How To: Launch a Conference
South by Southwest, TechCrunch Disrupt, TEDx—these conferences have grown from wonky industry events held in hotel expo halls to hip gatherings infiltrating the popular vernacular. Ever wonder how the organizers made it happen?
It’s not just that great talks captured on YouTube mushroomed across the web. The Convention Industry Council reports that the meetings and conferences sector generates $28 billion in revenue. That’s more than the auto industry.
Technology is facilitating and driving this recent trend. Adrian Segar is a veteran conference-design consultant and the author of Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love. He says that, more than ever, people who are glued to their devices and increasingly working remotely are hungry for face-to-face interaction and community. Technology also makes the launch phase of your conference simpler. “It has never been easier to create your own event and market it,” Segar says. “The flip side is that a lot of people are doing it. So you have to really stand out and do it right.”
Here are five rules of great conference creation:
1. Find a need to fill. Admission fees and sponsorships should make it a break-even endeavor but not create a giant profit. Focus on finding “something you’re passionate about, something no one else is doing where you can really serve your community,” Segar says.
2. Identify your goals. Conferences can benefit small-business owners by deepening their networks, elevating their profiles and industry authority, and giving their clients added value by offering them speaking engagements. “There are hundreds of meeting professionals who have been doing this for decades. A novice doing this just to make money is a false premise.” Don’t be afraid of starting small, as the majority of conferences globally are attended by fewer than 100 people each, Segar says.
3. Choose the right speakers, but don’t rely entirely on lectures from big names. You should set a budget for speakers. Still, don’t be afraid to pursue people out of your range. “Explain that your budget is set and then ask if they would be willing to work with you.” Get creative about adding value, including in your fee marketing of the expert’s book or promoting a cause she supports. “Mention compensation in the initial correspondence. Otherwise you will insult a lot of people,” Segar says.
When designing your event, use these expert voices strategically. The value of conferences has shifted toward connection and peer learning. “After all, 100 people in the room collectively know more than one person presenting,” Segar says.
Have three keynote speakers present for 20 minutes each and then lead smaller roundtable discussions. Also find ways for attendees to learn quickly about each other. For example, have everyone at roundtables introduce themselves briefly and answer the question: “What do you want out of this event?”
4. Pay attention to all the details of the event or hire someone to produce it for you. “People may or may not remember the keynote speaker, but they will remember if lunch wasn’t served on time,” Segar says. “It needs to be logistically smooth for people to want to return the next year.”
5. Keep it alive year-round. Create a private Facebook group for attendees. Maintain a blog or podcast, and update past attendees via email. “Events shouldn’t have to begin on the first day and end after the final dinner,” Segar says. “A successful event will leave people wanting to connect afterward. That becomes your core group of customers eager to come next time.”
Company: Mazur Group, a Los Angeles-based executive recruiting firm for the beauty industry
Conference: Beauty Biz Roundtable
Benefits: Recruiting, creating added value for clients in the form of speaking opportunities, elevated industry presences
I launched my company in 2007 and had a fantastic first year. Then the economy crashed. My phone was ringing off the hook with excellent candidates looking for a job, but we didn’t have much to offer. It was demoralizing for our network and paralyzing for us. We decided that we needed an event to build the business back up, and the Beauty Biz Roundtable was born.
The first conference had just 40 seats and sold out immediately. Since then it has grown to 100 attendees, but the format is the same: We get top-name speakers, such as the owners and executives of national salons, as well as out-of-the-ordinary speakers who really surprise our audience with amazing information, like a social media analytics expert.
My firm benefits in several ways. It positions us as the leaders in our space: At a recent event, one company’s CEO approached me and said, “We are looking for a new marketing vice president, and you clearly know everyone in the industry.” The company became a new client. These events also allow us to connect with new candidates all the time. They also allow me to add value to our existing clients. If I am working with a client, I can tap one of its senior executives to be a speaker. None of our competitors can do that.
We have never paid our speakers a dime, and we are very selective about bringing in sponsors. They really have to fit with our brand, elevate the event and stay focused on whom we want to attract.
Our last event, priced at $90 per ticket, had a 90-person waiting list and people flying from around the country to attend. Now we’re raising the fee to $125 and exploring ways to add our roundtable onto larger industry events. But we continue to stay focused on offering our attendees ways to network with top people in their fields, and we give our speakers the opportunity to connect with their peers, which is rare in the beauty industry.
Company: LeanBox, a Boston-based food service that companies can offer their employees
Conference: Perks Convention, a gathering of companies supplying workplace perks and potential buyers
Benefits: New business, positioning as a leader in the industry
In attending traditional networking events and conferences aimed at human resources professionals, I would often find myself explaining my service to one person, but someone else would be trying to get in on the conversation to learn about what other companies do in the corporate-perks space. I realized that my business is in a new sector where there is a lot of demand, but not a lot of awareness.
Every company’s leaders are struggling to attract and retain top talent. They read about the amazing perks offered by companies like Google and Apple, and assume that they are too small to offer the same, even though many perks are affordable or free to the business. Together with my partner, 20/20 Optometry, an onsite optometry service, we launched the first Perks Conference in August at the Microsoft Nerd Center in Cambridge, Mass.
We had 28 vendors, who paid $200 each to set up booths, and 500 attendees, who were admitted free. The conference itself made a very small profit, but through just that one event alone, we secured 15 new accounts. It really took on a life of its own.
We keep the conversation going with vendors and customers through Twitter, a LinkedIn group and an email list. While the first convention focused on Boston-based services, a second one for the entire New England region is planned for March, and we have quarterly meet-ups scheduled for vendors to network. In addition to growing my own business, I want to be the go-to expert on corporate perks, and this conference is helping me to do that.
Company: Silverback Social, a Chappaqua, N.Y.-based marketing agency
Conference: Westchester Digital Summit
Benefits: Positioning as a local leader in marketing, new clients, increased profits
When I launched my marketing agency in Westchester, N.Y.—just a hop from New York City—I was talking to very successful entrepreneurs and business owners in the community who didn’t even have Facebook pages or understand the value of a LinkedIn profile. It was hard to explain the value of my business. In the past, I had gotten new business by speaking at conferences, so I Googled “Westchester digital summit” and was surprised that there was nothing like it around.
I said to myself, OK, I guess I have to be the one to do this.
Five months out, I booked a conference center that can seat 3,000 people and started to reverse-engineer the event. I knew Gary Vaynerchuk, the social media giant. I couldn’t afford his usual speaking fee, but he agreed to lower it. If you want to do something big, you have to invite big people. By booking Gary, we’ve been able to attract speakers from LinkedIn, Facebook, The Huffington Post, IBM and General Electric. I don’t pay them anything; most of these speakers don’t even ask for an honorarium. I hosted a private dinner for them as a way of saying “thank you,” but 90 percent of them didn’t show up.
The first year we gave away a ton of tickets and had 500 attend. I lost money on the first event and broke even on the second. Today sponsorships cover my cost, and ticket sales are the gravy. But the real value is new business for my agency. Half of my new clients come through the conference. It is so much easier to send someone to the summit than to try and convince him why he needs to be on Twitter. You simply don’t get these kinds of names in Westchester. It’s a monopoly, frankly.
There is a huge need for this information in smaller communities. Small-business owners simply cannot afford to travel to New York or San Francisco for big conferences. I bought 67 URLs for digital summits in cities around the world. In September we produced the Baltimore Digital Summit and now have summits planned for Boston; Las Vegas; Nashville, Tenn.; Detroit; and Dubai in the next two years. The May 2015 Westchester summit has grown into a two-day event.
See how TED’s chief curator created a movement with the discussion-based conferences, becoming the foremost trafficker in big ideas.
Emma Johnson is a business journalist, gender-equality activist, and founder of the world's largest community of single moms, WealthySingleMommy.com. Emma and her best-selling book, The Kickass Single Mom, and her organization, Moms for Shared Parenting, have been featured in hundreds of national and international media outlets.
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