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Some associations that could capitalize on industry support, either from an exhibition or educational grants, believe it is beneath their dignity. Unless there is a clear conflict of interest for either the association or its members, the financial support available from industry suppliers can often be the difference between a surplus and a loss. Even a relatively small conference of 200 scientists can usually interest 15 to 20 industry suppliers, particularly if the group is influential and/or very specialized, and the cost of setting-up an exhibition is usually minimal.
The industry representatives benefit from the contacts made and the members and guests benefit from another informal educational experience. However, make sure that the exhibition is an integral part of the conference and schedule liberal exhibition hours that do not conflict with the program. One method of gaining industry loyalty is to serve food functions in the exhibit hall, which creates more opportunities for additional industry support. With a special sign at the buffet station, a breakfast can be sponsored by a company.
Even the cost of a sit-down lunch can be covered for little more than an opportunity for an industry representative to be recognized and thanked during the meal, or by table cards announcing the name of the sponsor. Another source of industry support is the sponsored lecture; but insist on picking the speaker and the topic so that both will be consistent with the quality of the program.
‘Too little, too late’ sums up the marketing and promotion of most poorly managed conferences. Both characteristics invariably occur because the program committee did not set, and/or did not abide by, agreed deadlines. Along with setting the meeting dates and location at least 12 months in advance, a definite time table for program development and marketing must be established and agreed to by everyone involved.
Constant reference to the meeting site, dates and topics should be made in all association literature, including letters (e.g., print the conference dates and location on the letterhead!). As the program takes shape, keep members informed through the newsletter and other communication pieces. This will build expectation, so that members will be mentally prepared to receive the main promotion piece. Direct mail to members and non-members should be done at the lowest cost and with maximum frequency, consistent with the adopted budget.
The main brochure with complete program and registration information should reach members three months before the meeting. Follow-up reminders, such as specially printed postcards (which are very cost-effective to print and post), should arrive two months and, ideally, one month out. (Note: since this was published the availability of blast emails has replaced the post cards). Reach non-members by obtaining mailing lists in label form from other associations with similar interests, or from list brokers who will help with the selection.
As with membership marketing, always measure the response from all lists. This will give you data for selecting commercial lists in future years. Discount the meeting fees significantly for early registration, which will reduce the number of on-site registrations. The emphasis must be on rewarding the early birds rather than penalizing with a late fee, the member who registers one week before or on-site. The cut-off date for the discount should be one month before the event.
Registration's received by this date will provide a good indicator of the final attendance (needed
for accurate and therefore less costly food estimates).