“Must-See EV”(ents) that Transform Your Attendees

If you’re like me (chances are you’re much cooler), you’ve attended, planned and/or led many conferences over the years.  Of those that have had the biggest positive impact on attendees, what was it that made them stand out?  For me, this blog post from Seth Godin clearly identifies key characteristics of such events (no surprise there…that’s why he’s one of the most influential bloggers in the world, while I’m a…financial analyst).

As you read his post, reflect on how well his descriptions apply to the event(s) you lead, particularly those held on a recurring basis.  Then ask yourself the following questions:

  • “If everything is on the line, if in any given moment, someone is going to say or do something that might just change everything.”   Will the freedom of interaction, personalities of faculty and breakout leaders, ideas offered, challenges discussed, surprises planned (or unplanned), and event venue produce the kinds of interactions and exchange of ideas that have to be experienced in person, in real-time, in the moment they occur?  To use an entertainment analogy, are your events “must-see TV” or just additional episodes drawing out the lifespan of a show which once had promise but now just primarily resides on your DVR?
  • “If there’s vulnerability and openness and connection…at most events, people are on high alert, clenched and protective.”   Again, how free is the flow and exchange of ideas, both in formal presentation settings as well as informal gatherings?  How generous are your presenters and faculty in terms of listening to your attendees’ ideas, respecting the vulnerability behind their questions, and responding with genuine connection rather than rote, impersonal responses which exterminate rather than germinate ideas?  Your attendees will notice, and your event will earn the reputation it deserves (whether good or bad).
  • “If there’s support…at most events, competitiveness born from insecurity trumps mutual support.”  What will it take for each attendee to “win”?  For all attendees to “win”?  For all attendees and presenters/speakers to “win”?
  • “If it’s part of a movement…if the attendees are part of a tribe that goes beyond demographics or professional affiliation.”  If you’re familiar with Godin’s ideas, you’re likely aware of the value he places on tribes.  Does your event promote, nourish, and maintain a tribal culture?  If so, it will increase the attendee return rate as well as draw new participants through passionate word of mouth advertising.

Of the events with which we’re involved, an example of one that fits Godin’s criteria quite well is the Blue Ridge Mountain Christian Writers Conference (check out the event here).  How well does your event meet Godin’s standard?   And, more importantly, what criteria do you use to judge whether a conference works or not?

3 Questions to Guide Evaluation and Planning

As Seth Godin recently wrote, the sentiment  “You Can’t Argue With Success…” is a faulty one.  Our summer camp ministry is going very well and impacting many lives for God’s glory, and yet lately we’ve felt burdened that perhaps God is calling us to increase our impact in various ways.  As a result, we recently spent several days in evaluation and strategic planning for our summer camps.  We were blessed with a beautiful, relaxed off-site meeting location, and an effective outside consultant who guided the process before, during, and after the actual retreat.

Perhaps you don’t have the need or resources for such an extensive process (we’re certainly in that boat most of the time), but you can still use the following three simple questions to spur improvements for your event:

What should we KEEP doing?  Think about what your event does well.  Does it satisfy a significant need for your tribe (another Godin term)?  Are you doing/providing something of value that isn’t readily available elsewhere?  Does the format of your event encourage the primary goals for the event?  In what ways are you “wowing” attendees?  By all means, recognize what you’re doing well, and keep it up!

What should we STOP doing?  Think about what isn’t working.  Or, just as important, think about what works well but isn’t perhaps of significant value for attendees.  In order to have the resources and energy to implement your answers to the next question, you’ll likely need to identify some activities you’ll need to stop.  Call it “sacrificing the good for the best”, or “emphasizing effectiveness over efficiency”, but identify aspects of your event that need to go.

What should we START doing?  Often this is the most fun question to consider.  What have you always wanted to do with your event?  What can help your event be more effective due to the changes in your industry or attendees over the years?  While input from your attendees can be useful in answering all three questions, it can be especially helpful when exploring options to initiate.

Whether your event is flying high, battling with inconsistency from year to year, or in a steady decline you wish to reverse, careful reflection on these three questions can provide invaluable information that will improve your event and provide greater value for your attendees.

When The Bottom Line Is The Bottom Line

As discussed in another post, an event’s financial outcome is only one factor to consider when assessing an event.  Today’s post takes a closer look at how to use Profit and Loss (P & L) statements to measure an event’s financial health.

  • Tie expenses to each specific occurrence of an event, even if the expenses occur in a different fiscal year than the event itself.  This allows you to assess each event occurrence on its own financial merits.
  • Code expenses to different categories to provide a better look at how you’re spending our money.  Category examples should fit your event and organization, but could include:
    • Office/Printing/Postage
    • Advertising and Marketing
    • Travel
    • Honorarium
    • Supplies
    • Miscellaneous (a catch-all category…don’t use it for too many items, but it’s usually helpful to have it for one-off expenses, etc.)
  • Separate program fee revenue from other revenue.  This allows you to determine how the event would fare on program fee revenue alone as well as reflect on what other supplemental revenue streams (ex: merchandise sales) you might want to consider.  When considering  supplemental revenue streams, remember:
    • Providing value for attendees is important.
    • Fostering a perception among your attendees that you are providing value is vital.  Beware of creating a “nickel-and-dime” culture.
    • Merchandise with event information (ex: t-shirts, bags) can provide a financial benefit of advertising as well as strengthen a connection between the participant and the event.  Perhaps these benefits even justify providing some items free of charge rather than selling them.
    • Include attendance figures.
    • P & Ls show each event’s margin (bottom line divided by revenue).
    • Keep historical data so you can view an event’s financial outcome in the larger context of how it’s done in other years and explore reasons for significant differences.

Update the P & L monthly, to track an event’s financial health both before and after it occurs.  Also take a more in-depth look in an annual “fully allocated” P & L in which you include the program revenues and expenses as well as estimates of labor costs within your office (based on how much time each individual spent on that event).  This provides a more detailed analysis of an event’s financial impact to your company and your stewardship of the resources required to plan and hold it.

So, how do you measure an event’s financial health?  What ideas can you share?

Go With The Flow

When budgeting an event, most of us think about revenues, expenses, and attendance.  We take it to a another level when we consider fixed expenses versus variable expenses, and plan how we might control the latter if attendance falls short of what we expect.  For the typical meeting planner, the financial planning process goes no deeper.  As a result, anxiety can increase significantly in the weeks leading up to the event as expenses begin to hit before the actual event even takes place.  If only such meeting planners would “go with the flow.”

What flow?  Cash flow.  In simple terms, planning cash flow is the “when” consideration in creating a budget.  A planner should consider not only what expenses will hit, and what the anticipated revenues will be, she should also reflect on when the expenses will hit and when she’ll have the cash necessary to pay for them.

Expenses hitting prior to an event often include:

  • Advertising and Marketing
  • Deposits/Appearance Fees: For speakers, music groups, and other performers
  • Deposits Owed to the Meeting Site/Facility: For meeting space, caterings, audiovisual rentals, and other items.  (NOTE: Some facilities will offer direct billing subject to the payer passing a credit check.  An event planner should discuss with potential host facilities early in the planning process.)
  • Travel Arrangements: For you as well as those who are part of the platform/program (if required by your contract with them).
  • Giveaway Items: Such as t-shirts, bags, binders, and flash drives.  These items not only provide a keepsake for attendees, they can also provide advertising benefits for future events.
  • Miscellaneous Expenses: Supplies, staging materials, decorations, programs, name tags, door signs for meeting rooms (What will the meeting facility provide, and what is your responsibility?).

How can an event planner have sufficient funds on hand to pay invoices as they arrive?  Here are some possible solutions:

  • Partner with an organization that agrees to provide the funds needed up front in exchange for a share of the revenues or profits when the event occurs.
  • Recruit companies to serve as sponsors for the event, and collect the sponsor fees early enough to use the funds to pay for expenses that hit prior to the event.  Many events offer various sponsorship levels to widen the circle of potential sponsors (and increase the amount of funds that can be raised).  Focus on companies that will benefit from being visible to attendees at the event.
  • Determine what deposit amount a registrant must pay when signing up for the event.  Not only does requiring a deposit encourage fewer cancellations because a registrant has “some skin in the game”, it will also provide funds for you to use as needed prior to the event.  In addition to deciding the amount of the deposit, you should also carefully think about your cancellation policy, including deadlines for cancelling and what portion of the deposit is refunded at those deadlines.
  • Encourage early registrations.  Offering a discount off the event fee might make financial sense if it incentivizes people to sign up and pay deposits earlier, thereby providing you with cash you can use as event expenses begin to occur.

Don’t get carried away by the current of expenses that can occur prior to an event…instead, think about cash flow during your planning process, and “go with the flow”!

Don’t “Take It to the Limit”, Maintain Margin!

Like the margins in a book provide space between the words and the page limits, maintaining margin as you plan and execute an event will provide a buffer to absorb challenges and issues prior to reaching the limits of your event and you!  Consider the following areas in which having margin can make a tremendous difference in the success of your event:

  • Time (Attendees’): Before finalizing the schedule for your event (onsite registration, large sessions, breakout meetings, meal-times, breaks, etc.), review it to ensure your schedule includes some margin.  What if a speaker runs over his allotted time?  What if a catered meal takes longer than expected?  What if there are audiovisual difficulties?  You want to offer your attendees the best experience possible, but keep in mind this includes providing opportunities to network with other attendees, take breaks to refresh their minds and reflect on what they’ve experienced, and not feel rushed throughout the event.
  • Time (Yours): What about your schedule during the event?  Even when things run smoothly it’s likely you’ll be quite busy during the event as you meet with attendees, communicate with the host staff, take care of your speakers, and handle the myriad of scenarios which come along with serving as an event planner.  Consider holding blocks of time on your schedule when you schedule nothing.  Doing so will provide sufficient time to take care of unexpected issues that arise as well as allowing you valuable moments to re-charge your batteries so you can lead your event more effectively.
  • Emotional: Prior to traveling to Africa to pick up the two children we adopted in 2010, my wife and I spent almost two months in a hospital several states away from our home as one of our other children dealt with some health issues.  Suffice to say, by the time we left for Africa we were spent, both emotionally and physically.  While not always possible, taking time to get away and recharge before an event occurs can help an event planner tremendously.
  • Physical: Rest well and eat well, both before and during the event.  Any event planner knows this isn’t always easy, but doing so will provide you with the physical margin you need to be at your best.
  • Financial: Margin is one financial measure of an event’s success.  In simple terms, it’s found by dividing an event’s profit by its revenue.   For example, an event with $10,000 in revenue and $3,500 in profit has a margin of 35%.  Careful budget planning can help ensure you’ll have the funds needed to cover planned expenses as well as those that pop up unexpectedly.  Planning your cash flow will help ensure you have the funds when you need them.
  • Spiritual: As in so many other ways, Jesus Himself served as a model for us in the area of margin by living in such a way that He always had time for what mattered most, the divine appointments with people that came His way each day.  Unfortunately, these unexpected meetings can often seem more like annoyances to a meeting planner low on margin.

If the idea of having margin appeals to you, consider the following resources which have been a great benefit to me in this area:

  • Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives by Richard A. Swenson, M.D.: This book is one of the most helpful I’ve ever read (on any topic).
  • Take It to the Limit by Andy Stanley: This six-part sermon series can be found online by searching for North Point Community Church.

Both of these resources will challenge you to live with margin and provide practical ways to help you do so.  Both you and those attending your event will benefit!

For What It's Worth…Was It Worth It?

Your event is over and you’ve (mostly) recuperated from the physical and mental demands of planning and holding your event.  Was it worth it?

Here are three key factors to consider when answering this question:

  • Results: Was the event’s purpose (which is likely aligned with the organization’s purpose) achieved?  For a Christian event, were the spiritual purposes of the event accomplished?
  • Feedback from attendees:  Consider both anecdotal and more formal responses, like surveys, that you requested.
  • Financial Outcome: In this area, the bottom line is, well, the bottom line.

Whereas secular events don’t hesitate to include all of the above factors when assessing an event’s worth, sometimes Christians are hesitant to consider the financial outcome because it doesn’t seem as spiritually-focused as the others.

In our office, we always consider the financial outcome along with the first two factors once an event concludes.  We do this not only because we are part of a self-sustaining ministry that must fund itself through business principles, but also because the Biblical principle of stewardship encourages us to use our funds, time, and talents in a wise manner.  “It was worth it all if only one life was changed” has merit, but so does considering how we might have an even greater kingdom impact with the resources consumed by that event if we apply them differently in the future.

We don’t expect every event to be financially profitable every year, as potential for growth and future impact are always considered.  And, the profitability of an event does not automatically trump other considerations when determining an event’s worth, as there are numerous events we could plan that would be financially beneficial but not align with our purpose.  An event that falls within the intersection where attendees’ goals are met, our purposes are accomplished, and we exhibit wise stewardship has the potential to greatly impact lives both now and in the future.