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How to Boost Event Attendance

Over the past 10 years, the meetings industry has gone through some fundamental changes because of the recession and associated attacks on business travel spending.

As the case for both meeting and learning in person has been clarified by studies demonstrating that videoconferencing doesn’t match the engagement of in-person interaction, meetings and conferences have held their ground and their numbers have grown, even during the recession. But as attendance has increased from recession years and confidence has returned, lower staffing and higher workloads across the board have made planners work harder than ever to boost event attendance.


More Time ROI, Less Financial

One of the biggest hurdles planners face today, particularly for midweek, multiday events, is that although attendees and their bosses see the value of the meeting, there is an increased need to justify the time away from core tasks.

“What we’re really finding now is that people recognize that stakeholders are busier than ever,” said Meeting Professionals International (MPI) senior director of events Matthew Marcial. “When attendance is optional, they need to bring a strong ROI and value proposition. People think pricing has an impact, but we’ve seen little resistance to pricing and pricing increases. They really need a good reason to bring back to their bosses to be able to leave the office for a few days or a week to attend an event.”

MPI has created a Convince Your Boss toolkit with everything from templates that prospective attendees can fill in to use to email their bosses to ask for permission to attend the meeting to bullet points on the prospective ROI. Marcial said for meeting planners, using templates “is a great investment because they’ll see results from the attendees who used it and can get feedback from it and update it the next year.”

Your Meeting 365

One of the best ways Marcial has found to boost attendance for next year’s meeting is to start marketing it directly after this year’s.

“We engage members and attendees postconference and preconference, and try to create a 360-degree experience that keeps that conference experience going,” he said. “We have information we capture to continue to educate people who weren’t able to attend in person so that even people who couldn’t attend keep the event front of mind.”

Over the course of the year, the MPI team slowly drips content from the previous year’s meeting that seamlessly dovetails into the content for the next year as topics are selected and speakers announced. Videos or snippets of video from sessions, blog posts and email newsletters based around session content and testimonials and social media buzz from attendees can all be spaced over the year to keep momentum going. MPI also uses an online community that allows attendees to continue their networking connections from the event easily, without having to fumble for business cards.

Visit Alexandria has also begun to apply the toolkit approach to social media marketing to help planners low on time keep up these year-round updates.

“Something we take pride in is helping our planners grow their buzz, and we’re hearing that planners want help with social media,” said senior vice president of sales Lorraine Lloyd. “We will custom tailor a video welcome they can play at the previous year’s event to get things kicked off right then and there.”

This month, the CVB is launching a social media toolkit in addition to its long-standing promotional toolkit for meeting planners that includes videos, banners, promotional copy, digital artwork, brochures and an image gallery that can be used for plug-and-play updates, keeping attendees and prospective attendees looking forward to the meeting and the destination.

“Our social media kit has standard Twitter and Facebook posts, and all they have to do is plug in their name and hashtag,” said Lloyd. “We have templates for nine months out and six months out that will say, ‘Mark your calendar.’” Visit Alexandria uses two toolkits, one for before the meeting begins and another to use on-site that includes specific suggestions and deals for attendees, such as a happy hour offer at a local bar.

Video Is Your New Best Friend

When you’re bringing your group to a meeting destination that has a lot to offer but might not be as well known or have as clear a value proposition as a destination for your attendees, video is one of the best ways to get buy-in to the character and buzz of your upcoming meeting.

“Video is the most popular content today, and it can give you a sense of a city in three and a half minutes,” said Kelly McGrail, director of marketing for Experience Grand Rapids. “Grand Rapids isn’t like a sexy Las Vegas thing, but it is a really cool city that in the past few years has come into a mature state of a city that people really want to come to, and that started with us being named Beer City USA. A lot of our videos and marketing now center around beer culture.”

As the new industry buzzword “bleisure” — for trips where business travelers combine business and leisure by tacking on some days of vacation to their trip — gains ground, it is clear that destination selection is more core than ever to meeting attendance. Highlighting the leisure tourism draws of your upcoming meeting destination can be one of the best ways to boost attendance.

“We talk in our office about the idea of the Jet Ski video, and you don’t want to be that. You want to be different and focus on what your city does that no one else does,” McGrail said. One of Grand Rapids’ latest promotional video projects sprang from a frequent piece of visitor feedback that people could see themselves living there, so the team created a quirky, rhyming video centered around locals explaining why they call the city home.

McGrail’s team creates three short videos a week, and recently brought in someone part time to work on the content and keep costs manageable and the tone cohesive. Video content for your meeting doesn’t need to be a big production, however. Tools like Periscope, which allows streaming video content like a custom television station, or Snapchat, which allows recordings of short videos, are gaining ground.

Whether through video, social media, online communities or year-round email marketing, digital tools, particularly plug-and-play options, are quickly becoming the fastest and most effective way to boost attendance.