NPT Study: Creative Ways of Luring Conference Goers

Carol Lewis, CEO of Philanthropy Northwest, said she worried people wouldn’t be able to afford the organization’s annual conference next month. So, the Seattle-based organization decided to tweak the conference to make it more financially accessible.

The organization kept prices at last year’s levels and moved it to a less expensive venue. It was originally scheduled for Alaska. But with the high cost of airfare, Philanthropy Northwest moved the conference to Stevenson, Wash., just outside of Portland, Ore.

The organization also offered a $100 roundtrip shuttle this year from Seattle to the conference, compared to the estimated $250 it would cost to drive or $200 for train and taxi service.

Conference registration hit more than 200, which is the typical attendance, but “counter-intuitive” because of the economy, Lewis said. She also credited early bird registration, which discounted prices by $100, for more than 100 sign-ups — more than previous years.

“People seem more anxious than ever to connect with their colleagues,” said Lewis. “So, that’s been a pleasant surprise for Philanthropy Northwest.”

Member and professional conferences have been pushed farther down the priority list as nonprofits face tighter budgets and an all-hands-on-deck attitude to battle the economic storm, according to a survey conducted by The NonProfit Times.

Nearly 57 percent of respondents attended one or two professional or association conferences during the past six months, while 31.3 percent said they haven’t attended any, according to the survey.

When compared to last year, 54.6 percent of respondents said they will attend fewer conferences this year. More than 35 percent said the conference attendance year over year stayed the same, while less than 10 percent said they will attend more conferences this year.

For those who cut down on conferences this year, 73.4 percent said it was down one or two conferences and nearly 23 percent said three to four conferences. Nearly 2 percent said they cut five to six conferences and another 2 percent said they cut seven or more conferences compared to last year.

“Obviously budgets are being cut, so people need to make tough decisions about what they will or will not pay for and what they will or will not attend,” said Deborah Sexton, president and CEO of the Chicago-based Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA). “Everyone has more work with less help and greater expectations on the part of the organizations they work for.”

Sexton said that face-to-face conventions will never end completely, but with mounting responsibilities and shrinking budgets, Sexton said nonprofits are looking at conferences with a critical eye to determine if conferences were “need to have versus nice to have.”

An overwhelming 90.6 percent of those surveyed were trying to cut costs when attending conferences. But while nonprofits might want reasonable prices, they don’t want a discount on the educational value.

When analyzing the deciding factor in attending, conference price ranked first (41 percent), closely followed by value of educational tracks (38.5 percent), according to the NPT survey. Respondents also said professional relationships (11.8 percent) and proximity of the conference to the organization (8.7 percent) influenced what conferences they would attend.

Rose Stoller, executive director at Consensus Council in Bismarck, N.D., said her organization uses airline miles and carpooling to save money and wishes conference planners would streamline events. She explained that not every attendee wants, or needs, another canvas bag. And while refreshments are nice, some conferences go overboard. “I think there is a real excess of food and beverages and there is a lot of waste. I think those costs get passed on to the attendees,” said Stoller.

Lynae Gieseke, executive director of Minnesota Valley Humane Society in Burnsville, Minn., said that even though her conference attendance stayed the same this year, the organization still tries to save money and “the more local, the better,” which cuts transportation and lodging costs.

Holly Ross, executive director of Portland, Ore.-based NTEN, said the organization’s annual Nonprofit Technology Conference (NTC) typically gets 20 to 30 percent in local attendance, which was the case for the 2009 conference in San Francisco, which was one of the few industry conferences to sell-out.

A majority of those surveyed responded that participating in educational tracks was the best part of a conference (64.4 percent), followed by networking with colleagues (34 percent).

Survey respondents seemed interested in a wide variety of conference educational topics, led by major gifts (24.1 percent), corporate or foundation giving (22.9 percent), leadership preparation (14.1 percent), social networks (12.4 percent) and online fundraising (11.8 percent). Career development (7.6 percent), direct mail (4.7 percent) and regulation (2.4 percent) rounded out the ranking of educational topics.

Conference attendees might have different tastes in educational topics, but the quality of content matters across the board. “The content needs to be really solid,” said Sexton. “It needs to be what the attendees or members need to have because they have many, many choices today, including not doing anything.”

Ross explained that social media is popular with nonprofits right now – many organizations want to use social media tools but not everyone understands how to use them. But having a hot topic doesn’t guarantee attendees in a cooling economy. So, the organization put out a community call to hear what members wanted from the 2009 NTC educational sessions and overall conference which was held this past April.

Ross said that transparency about a conference’s planning process is one thing, but asking potential attendees to shape the conference tone is another ballgame. Community members were encouraged to submit ideas and a steering committee gave additional input. Then NTEN members ranked and rated sessions, which contributed to what made the agenda’s cut.

The 2009 NTC conference, held in San Francisco, had 1,450 attendees and had more than 80 people who didn’t make it off the wait list. “I think that’s part of the reason why attendance was so good, because people weren’t just marketed to about the conference. They were engaged in building their own conference, so they had some ownership in it,” said Ross.

While educational sessions ranked highest, there must be something wrong with the java at conferences. Some 50 percent of respondents said free coffee was the worst part of conferences, closely followed by talking to vendors (42.5 percent).

“I’m appreciative of these vendors for helping offset the conference cost for everyone, but sometimes you don’t have time to talk to them all,” said Gieseke. “I understand these vendors have to make a living. But a week after I get back from the conference, suddenly I am bombarded with all the emails, phone calls and letters from different vendors. It’s almost too much for me,” said Gieseke.

Consensus Council’s Stoller based in Bismarck, N.D., said most exhibit halls have “a carnival atmosphere. They are really hawking stuff and it seems tacky and distracting.”

Ross described conventional exhibit halls as “vendors sitting around for three or four days listening to crickets chirp while people are in the educational sessions, and then tremendously desperate to talk to you when you do walk by.”

Conference attendees might dislike getting several pitches thrown at them while walking to get coffee, which they also apparently dislike, but vendors are integral parts of most conferences. Ross said NTC tries to shake up the exhibit hall experience by holding a Science Fair, which she describes as “a party and vendors happen to be in the room.” The Science Fair is also only open for one day during the three-day conference.

“From my point of view, the exhibitors that come to the Science Fair and then actually stick around for the rest of the conference, and go to sessions and really listen to what their current clients and potential clients are saying about the issues that they face, that makes them better vendors,” said Ross.

She said that there would be luncheons at the 2010 NTC based around product demonstrations, where numerous vendors with a particular product will have a set time to show off their product to a group. That will give attendees the opportunity to see products they are interested in without having to visit each booth individually. And it should also cut down the leads that will never convert to a sale for a vendor.

“And if you want to follow up with any one of them, you can. But this gives you the opportunity to see the demos and still be a face in the audience,” said Ross.