Our small professional association has grown by 25% in the past four years and, although exciting, it has caused havoc with planning our annual spring conference. We have made many mistakes along the way, but have also scored some major coups. This has resulted in the following "top five tips of the trade" we will now share with you.
1) Make Sure that the Conference Planning Team is Comprised of Doers
Big thinkers are great but not on a conference planning committee. You want people who have time, are reliable, have connections, do what they say they will do; and respect deadlines, budgets, and each other.
2) Critically Examine Your Return on Investment
There are some excellent conference planners in Canada, but when associations grow rapidly it is a good idea to "stop and smell the roses!" Make sure to review your needs every two to three years to ensure you still have the right person or company to plan your event. For example, at the beginning of a three-year contract, you may have needed a planner with transformative ideas. However, three years down the road, your committee is better at this task, leaving you to realize the event planner should apply the elbow grease, not the idea!
3) "Free" can be Very Expensive
Remember the adage, "if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!" Our association has received offers from many consultants offering free services. On closer inspection, though, it becomes clear they are too closely associated with specific vendors or hotels, or they expect to keep the room commission over and above their standard billing rates. These commissions can run into the thousands of dollars if the conference is a large one, leaving the conference committee scrambling for other ways to reduce a potential conference deficit if that money goes into the planner's pocket instead.
4) Plan an Exit Strategy Before Signing a Multi-Year Agreement
The neophyte conference planning committee might not realize that their conference planner may negotiate a multi-year contract on its behalf. When that relationship goes sour, the committee may not get that commission from the remaining time on the contract if the planner has directed the hotel to pay them directly. Our organization inherited a two-year contract that directed the hotel to pay the commission directly to the event planning company even though we parted ways in the second year. The two-year agreement remained in place, and the contractor walked away with a large commission from a conference it did not plan.
5) Encourage Your Members to "Borrow" Ideas from Other Events They have Attended
Go to conferences and see what others are doing. Question the adage, "we have always done it that way" when planning your conference. For example, if you have always included a gala dinner and entertainment, check out other conferences to see if this activity is still the norm. Many conferences no longer provide these expensive perks for legal (too much alcohol consumption) and financial (conference deficits) reasons, so maybe you do not have to anymore either.
Dr. Frances Chandler is a certified teacher, social worker, and professional planner who is currently the Director of Research Support Services at Sauder School of Business. She holds degrees in environmental studies/urban planning, social welfare policy, and education. Her Ph.D. research focused on leadership and collaborative groups in academia. An award-winning volunteer, she has worked in numerous locations and employment situations in Northern and Southern Ontario, Ghana, China, Kenya, and Vancouver. Frances is CARA President and, in addition to that role, provides mentorship and leads the Grant Writers and Facilitators Special Interest Group.
Sarah Lampson is the Executive Director of CARA and provides transformational organizational leadership to implement the association's strategic plan. Sarah's key achievements include: significantly increasing services to members, which resulted in a 25% increase in membership and a 400% increase in volunteerism in 3 years; turning an operating deficit into a surplus in first 12 months; increasing revenue 43% and stewarding the international partnership that resulted in development of Canada's first professional qualifications in the profession. You can connect with her via LinkedIn or follow her on Twitter at @lampson_sarah.
If you need additional help and advice planning a conference or other events, CSAE offers a number of publications that may help out. Professional Meeting Management: Comprehensive Strategies for Meetings, Conventions and Events by the PMCA may be what you're looking for.