In a Tough Economy, Attendance Drops Even at Free Events!

Published by Steve Manicor | Topics: Associations

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Recently, I attended the Affordable Meetings Mid-America event in Chicago. As you may know, this is a free event to meeting planners and one we have been exhibiting at and providing print, collection and online services to, since 2002.

Even being a free event, the feel on the show floor and in the session rooms was that attendance was down by about 20% from previous years. It also appeared the exhibitors stayed away too. Several exhibitors who bought booth space decided to not even show up leaving show management to get creative with the floor plan and open space at the last minute.

Here’s some event feedback based on talking with attendees, reading online discussions and just being there.

Show Organizers

The show management transition from George Little Management to J. Spargo and Associates was “smooth” according to Paul Wehking, VP of Omnipress Sales. J. Spargo staffers on the ground were very responsive and kept the event moving along and problem free from what I could see. Paul indicates to look for J. Spargo to improve this event and series moving forward as that is the type of group they are.

Access to Session Handouts

Like the Affordable Meetings National event in 2008 which was “paperless,” handouts were not provided to attendees. They are posted online, but most attendees didn’t know that before the event, according to the small group of planners I spoke with. They claimed they’d like to have the printed handouts in the session.

One speaker even made copies of their material at their own expense, which was much appreciated by their audience.

When I looked around a few sessions I sat in on, only a few people (10 of 80) had brought their printed handouts with them and I did not see anyone with a laptop open on the tables.

I know show organizers feel this is a catch 22, since the event is free… thinking that by sharing the handouts prior to the event will affect attendance. I disagree.

My perspective (following the new rules of marketing) is to get information into the hands of as many people as possible to showcase the type of material that will be at the event and entice them to attend. Handouts can’t network, nor do they provide an in-session experience. Maybe the analogy would be, just because I can purchase four Bon Jovi songs from itunes, doesn’t mean I’ll skip their concert in June. Rather it’s the songs and listening to them that entice

Even after arriving at the show, attendees were confused about where the handouts were at. Since Omnipress created and hosted the handouts web site, I was compelled to share the URL, but a better idea would be to:

  1. Give the attendees an option of buying a copy of the Conference Handbook for a small fee (include in the registration form).
  2. Advertise the web site URL in the Conference Journal on several pages.
  3. Communicate often using multiple emails. Put less content in each email and focus one email on just the conference handouts web site. Our most effective emails at Omnipress are 100 words or less with no more than two links to a web site.

Session Bloggers

Hat’s off to for having staff on site in the educational rooms. Serenity Knutson, Plannerwire’s chief editor (and team) sat in on sessions taking notes and blogging about each session. They also captured attendee feedback on video.

Their content is free and can be viewed at

Check out this cool video they shot on day one at

Educational Sessions

Paul Wehking attended Deb Popely’s, “Why you can’t afford not to go green” and grabbed these take aways:

  • Start small such as ridding the event of bottled water and use coolers with recycled/recyclable cups instead.
  • Be sure to check with the facilities to ensure that recycling procedures done at the venue actually is recycled out the back end of the facility and not co-mingled with other trash and taken to the landfill.
  • If you need printed materials, make sure they are printed green using vegetable-based inks, recycled papers and printed by a source that is sensitive to environmental issues.
  • Tell your attendees the strides toward green you’re making. You can’t do it all at once!
  • Deb did mention that she is putting together a “Top Ways to Green Your Meeting” Webinar yet this spring with other green event experts. This would be worth a 30 minute look. I’d suggest watching for this.

I attended Carroll Reuben’s session on “Educating Your Client or Boss on What the Heck A Meeting Planner Does.” Carroll (of Meeting Excellence) is an experienced and excellent presenter and her English accent makes the session all the more enjoyable. A few takeaways from her session:

  • Think and communicate in terms of specifics (years, shows, people, meeting size) and avoid generalities.
  • Use a title that describes what you do (Project Manager vs National Event Planner)
  • Showcase your achievements, not your responsibilities. Using a 30-60-90 day report helps accomplish this by moving your forward looking tasks to an achievements section.
  • Note every time you save your company money.

Bob Hamm, Senior Account Manager at Omnipress, attended Randall Dean’s sessions on How to Tame the E-mail Beast and How Finding an Extra Hour Every Day Randall shared on average we spend two hours every day with e-mail. Whoa! Here are some ideas Bob learned and can’t wait to put to use:

  • One topic per email to avoid losing the reader in a long multi-topic email.
  • Use the 3 minute, 1 touch rule. Touch an item only once. Read, file, trash/delete or schedule it for action.  If it can be done in 3 minutes or less do it now.
  • Don’t allow interruptions slow your productivity. Turn off your email alarm and schedule blocks of each day to tackle your task items. Set specific times to read, reply, file/delete or task. Suggested times were fist thing in the morning, before lunch, after lunch and then prior to going home.  Plan time for this activity so you can use the above 3 minute, 1 touch rule.
  • Be organized both in hard copy and electronic materials. Build and use an efficient file system. This structure will make it easier to find material later.  It is better to be wide (many folders) rather than deep (many layers) for your electronic files.
  • Keep your business email and personal email accounts separate.
  • Use accurate subject line text. It is okay to change as the subject changes and remove unnecessary recipients and old text.
  • More information can be found at and


About Steve Manicor

Steve is Omnipress' Director of Business Development. He has over five years serving the meetings and training industry. He leads our product/service leadership and development teams. more

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April 13th, 2009Tony Veroeven says:

I agree about the myth of the handouts not suppressing attendance, and using the music analogy.

Even in the old “Napster” days, trading music got me to buy the actual CD. I discovered Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

As a speaker, your handouts (or better yet, how about an abstract/summary?) are your ’30 second song sampler’.

They are not you, or your unique ideas. Without the speaker’s talk, how much can one learn from 3 up PPT slides with bullet points & clipart anyway?

Just a thought…

Tony Veroeven


April 13th, 2009Beth Ziesenis says:

As a speaker who submits critical handouts, I always have a tough time at “paperless” meetings. People love to follow along with my handouts since the session moves so quickly, but they rarely print them out before the session. That leaves me without the ability to point out extra resources and move through the session at the right pace. And the poor attendees are furiously scribbling notes.

Great wrap up of the meeting. Thanks for all the tips.

Twitter: AvenueZ


April 13th, 2009Chris says:

So you as a speaker feel hard copy slides or some type of handout that is useful on site is a good thing?

Interesting! Attendees I have spoke with there felt similar. Attendees at ASAE’s Annual Meeting I spoke with felt the same too.

This all goes back to my point that attendees are willing to pay $5 to $20 more to get on-site tools, handouts, etc. that make their learning experience more valuable. Especially when they are already paying $1000 to $3000 to just be there.

Twitter: chrisuschan


April 14th, 2009Chris says:

Watch HSMAI’s President and CEO, Bob Gilbert on video at the Affordable Meeting’s Mid America event.

Twitter: chrisuschan

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