When it comes to planning the next edition of a congress or conference, selecting a destination is one of the first to-dos on the list, and it’s a step that has seen a significant change over the years. While the traditional list of criteria, such as general tourism appeal, location of airports and hotels, and even financial incentives remain, the trend is to look beyond the obvious factors. With so much competitiveness for members, sponsors and dollars, it is essential for associations to be more strategic than ever in their destination selection process. In many cases, their choice for host city can have a direct effect on the life cycle of the association as well as its bottom line. By keeping this reality in mind, if both associations and destinations change the conversation, positive results will follow.
For Alliance president Kitty Wong, the essential question that should guide an association in the selection of its next event destination is simple yet profound: “What can our association leave behind in this particular destination that will leave a mark and continue a legacy after the event, and how will this destination help us accomplish this?”
By adopting a more strategic approach in its destination selection process, associations can target and meet some important objectives, namely:
- Achieving strategic event outcomes, including boosting event attendance and membership, and attracting more sponsors
- Increasing ROI
- Delivering against the organization’s vision and mission
Nurturing & Expanding Membership
The key lifeline for any association is membership—keeping the existing member base engaged and aware of the value in their membership as well as continuously growing the base.
A stimulating conference or congress that boasts strong attendance numbers and provides ample opportunities for exchanges is one of the chief pillars of any association, so attracting attendees is critical. Many associations tend to favor destinations that are relatively accessible and attractive to ensure that the largest number of their existing members will attend, but they shouldn’t forget to factor in the potential attendance that pre-exists in a destination. This consists of current members in the city/country, certainly, but also the level of local support and general strength of the industry from which additional attendees can be drawn. Local support is a tremendous asset to a conference or congress:
- It’ll be easier to get the destination aligned with an association’s objectives. Local support can be the language and cultural liaison to give associations the insight they need to plan their events.
- There’s a guaranteed base number for attendance.
- An association can attract non-members to the event and potentially convert them into members.
Alliance member Monimita Sarkar from KW Conferences in India cites two recent examples that display the weight of importance that local support plays in destination selection:
The International Society of Orthopaedic Surgery and Traumatology (SICOT): When KW Conferences bid for the 2013 Orthopaedic World Congress, one of the strongest contenders was Singapore, which was also offering financial incentives to draw the event. Yet one of the congress’s key goals was to reach a wider audience within the fraternity, making India’s 28,000 registered ortho surgeons very appealing. The SICOT picked India and the congress was a great success.
The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists 2014 World Congress: When the RCOG looked at potential host countries for its 2014 World Congress, India wasn’t the obvious choice– the number of Indian doctors who were actual members of the RCOG was relatively small compared to the number of gynaecologists overall–over 30,000! This provided an ideal platform to introduce the RCOG to the local Indian fraternity of gynaecological surgeons. Results? By choosing India as its destination, the congress was a financial success with a significant surplus for the association. The initial attendance projection was 1,500 and in the end, the congress drew an astounding 4,000 delegates. Both sponsorship and the exhibit were excellent, and, more importantly, since Indian gynaecologists could attend the congress and see firsthand the value of the event, membership saw a boost.
“Both these cases demonstrate that choosing the next destination is a key criterion in the life cycle of an association,” says Ms. Sarkar. “It helps associations develop wider networks as well as healthy bottom lines.”
Sponsorship plays a vital role in the perceived value–and profit–of any international conference or congress. Association leaders, however, are also aware that the task of securing sponsors is only getting harder. Picking the right destination can make it easier, so it’s crucial that associations take into account which destinations offer the greatest chances of optimizing sponsorship.
When looking at its shortlist of destinations, associations should ask themselves the following:
- Does the country/city in consideration boast a strong sector-related industry presence? If so, there’s a greater likelihood of attracting a larger pool of sponsors.
- Does the country/city in consideration have flexible compliance regulations? Medical conferences are often restricted by rigid compliance requirements, which affect an overall sponsorship campaign. Giving preference to countries with favourable industry and corporate compliance regulations will encourage sponsors as opposed to frightening them away.
The congress is, for many associations, an important if not the primary source of revenue that will sustain and potentially increase internal resources. More importantly, for associations that are strategically oriented (and all associations should be), this revenue also opens the possibility of creating and carrying out special projects and activities that serve their members and their overall mission and raison d’etre.
For example, if an association wants to provide its members with an e-learning platform with digital resources, this new project would require a significant investment that may not be feasible given the association’s current financial situation. An influx of money would be required to fund the initiative. If the association leverages all the potential revenue sources from its congress, it will maximize its financial surplus and potentially find the seed money required to kickstart this project and ultimately distinguish itself from like-minded associations, provide added value to members who will want to stay, and extend its platform on the issues defining that association’s mission.
Alliance member André Vietor of Barcelὸ Congresos feels that the link between destination choice and an association’s financial status cannot be overemphasized: “If associations pick a destination with a relatively low cost structure, a strong local community of members or professionals in the field and strong potential for attracting sponsors, chances for a healthy ROI go way up.”
Delivering Against the Association’s Mission and Vision
Considering the potential positive outcomes from selecting the right destination, association leaders might ask themselves where to start. Alliance partners strongly encourage an organization to let its deeper purpose and mission guide the destination selection process.
Alliance Vice-President Gregg Talley of Talley Management Group cites the International Literacy Association as an excellent example of how an association has leveraged its congress destination to support and forward its mission.
Talley Management was engaged to assist the ILA with its site selection for several upcoming conferences. Traditionally, the ILA relied on standard criteria (rates/dates/space and amenities) in their destination selection process, but Talley Management suggested they conduct the site selection process with the ILA mission and goals for the convention at the forefront. Rates/dates/space and amenities remained important, but the ILA approached each contending destination with deeper questions, such as:
- What degree of local community/support does your destination offer?
- How can you help us carry out our mission?
- What community assets and connections can the destination leverage to benefit our goals?
“It all came down to, ‘How can your destination partner with us to further the aims of our organization, engage the community and help ensure a successful event while leaving a legacy in your city?’” says Talley.
This dialogue shift inspired a new and creative conversation. Three of the destinations came back with innovative and thoughtful proposals that contained some out-of-the-box ideas, including government involvement, tapping into a local foundation whose grants were geared to literacy, and collaborative year-long programs with monthly events that would culminate with the ILA convention. It entirely changed the tenor and the level of the discussions, and provided a powerfully different way to approach the site selection process.
The shift also gave the ILA access to another level of stakeholders. “It elevated who we were dealing with in the CVB and the city,” says Talley. “We went from sales manager to chief executive of the bureau instantly, and that then bridged us to community and political leaders involved in the bid. The change in level and content of the dialogue was almost astounding.”
When it came time for the conference itself, the results were impressive: an increase in attendance numbers, membership, sponsors and revenue. “Once an association truly connects with a community on that level the opportunities and benefits multiply exponentially,” says Talley.
At the end of the day, as association leaders, who would you rather partner with: a destination that wants your business as a transaction or one that is TRULY willing to work with you to achieve your outcomes and align with your mission?
Speaking of partners, professional congress organizers (PCOs) can be invaluable resources in strategic destination selection. Associations should therefore be sure that their PCOs have the mindset and expertise to guide their clients appropriately so that the latter can select the destination that has its interests at heart and can provide the benefits of selecting such a destination.
Moreover, when associations and their PCOs engage on a deeper level for the destination selection process, associations benefit from having a true strategic partner on their side rather than a service provider. PCOs have an obligation to understand their clients’ mission, and can subsequently align all its services to support that goal.
Thanks to its global network of carefully selected partners that pool their resources, strategies, experiences and data on past events, the Alliance and its partners have the unique advantage of providing the insight and support that associations need to select the right destination for their conference or congress. Alliance partners apply the following approach when assisting associations with destination selection:
- Researching the association’s history as well as objectives for the future.
- Analyzing the statistics and outcomes from previous editions of the congress/conference to assist the association in determining new goals and appropriate criteria for the destination selection process.
- Liaising and negotiating with contending destinations.
In today’s competitive climate, associations need to probe deeper into all aspects of their operations and events. Just as having a standard congress or conference program is no longer enough, selecting a destination based on its nice hotels and conference center is neglecting a vital step in the process that can, in the end, make all the difference to an event’s and association’s bottom line. A destination has always set the tone for an event, but associations must recognize that it does so in ways that go beyond memorable selfie moments against a gorgeous backdrop. Organizations must start viewing destinations as critical partners in helping an association spread its message and enhance its members’ experiences. By demanding more from their destinations, associations are demanding more of themselves and challenging the scope of their message and legacy. And that, in the end, is what it’s all about.