an event is no big thing. To miss an annual event and wait until the next year can be a very critical mistake.  Interest in the agenda of the organization may wane. Divisiveness may start growing among the Board of Directors and opposing factions may start to organize due to the lack of communication and coordination among the entire body.

We have been putting on conferences since 1992. Some have been fantastic! There have also been some that were disastrous.  The key to measuring the value of a conference may be in the attendance and, most importantly, the revenue obtained after the completion of the event.  To bring in great attendance can be good if the expenses don’t off set that revenue that is to be used during the next period before a new event. The key to revenue is Sponsorship.  Conference fees are usually minimal in terms of “take home revenue”. Sponsorships can take your organization into a new and exciting era in the furtherance of your mission. 

The first thing you must do in your planning is select a great location. That old saying, “If you build it, they will come” does not apply here. Some venues don’t attract travelers.  Other venues will produce a crowd just from within its own population. We have found that some of the hardest places to draw attendance is on the West Coast of our nation.  In fact, anything west of the Mississippi River (except Texas) is going to be a challenge.

That’s just the way it is. It is so strange that the nation’s second largest populated city, Los Angeles, may be one of the hardest places to hold a well - attended conference.  This is true regardless of what kind of conference you are trying to host. We have noticed this pattern with conferences no matter what the association is targeting. Race, religion, politics, professions, it doesn’t matter. The second worst? San Francisco. It seems like people in the “Bay” won’t walk across the street to pick up a $100 bill that was just laying on the sidewalk.  People in the Southeastern part of our nation will travel hundreds of miles if a conference sounds like it might be interesting.

So, geography is a very important decision. Once you decide on that city the next step is exactly where – a hotel, resort, conference center, etc.  Don’t choose a high-end hotel. This alone may drain the prospect of producing revenue. Hotel catering will drain your resources if you don’t watch out.  Room rentals and catering can be death traps along with Audio/Visual (AV) which has no true value can upset your budget. Beware of “Service Fees” and “Sales Taxes” in selecting menus. Some places are modest while others are “blood thirsty”. They can vary greatly from one city to another and from one hotel to another.  Some places may cost twice or three times as much on taxes and service fees than others. It makes a big difference to the bottom line.