Independent planners have more ammunition than ever to justify their events because during economic slowdowns, companies must make a greater effort to motivate their employees, cultivate customers, and keep competitors at bay. Done right, events are powerful tools that help meet these objectives.
"Now more than ever, events are important ways for communities to come together and to re-engage, revitalize, become inspired and improve skills," said Gail Bower, a meeting and events industry consultant and planner.
Once you understand the client's business, you can address specific objectives that a meeting might fulfill. The one objective that makes meetings especially easy to justify-especially in this economy is increasing sales. In fact, events such as trade shows, client dinners, and distributor conferences usually result in a clearly visible spike in revenue.
More importantly, sales generated through an event are remarkably cost-efficient.
A recent survey by the Center for Exhibition Industry Research shows that the total cost of closing a sale without trade show participation averages US $1,140 compared to $705 for a show-generated lead.
Dallas Teague Snider, an independent meeting planner, and founder of Make Your Best Impression, points out that many businesses make the mistake of cutting back on their event and marketing spend at a time when they should be ramping their spending up.
Cutting back on visibility, reducing the number of events held or even canceling engagements outright might signal to clients that the company is having financial problems or that it is not committed to serving a particular niche during the downturn. It also opens a wide gap for competitors.
While these arguments might seem logical to anyone with event expertise, they can sometimes fall flat without data to back them up. Dan Hoffend, vice president of corporate account sales for event management firm Freeman, points out those smart meeting planners who have been collecting ROI data on their events all along can now pull out those spreadsheets and argue their case without breaking a sweat.
One of his favorite ways of measuring ROI is to quiz participants before and after each meeting. For example, Hoffend might ask attendees whether they recognize the host company's brand, how much they know about its products and whether they see any partnership opportunities. The difference between the answers generated before and after the event can be easily translated into data that shows whether the company succeeded in its mission.
"The questionnaires can give clear results showing that you have succeeded in moving attendees from one point to another," Hoffend said. "If the value of your event is clear, then you're always going to have a justification for it."
Amanda Stranack, director of event services at Inntel in London, points out that questionnaires can also be sent out months after an event has taken place-so if you don't have the data in your archives already, it's not too late to start gathering it. Sometimes it is even worth it to hire a professional market research firm to conduct formal surveys, adds Stranack, whose clients include companies in the transportation, telecommunications, and finance industries.
In addition to the tangible value produced by events, there is also a huge intangible benefit to be reaped from personal meetings, Bower says. She points out there is a priceless connection built between company and customer when they have the chance to interact.
"Corporations might be able to demonstrate a product better or showcase how friendly, thorough and expert their sales team is at a face-to-face meeting," she said.
When selling intangible products, for example insurance policies, companies can benefit from giving customers a chance to put a face to the brand.
This intangible benefit applies particularly to incentives and other events meant to motivate employees. Personal meetings help give employees pride in their organization and offer the best platform to send a uniform message about the company's strategy, Rubinsky says.
Especially in this economy, it is crucial to motivate employees, and help salespeople keep an upbeat attitude they can pass on to their customers.
"It's important to feel better about work, because then you work better," said Priscilla Leherle, Paris-based manager of Eventus in France, Belgium and Luxembourg, whose company organizes corporate team-building events.
"Team-building events are not just about having fun, they're about creating positive effects for the company," she said.
Some of the positive effects that her clients have seen include a happier workforce, also one that is more productive, more cooperative, and able to harness the power of team thinking.
Motivational events are particularly important in this climate to keep the sales force engaged, experts say.
"Everybody is so negative at the moment, and that's not good," Bartlett said. "If you're in a sales meeting with someone and they're negative, you don't want to do business with that person."
Unfortunately, motivational events have come under particular scrutiny from the public over the past year.
In October, insurance company AIG was publicly shamed for holding a lavish retreat. As AIG pointed out at the time, most of the attendees were top-producing independent insurance agents, and most corporate experts agree that such events are necessary to keep salespeople motivated.
"Corporations need to hold employee recognition events...to bolster the confidence of employees so they take ownership of the current situation and roll up their sleeves," said Pat Ahaesy, founder of P&V Enterprises in New York.
One important detail to keep in mind when trying to explain the value of events to clients, however, is that it is pointless to try to justify value unless one actually creates value. Independent meeting planners especially-who have to prove their worth with every event they sell-must be sure to give clients maximum bang for the buck.
"An event can be a powerful marketing experience, not just a reason for people to stand around in fancy clothes sipping cocktails," Bower said.
At the same time, it's key to consider the client's plight as well, instead of just putting on the hard sell, Ahaesy says. Moreover, she should know. A few days after Sept. 11, 2001, the independent meeting planner called one of her largest clients, a Manhattan-based financial firm that had lost its headquarters, half of its staff and its founder in the terrorist attacks. The firm was considering canceling a client-appreciation party that was to be held just a month later.
"I called them to ask, 'Is there anything I can do for you?'" Ahaesy recalled.
When her counterpart told her the firm might scrap the event, she did not flinch. She pointed out that staying on schedule would demonstrate that the company had survived the tragedy, reassure clients, and help bring employees together. However, she also showed sympathy.
"I said to them, 'If you decide not to do it, I understand, and there will be no penalty to you whatsoever,'" she recalled.
Similarly, independent planners should be wary of trying to justify every event regardless of its value, at the risk of squandering their clients' trust.
Inntel's Stranack says she often agrees with clients when they ask her to take an event off the roster.
"Sometimes I say to them, 'Yes, you're absolutely right.' That message can be communicated just as well by e-mail," Stranack said. "I try to give my clients a sensible answer, rather than just doing everything to secure one event."
By working in partnership with your client, winning their trust as an event and meeting advisor, you are much more likely to have success keeping their business through bad times and good.