Big ideas for planning your small event

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As more companies bypass larger events in favor of conducting their own more intimate meetings, they are finding themselves grappling with a number of issues. Since making the decision to skip a key industry trade show this year, powered wheelchair maker Permobil USA has learned what it takes to plan a successful event. There's picking a location that will have appeal, and a date that won't conflict with other industry events, and tapping entertainment and speakers who haven't been seen repeatedly elsewhere. There's a guest list and a budget to develop. And there is content and brand messaging to deliver to an audience whose members want their specific needs addressed. Permobil's Power Surge event planned for April “is not easy to pull off. It's probably three times the work for us” compared to a trade show, said Barry Steelman, marketing manager. “We're usually bringing in our dealers three or four at a time. We're calling this a dealer visit on steroids.” Still, if Permobil's two-day meeting goes as planned, the company thinks it will have found a better way to control both the audience and the message they take home. The best way to conduct a smaller event, experts say, is to focus on the audience and find creative ways of reinforcing the marketing message through the event's location, the content and even the guest list. Julio Campos, president of Campos Creative Works, sometimes suggests companies consider holding their events at the same time as trade shows, but offsite at a nearby location. Rather than competing with the noise and distractions on a show floor, invite key decision-makers to an “insider” party that starts just as the trade show floor closes. The event should combine brand marketing with a hard sell. “People can't help themselves. [They] go to see what's going on,” Campos said. “You know who's coming. You can target your audience. You can focus on what you want to say.” At other events not related to trade shows, he suggested first gathering everyone together for a general session emphasizing the branding message, then dividing attendees into smaller groups to better address different kinds of product or service features as well as customer concerns. One other requirement for any meeting, Campos said, is an injection of fun, regardless of the marketing message and hard sell that may follow. Attendees want more than a sterile meeting room and a speaker at a whiteboard. “Especially with how saturated people are from a media standpoint—and the expectation to be entertained—you can't do that anymore,” Campos said. When it came time to plan its annual meeting with independent dealers last fall, Suzuki chose Denver as the site, deciding that the city was a marketing tool itself for the lifestyle connected to Suzuki vehicles. After a 75-minute general session that opened with motorcycle stunts, Suzuki's meeting with independent dealers was broken down into several workshops and seminars for attendees. The schedule was staggered so attendees could get to more than one area of interest, a move that marketing VP Gene Brown advocates. “By putting it into manageable chunks, the participant has a lot of influence over what they do and how much,” Brown said. “If we just kept them in a room, they'd be in there for a whole day and we'd lose their attention.” In selecting its audience, Permobil looked to its field sales representatives for guidance. But their work isn't done once the attendees arrive. Steelman said the company will look to those employees to address the individual needs of their invitees during the event. The meeting formula changes a little when dealing with a smaller executive audience, said Kurt Paben, VP-business development, engagement and events at Carlson Marketing. “That is a group of people whose time is valuable,” Paben said. “You need to make it worth their while. You need to do your homework a lot more.” Paben said that if most of the attendees are C-suite executives, all of them should be because camaraderie will build among the executives. Invite existing clients if they can help reinforce the marketing message. Select an audience that would respond well to the same message, and give executives the opportunity to share information among themselves—particularly if the attendees are not direct competitors. Providing executives with a networking opportunity can benefit the meeting host down the line, he said. However, it's still important to schedule some social activity into the meeting so marketers can have one-on-one time with attendees, Pabel added. M
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