Marketing Confabs Scrapped, Stripped Down Due to Recession

But 4A's, WOMMA Say They'll Press On With Less-Flashy Plans

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Most everyone in marketing agrees now's not the greatest time to spend money on big industry conferences and events.

The American Association of Advertising Agencies plans to see its three keynote confabs through, though they're not running high on flash.
The American Association of Advertising Agencies plans to see its three keynote confabs through, though they're not running high on flash. Credit: Art Beaulieu
According to a survey released last month from trade group Meeting Professionals International, 7% of business conferences scheduled this year have already been called off, and those expected to be held will see an estimated 5% drop in attendance. The survey said 17% of corporate meeting planners predict further cuts.

At the recent Consumer Analyst Group of New York's annual forum in Boca Raton, Fla., attendance was down noticeably. Andrew Lazar, the conference's chair, placed the head count at 490, down from last year's 600. And about 100 or so who did fly down hadn't confirmed until Jan. 1.

Considering the group's $400 membership dues (a hike from last year) and a minimum nightly rate of $395 at the palatial Boca Raton Resort & Club, CAGNY's 2009 event was a tough sell for many organizations trying to adhere to the country's new austerity model.

No OAAA convention
The Outdoor Advertising Association of America announced last week it would cancel its National Convention and Trade Show, scheduled for May 17-19 in Miami Beach, Fla.

"We're a member-service organization, and what we heard from our members this year was pretty clear: 'Focus on selling our core business,'" said OAAA's communications director, Jeff Golimowski, who said prospective registration was about 30% to 50% lower than for the group's most recent congregation, in 2007.

"We were flat the first three quarters of 2008," he said. "And flat is the new up."

He added: "This year is just not the year to gather."

The OAAA's tack is in line with those of many organizations putting their event schedules on hiatus, either as a direct result of attrition or as a cautionary or image-driven gambit.

The Magazine Publishers of America is canceling its big annual conference, which had been planned for Boca Raton, Fla., this October, and replacing it with a smaller agenda to be presented in New York.

Last August, the Newspaper Association of America announced it would consolidate two of its trade shows into a single entity, not as a result of recession-era constraints but rather as a reflection of the industry's shift to multiple media platforms.

Not just corporate events
And it isn't just corporate events going stagnant. High-profile blowouts and glossy parties have been pressured into limbo, most notably Playboy's pre-Super Bowl fete, called off for the first time in its nine-year run. While entry into Hugh Hefner and Co.'s 2,500-large gathering in Arizona last year fetched more than $2,000 a ticket, this year the publisher latched onto a DirecTV-sponsored event. The company, which has been dealing with its share of publishing woes, recently shuttered its New York offices after watching its stock drop more than 70% in the past year.

Time Warner-owned Sports Illustrated likewise canceled its Super Bowl party. "In this historically challenged economy, hosting an extravaganza was not realistic," SI spokesman Scott Novak said in a statement.

At New York's Fashion Week, usually home to many an over-the-top festivity, cost cutting has become de rigueur. Vera Wang, Donna Karen and Betsey Johnson were among the designers who scrubbed plans for runway shows, which cost upward of $150,000 to produce. They joined at least a half dozen other designers who eschewed the Bryant Park tents for more understated approaches, including video installations and YouTube. Also canned: Pet Fashion Week, which has run successfully since 2004.

Some sticking to plans
But amid all the doom and gloom, some marketing groups are sticking to their plans, even if they're not as grand as in years past.

The American Association of Advertising Agencies plans to see its three keynote confabs through. Its Media Conference and Tradeshow, planned for next month in New Orleans, followed by its Leadership and Account Planning conferences in San Francisco in April and July, respectively, are all running undeterred, though they're not running high on flash.

"Given the state of the economy, I think we've been very thoughtful and conscientious of costs," said Kipp Cheng, 4A's director of public affairs. "Our events are never 20,000 people. Relatively speaking, they're more intimate anyway."

Similarly, the Word of Mouth Marketing Association's two-day program in Miami's South Beach (this year being billed as a recession-relevant exercise) is "full steam ahead," said Tarah Remington, the group's member-relations director. She said the event is "pretty bare-bones," devoid of galas, entertainment and the like. Ms. Remington said the group won't have an opening reception unless it's completely sponsored.

Relatively good news
That both associations' shows will go on is relatively good news, considering a new Association of National Advertisers survey that shows the recession had a deeper effect on the marketing industry than was initially estimated last August. The survey cited more companies identifying cost savings and reductions (93% as opposed to 87% six months ago), and said 37% of respondents plan to reduce budgets by more than 20% -- up substantially from the 21% of respondents in the first survey.

"The headline is we're all getting affected," said ANA President Bob Liodice. "Eighty-seven percent of our members have said they're lowering their travel and entertainment budgets. Everyone is pulling back. We're struggling together."

Mr. Liodice said the ANA will opt for more webinar and call-in models for its conferences -- options it has used once or twice in previous years but will ramp up to 10 or 12 times. Its Integrated Marketing Conference, for instance, most likely will be put on ice.

"We have to go to them now," Mr. Liodice said of ANA members. "Will we make less money from events this year? Absolutely."

Mr. Liodice estimated attendance at the ANA's TV & Everything Video Forum in New York last week -- which cost attending members $695 -- at about 400 people, 100 fewer than last year. Registration for the group's Advertising Law & Business Affairs Conference next month is down about 30%.

While it's perhaps too early to tell if later events will suffer similarly light attendance, Mr. Liodice said, "I think we'd be naive to say they won't."

Footing the bill
Even if the hosting group is able to swallow an event's production costs, whether prospective attendees can foot the bill is an entirely different story. To attend the 4A's Media Conference, for example, there are registration fees ($975 for the first member, $550 for members thereafter and $1,375 for nonmembers), a nightly hotel rate of $235 and airfare (Mr. Cheng said he was able to find a $199 round-trip flight from New York to New Orleans). Included in the registration fee are breakfast and lunch, as well as an opening dinner.

Mr. Cheng said numbers are tentative, but despite a slight increase in confirmations, attendance is down from last year.

"I haven't had any indication of people dropping out yet," Mr. Cheng said, though he added, "Fingers crossed."

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Emily Bryson York contributed to this report.
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