The marketing materials on the Web site promoting the Net.Finance conference carry a message that a year ago would not have been a selling point: The hotel hosting the Worldwide Business Research event stands 8.2 miles from the Las Vegas strip. “That's way too far to walk,” the Web site promises prospects. “You won't even see the bright lights of Vegas.”
The lure of casinos has been replaced with a new draw: cheap airfares. The marketing message highlights the affordability of a trip to Las Vegas and offers tips to help attendees pitch their participation to the boss. It also indicates a shift under way in a conference industry adapting to meet the challenges of tightened travel and marketing budgets.
“We need to prove the value of our events and help our customers justify the expense,” said Amit Das, managing director of the U.S. division of Worldwide Business Research. The company has moved events to more centralized business locations, he said, shying away from resorts in favor of major airline hubs.
Organizers are working closely with sponsors to establish realistic objectives and make sure events meet those expectations, he said. Attendance numbers are down, so networking opportunities need to be enhanced. And attendees want to walk away with tangible results, driving a content shift from strategy to practical tips that can generate quick wins in a recession.
It's not just the attendees who are having trouble traveling. Industry experts slated to speak at conferences also face scrutiny of travel expenses. “T&E budgets are just being hammered,” said Norm Kamikow, president and editor in chief at MediaTec Publishing, which produces the Chief Learning Officer Symposium conference series. “The scariest thing is when you get down to the last minute and you lose a keynoter.” The company has offered to pay for speakers' travel and also reached out to attendees who can stand in after last-minute cancellations, he said.
That kind of flexibility is essential, said Mark Rothman, CMO at American Business Media. “Anyone today who is absolutely rigid is at a disadvantage.”
The association saw registration for its professional development conference series slide and last month moved the events to a virtual platform. “Most companies including media and information companies put severe restrictions on travel in an attempt to cut expenses and compensate for losses,” Rothman said. “People cannot come to New York as they once did.”
There are, however, bright spots in a down economy. Fewer attendees may come, but they tend to be senior-level executives, organizers said. Opportunities exist for smaller companies to claim sponsorships once not within their reach. And the slump helps weed weaker shows out of the market, leaving the survivors with a larger share.
The value of the marketing opportunity also increases in a down year, said Michelle Finn, VP-hospitality design group at Nielsen Business Media, which produces events including HD Summit.
“These events become a must-have because [advertisers] need some wins, and they need to talk to their top customers,” she said.
The company launched HD Summit as a reward that paired top advertisers with their top customers at an event emphasizing leisure activities over salesspeak.
The conference has proven to be a valuable hedge as advertising frequency has declined, Finn said. Marketers that have not spent enough on advertising must pay $13,000 to participate in the conference. And they do. “We're a relationship market,” she said. “The name of the game is connectivity. I don't think we can underestimate the importance of that.”
In the technology market, the need to connect and stay on top of industry trends is paramount, said Eric Faurot, senior VP-live events group at TechWeb, which will later this year co-produce the sold-out first Gov 2.0 Summit. The company has shifted its marketing messages to focus on cost-savings and revenue enhancements associated with the technology featured at its events.
TechWeb's portfolio of trade shows and conferences had been growing at 30% for three years, a clip that slowed to 15% last year, Faurot said. “This year we're shooting for flat.”
Those numbers don't mean that TechWeb is abandoning the core model responsible for helping to build events that lead in the company's market categories, he said. “This is not a fire drill.” M