Regardless of whether they are virtual or in-person, planning association conferences and events is not a one-size-fits-all exercise. Meeting your attendance goals will require you to understand your members’ needs and their barriers to attending and designing events that will attract entrepreneurs and practice owners is different than designing events targeted at other types of audiences.
Here are a few things we’ve learned to keep in mind to make sure conferences and events are planned with entrepreneurs and practice owners in mind:
Remember that paying with your own money is different than using your company’s professional development budget.
Starting your own company or practice is incredibly hard, and money—at least in the beginning—is scarce. Even as their business or practice grows and becomes successful, and money becomes less tight, owners will never forget the days when they were barely making ends meet. That experience with a lean bank account makes most business owners not only frugal with their money, but also prone to view every expense (including conference registration) as being paid for with their money, rather than the company’s money.
(And for most small business owners, the two are one and the same.)
That’s a very different perspective than paying for conference registration out of a professional development budget your boss approves.
Meeting planners who keep that distinction in mind will be better able to plan meetings that appeal to business owners.
Make sure you keep the total cost of attendance in mind.
Too often association conference planners view the cost of attendance as event registration and room nights, failing to account for the cost of travel to and from the meeting. When planning events for entrepreneurs and practice owners, there is an additional cost that planners often forget: time away from the business.
If you own a small company or are the sole practitioner at your practice, time spent at a conference can also mean time spent not serving customers or clients. A small business may literally have to close while the owner attends the conference, which makes attendance at an association event even more expensive.
In some instances, planners can minimize the total cost of attendance for business owners by being strategic with their event pattern. For example, if your attendees own practices that are typically open Monday-Friday, schedule your conference for the weekend. Using a strategic pattern may increase the cost of room nights, but for many attendees the ability to attend the event without closing their business will be worth the additional cost.
The meeting location can be even more important than usual for business owners.
If you own a small business or your own practice, getting time away can be difficult, if not outright impossible. Taking a vacation and attending your association’s annual event can be an either/or proposition. Meeting planners can minimize this conflict by choosing conference sites that are also desirable vacation destinations.
Does that mean every event needs to be in Miami or Hawaii?
No—and Miami or Hawaii aren’t everyone’s idea of a vacation destination.
(Okay, maybe Hawaii is.)
The point isn’t that you need to hold conferences and events in exotic, expensive locations. Just keep in mind that for the business owners, their association’s conference may be their one getaway in any given year, and if they have a good time (in addition to coming away with knowledge that makes their company or practice more competitive), they are likely to make the conference their one getaway every year.
Additionally, if the association event is a member’s one getaway every year, there is a good chance they will bring their family. Keep that in mind when planning events that include spouses and even children.
Most of these tips seem relatively simple, but if your association’s conferences and events have been scheduled on the same days of the week or in the same location(s) for years, change can be difficult. However, it can pay off. A simple change to a weekend event can have a dramatic effect on attendance if your members own businesses that are open Monday through Friday.
Every association is different, and it’s important to keep those differences in mind when planning in-person or virtual conferences and events. If your association is willing to shake things up and be innovative, you can plan meetings that appeal to the unique needs of entrepreneurs and practice owners.