Association events rank among some of the most challenging to organise, not least because the person responsible for making one happen more often than not has another full-time day job in the organisation with which to fill their days.
Starting out is no mean feat, and the process can be long and subject to change. Unlike the short-term nature of the corporate market, associations tend to book their events well in advance - usually a two-year lead-in time for a national event and as many as six years for international gatherings.
During that build-up, there are many threads to tie together: funding, venue sourcing, speaker and exhibition liaison, event content and format, marketing, the social programme, tour management and on-site delegate management. Most of these tasks are dispatched to a dedicated professional at the venue, which effectively becomes the backroom of the operation, but they still rate as chief considerations for any client.
The initial steps
The first task is for individual members or a committee to analyse various destinations' technical and emotive attributes and source a venue that is supported by the appropriate mix of hotel stock, destination hospitality and opportunities for a welcoming social programme. "It is a very rational, considered process. Associations look at locations and clinically evaluate their pros and cons," says Vanessa Cotton, managing director of the conferences and events division at Excel.
Maugie Lyons, head of sales and marketing at the Royal Horticultural Halls and Conference Centre, feels exhibition centres have such clear space that they can create the areas needed, so it comes down to location.
"The event has to be held in a key catchment area," she says.
The chosen venue then has to fit the event's requirements, which may consist of plenary and parallel sessions, dividing down further into workshops or expert groups, plus catering, welcome reception, poster boards and possibly an on-site social function.
The exhibitions sector is growing as associations realise there is an opportunity to view an event with a more commercial mindset. This November, the Confederation of British Industry's two-day conference for 1,000 delegates will even bring the conference content to the exhibition floor by setting up the main stage in the midst of the stands at Islington's Business Design Centre.
An event has the potential to grow and evolve over the years that it is in planning, and the venue needs to be able to adapt to these changing needs. "Look at the flexibility of the space," Cotton advises, "and the flexibility of the contract, whether the venue locks you into a contract you then can't shift from. It is hard to predict visitor numbers and the configuration of the event so you need flexibility in the venue's attitude."
Graham Shearsmith, exhibition manager of machinery show MACH, held every two years at the NEC, says: "The NEC has become a lot more customer-focused and finds out exactly what the visitors need." One joint initiative between the venue and the organiser, he explains, has been to work on promoting the show to local companies within a 40 mile radius through direct marketing and focused targeting.
Standalone exhibitions have their own considerations. The Independent Print Industries Association (IPIA) holds The Print for Business exhibition at The International Centre Telford. The event attracts 70 exhibitors and up to 1,000 visitors and is punctuated with a gala dinner for 200 people in the banqueting suite. Rebecca Clarke, who works in the venue's marketing department, advises the use of one hall only, rather than splitting the stands between two or more spaces. "Often one hall can be busy, the other not. Although that can change over the lifetime of the exhibition, it creates an imbalance," she notes.
Offering incentives to draw in exhibitors and visitors is a must, she points out. While some opt for free gifts, IPIA adds value through free seminars and talks by motivational and marketing speakers, and it also swallows the show visitors' car parking charges.
MACH, organised by the Manufacturing Technologies Association, is also taking more of a commercial approach to the 2006 event through new initiatives.
One is MACH Plus, whereby exhibitors related to the manufacturing industry can take part in the show to broaden it out. Another is MACH Consult - the introduction of technical and advisory seminars and services. MACH has also forged close links with related shows such as Subcon and Weldex that will co-locate alongside MACH. The Electrex and Airtech shows will also join the mix for the first time (see case study, p13).
The manner in which an association event is funded is also a challenge, and budgets need to be considered. This entails looking at the appropriate fee structure, balancing a sophisticated venue and its associated costs with keeping registration fees for delegate programmes at a reasonable rate, and putting together a strategy to help generate income such as sponsorship.
Ultimately, the event has to gel in every way. As Marketing Birmingham commercial director Ian Taylor explains: "It is a combination of destination and the profile of venue, accessibility and the opportunity for an attractive social programme. You need a very joined-up approach, with a destination that is capable of the business, hungry for it, and will go that extra mile to get it."