Trade Groups Must Prove ROI to Member Companies

An Ad Age Editorial

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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.

The Outdoor Advertising Association of America is also canceling its 2009 National Convention and Trade Show in Miami.

During a time in which banks and insurance companies are getting hammered for taking bailout money and then holding expensive conferences and sales retreats, more trade groups should consider following suit.

There's more here to worry about than a public-relations black eye. Indeed, we've argued in this space that sales retreats and certain conventions serve their purposes -- motivating sales forces, building sales leads -- and should be carried forward.

But let's face facts: Too many trade conferences accomplish nothing. They're little more than weekend getaways in which golfing and drinking are interrupted by self-congratulatory and backward-looking speeches that gloss over the true issues facing an industry.

Even in a good year, that's a questionable use of money. And this isn't a good year.

The recession has pushed many companies to slash or eliminate travel budgets, among other costs, making it hard for many execs to get to subtropical climes or desert oases.

In fact, the travel column isn't the only part of the budget getting cut. Many members of trade groups are starting to reconsider membership fees. The MPA recently watched as Hachette Filipacchi, American Media and New York magazine walked out the door.

With companies suddenly asking, "What's the ROI on this?" trade groups absolutely must focus their efforts on providing useful information, rather than expensive dog-and-pony shows, for their members.

The MPA, for its part, is taking the right approach with its trimmed-down event in New York. It will last a day or a day and a half and won't include a lot of the magazine-conference mainstays. "It's a much smaller, business-oriented event focused on innovation," a spokesman said. "It's not going to have the parties and the celebrity chefs and the ferry rides and things like that."

Besides, there will be plenty of time for partying when we get out of this mess.

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