When the big event isn't so big anymore

Slashed budgets and dwindling resources need not sound the death knell for your event. As Melanie Shortman discovers, the show can still go on.

Slashed budgets and dwindling resources need not sound the death knell for your event. As Melanie Shortman discovers, the show can still go on.

When FitzGerald Communications was hired by MediaLive to promote last November's Comdex tech trade show, the agency realized that a lot had changed over the past couple years. "We all experienced the tech boom, and nobody did so more than Comdex," says Josh Aroner, an account manager at FitzGerald. "It came to epitomize the over-exuberance of the movement. People asked, 'How big could it be? How crazy?' That was great, and I think it served the industry well at that time, when it was all about impressions and market share from a brand perspective." In today's ROI-driven tech sector, however, Comdex needed to change. "After the boom, [the organizers] would admit that they reacted slowly in changing to the market," Aroner notes. "But MediaLive realized that for Comdex to survive, it had to have focus. They decided to bring focus by concentrating on business-to-business technology." Comdex planners faced what many companies are experiencing as a result of changes in the financial and corporate economy: budget cuts and downsizing that affect not only marketing spending, but corporate events budgets as well. Though sectors outside the tech world might not have been as severely affected by the recent recession, many are scaling back their trade show presence - not to mention their sales training seminars, corporate and client meetings, product introductions, and other special events. "I would say that clients are being cautious," says Jennifer Gross, an account manager who works on events management and planning for Pittsburgh-based PR firm Skutski & Oltmanns. "They're not as cautious as they have been, but they're not being extravagant. I think people are being good stewards of their money. I'm not critical of clients who are being cautious." Even when clients aren't particularly cautious, lavish affairs can look unnecessarily showy and wasteful. "If a company is downsized and they want to put on a big event, we would consult that it wouldn't be such a good idea to hold a big event," says Linda Davis, owner of the Davis Management Company. "We can do something that has a lot of quality but isn't flashy, because that wouldn't be appropriate. Clients are receptive to that." It's not necessary to entirely redefine your focus when budgets have been cut. When cutting back on the scale of an event, there are many things that planners can do to be sure that the event stays true to its purpose while cutting out unnecessary elements - and actually create a potential for ROI. "The trend is to scale back," says Gross. "We've seen clients trying to hold onto the events structure that they were accustomed to, but have a high-quality event at a lower cost. It could mean a smaller event in terms of attendees, or publicizing an event differently." Publicizing a scaled-back affair issues a special challenge because easily publicized perks will most likely not be included in the event's execution. "The key to that is to communicate the value," Gross notes. "Even though it's not as grand, you have to communicate the value that the event still holds. People aren't going to events to be entertained, but to be educated." If an event is smaller, Gross recommends emphasizing the intimate atmosphere, or the one-on-one time with leaders and speakers. In the case of Comdex, the FitzGerald team gave the entire event a PR makeover, working with reporters, stakeholders, and even other PR agencies that might have clients attending to ask what they expected of the event, and what they would like to see happen there. "A big part initially was to reset expectations, revamping the Comdex team in five months," Aroner says. "At the same time, Comdex was coming from being [just] an event's show floor to being a multi-dimensional experience and offering more educational aspects." For smaller affairs, there are plenty of ways to make a small amount of money go a long way. By concentrating on the most important attributes, one can scale back on fringe benefits. For example, Gross says that many event planners have gone online to communicate with attendees, using e-mail and websites to issue invitations, reminders, and other information, thus saving on often-expensive printing costs. In addition, elaborate centerpieces and floral arrangements can easily be replaced with far less expensive plants and fabrics. Davis adds that downtimes such as these provide welcome challenges to event planners. "We're really doing our homework and focusing on being creative," she notes. "For example, the decor and decoration can be cut back, but you want to be sure that the quality is still there. It can be fun." In the past, Davis says, companies would stage elaborate themed events with bands, and the bands might have been quite expensive. But these days, planners suggest trendier and lower-key events, such as a wine tasting with a sophisticated and simple menu. "I think the idea is to convince a client that different can be better," she says. Indeed, considering different scenarios and possibilities is a wise move. "A good strategy is to provide a range of cost options," says Gross. "There are many different areas that can be scaled back. One client could want to spend the money to get a speaker, but they might not want fancy invitations. Let them pick and choose what's important." A wise strategy for any program is to get attendee feedback at the end of the event - especially in the case of annual programs - so that money can be better allocated for future events. Kay Barker, cofounder of MBK Associates, says that a survey can often highlight things that might have seemed unnecessary originally but that are important to attendees. "I know one year we didn't pick up people at a golf event," she recalls. "They had to drive to the course themselves. It wasn't far, but our evaluation at the end frequently suggested reimbursement for tolls or gas." Another aspect of an event that is commonly overlooked, according to Barker, is downtime. "Sometimes when you're doing events or meetings, you try to get as much information as possible," she says. "But having a coffee break outside gives people a time to relax and reflect on what they've seen and heard." ----- Technique tips Do manage expectations. Make sure that participants are aware of the agenda and the tone of the event Do prioritize. Find out what the most important aspect of your event is and scale back on others Do maintain the quality of event content despite tight budgets Don't think that bigger is better. Keep the event simple by paying attention to detail Don't leave things until the last minute. Planning ahead will ensure good results Don't think that the event is over when it ends. Be sure to pay attention to feedback

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