Expand Your Product Line: Clone Your Classic Conference into Punchy Regionals

Written by Len Murphy on March 8, 2018

For many associations, our traditional national conferences are like classic BMWs - four doors, a black or silver exterior, and time-honored elegance that appeals to a top-end market. However, our entire audience might not be shopping for the BMW of conferences. Maybe they want something more hip and nimble, affordable but providing solid quality. They might enjoy the Mini Cooper of conferences, where the event offers the same brand excellence but on a scale that fits modern schedules and budgets.

Adding regionals events is relatively easy, and offering added educational opportunities serves members, boosts participation, expands reach, pleases exhibitors, opens untapped opportunities, and generates new revenue, all without cannibalizing your national event and revenue.

Our association holds a traditional national educational conference. The format dates back to 1947 and features a Sunday through Wednesday schedule, an opening reception, the general session, a plethora of breakout sessions, an expo, plus ancillary events. Registration hovers at 2000 plus 1300 exhibitors for roughly 3500 participants. That meeting generates healthy revenue over expenses.

Just over a decade ago, the association added three regional meetings (Eastern, Western, and Central). Rather than the tried-and-true four-day format, planners designed the regionals to run for two days and include a smaller expo plus sponsorship opportunities. From inception, attendance ran from 350 to 800, depending on the location. In the beginning, planners conservatively budgeted breakeven events because the main goal was to test the waters. The association now sees solid revenue in excess of expenses for those conferences.

If your association runs a national meeting, you already have systems in place to add regional conferences. All the tools and skills needed from hotel and expo contracting, curriculum design, CE accreditation, speaker management, exhibitor and sponsor support, registration systems, conference appa, and marketing methods are already in place.

The curriculum and content of the regional breakout classes can feed off the national event or differ to match the audience. In our model, the education department designs a specific curriculum for the year to be used at each of the regional events. Rather than running a general call for presentations like we do for the national conference, planners call for presentations on the subjects chosen by the education department. This simplifies the process, including speaker selection, handout review, and continuing education applications. While the curriculum repeats at each regional event, course speakers place emphasis on regional matters like local law.

Sometimes annual association conferences get locked into their Goldilocks cities and venues. For us, that tends to be Anaheim, Orlando, San Antonio, Nashville, and Boston. However, by adding smaller regional events, new Goldilocks zones open up in other cities including suburban areas, which for us meant great venues in Columbus, Ohio; Sacramento, California; and Hartford, Connecticut, to name a few . Planners used data to identify drivable locations to boost attendance. Room rates and other factors also influence selection.

Upon adding regional events, some might worry about drop-off in attendance for the national event. However, we experienced no drop in national meeting participation. The association expanded its reach and increased the total number of members and industry professionals it served with live meetings. Many factors contribute to growing participation including brand loyalty, convenient locations, and shorter formats. We learned that many employers can only spare a certain number of employees at any one time to attend the national conference. By adding regional events, employers can send more staff for live training because they can spread attendance around.

Many professionals are honored to speak at an industry event, but space is limited. By adding regional events, an association creates more opportunities for professionals to share their knowledge. You can try out new speakers and grow talent to take to the national event.

If an association has a solid reputation with exhibitors and sponsors, it’s easy to ask for their support with new regional events. Exhibitors report that they enjoy the smaller settings where they reach a new local audience at less cost with a smaller staff footprint. The association can even attract new regional sponsors.

Expanding an association’s product line by adding modernized regional conferences provides a fantastic avenue for serving the industry and generating non-dues revenue that can be used to advance the association’s goals. If you’ve ever considered expanding upon your traditional conference with regional events, go for it.