How to improve the profitability of a conferenceQ: My family has planned and managed a Christian family conference each year now for several years, but we end up losing quite a bit of money on each conference. We really feel it is of the Lord and that the conference is a blessing to many families, but it has turned into a painful financial experience for us. Do you have any advice you could offer us?

A: There are two ways to improve the situation: to increase revenue and/or reduce expenses with the goal of never spending more than you are bringing in. Here are some specific suggestions for you:

  • A Strict Accounting: The first place to start is a careful accounting of each of your past conferences with a detailed income statement:
    • Revenue: You will want to create and sort your various forms of revenue into different buckets such as “Registration Fees”, “Vendor Booth Fees”, “Merchandise Sales”, etc.
    • Expenses: You will want the same details for expenses, but you will likely have many more expense categories such as: “Exhibit Hall Rental Expenses”, “Speakers’ Honorarium Expenses”, “Equipment Rental Expenses”, etc. Be careful not to create too many categories, because it will make your analysis a bit unwieldy, but you will want to create enough categories to create the necessary distinction between categories of expenses.

  Event P&L

  • Analysis: Lay each conference detail using the categories from step #1 above for each year next to each other as in the example below and then perform the following suggested analysis:
    • Mix Analysis: What is the overall mix of Revenue and Expenses and what insights can you draw from that?

Event Mix Analysis

    • Trend Analysis: What trends are taking place? For example, are Vendor Booth Fees trending up or down? What insights can you draw from that?

Event Trend Analysis

    • Benchmark Analysis: Reach out to other conference coordinators of similar conferences around the country that would not be your competitors and offer to share your analysis with them in exchange for their analysis of their events. What insights can you gain from that analysis?

Event Benchmark Analysis

  • Brainstorming:
    • Once you’ve got the analysis complete, pull together your entire conference staff and walk through the analysis together and brainstorm on various ways to increase revenue and reduce expenses.
    • You may also want to set up and moderate a conference call with several of your peer organizations across the country to brainstorm, discuss lessons learned, best practices, etc. I am confident that each organization would take back several suggestions to increase the profitability of their own conferences from the exchange.
  • Some Random Ideas:
    • Revenue Share: You may discover that many venues are willing to share room and food/restaurant revenue with you in exchange for landing your business. By getting two major venues to “bid” for your conference, you might be surprised at what they are willing to offer. Your opening pitch to them is along these lines: “We are planning an annual event that generates about $1 million in hotel room and restaurant billings (you should be able to estimate that amount based upon your event attendance and historical experience) and we are looking for the right property to host our event. What type of incentives do you offer to event organizers?”
    • List Sales: If you are not currently “selling” or “renting” the list of your attendees to vendors, you are typically missing out on a large revenue stream. Be sure to have the attendees “opt in” during the online registration process so you have the full rights to sell the list and then make sure you are only selling or renting to vendors that offer the types of products and services that are truly value-added for  your attendees. If you don’t want to sell the list, you can at least market to the attendees all year long (see the following ideas for more on that).
    • Increased Attendance: Are you doing everything possible to increase attendance? Do you offer attendees to post “I’m going to attend…” via social media buttons immediately upon registration? Do you promote your event on all of the key social media sites? Are you offering incentives for first time attendees to increase the event following? What you are doing to maintain relationships with attendees between each annual event? Are you sending out frequent updates such as “We just signed [name of speaker] to speak at next year’s event!”
    • Increased Vendor Fees: Set up a “virtual” exhibit hall that showcases each vendor and their products and charge them an extra fee for the setup of the feature on your conference website and then charge them for monthly fees to keep it up all year.  Many conference attendees will later recall something they saw at a conference (but cannot remember who the vendor was) and are likely to reference back to the virtual exhibit hall to buy something they wish they would have purchased at the conference. Additional ideas along these lines are to offer to your vendors to send out promotional emails to your customers (conference attendees) and offer specials throughout the year.
    • Increased Vendor Participation: Are you doing everything possible to increase vendor participation? How deeply linked is your conference website to the vendors’ sites? What attendee demographic information are you sharing with vendors? What other products and services would your attendees be interested in besides the main theme of the conference? For those vendors that have a conflict and cannot attend, do you offer a “light” version of a vendor booth that is a virtual version only or a “conference staffed” booth where you set up and staff a booth for a vendor with local workers or attendees who get a conference discount in return?
    • Increased Speaker Revenue: Consider setting up a “virtual” speaker’s hall on your conference website that features photos, bios, video, and sample audio of each speaker with links to how to order and download the audio of their presentations, links to their websites where they sell their books and products and sign up with them for referral fees or affiliate fees. This should help you monetize the value of the speakers and in a similar way to vendors, you can market to your attendees all year long, including new books or new products from the speakers they’ve already come to know. Do you offer digital as well as CD versions of the speaker’s presentations? Do you offer video as well as audio of the presentations? Are you offering “tie-in” deals where you bundle the speaker’s book and the conference video or audio? Are you linking the conference website and Facebook page to the speaker’s websites and Facebook pages?
    • Increased Attendee Satisfaction: Are you doing everything possible to make it a positive attendee experience to gain more word-of-mouth referrals? Are you surveying attendees? Ideally each session has a short smart phone survey that is easy and fun to fill out immediately after the session. Are you making it really easy to connect with attendees? Do you set up a Facebook page and a LinkedIn group for each conference that encourages open dialog and “I’m attending this event” type of posts? Are you allowing network time for the attendees to meet, greet, and network? Is it easy for them to find each other on their smart phones and tablets during the conference? Do you have all conference information clearly published for easy interaction on their devices including the session info, schedules, and maps? Are attendees allowed to interact with the speakers during the sessions by tweeting their questions during a session?
    • Better Event Forecasting: In terms of keeping your expenses from overrunning your revenue, how are you forecasting the event? Do you offer early-bird registration discounts to help draw in the needed cash prior to the event as well as gain a forecasting mechanism to forecast how many eventual attendees will come to help you forecast your expense levels? For example, after analyzing registration patterns after just one or two years, you should have a good sense for the percentage of attendees that will register three months in advance for a 25% discount, one month in advance for a 10% discount, and at the door at a premium rate. Then based upon the three month registration levels for the following year, you can better gauge the full registration count and throttle down expenses if necessary because it is shaping up to be a slow year.

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About Wade Myers

Wade has founded or co-founded, invested in, and been a director of over 25 companies and has completed 55 financing and M&A transactions. His previous work experience includes the Boston Consulting Group and Mobil Corporation. Wade also served as an Airborne Ranger in the US Army where he was a decorated veteran of the Gulf War. He is a Baker Scholar graduate of Harvard’s MBA program and is married with five children.

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