I find the psychology of corporate seminar style events interesting. This type of ‘event’ is a key weapon in many a business developer’s arsenal. Whatever spin you put on it most seminar events are a strategic sales tool.
Although I am no expert by any stretch of the imagination I have found myself running a number of events over the years. As jack of all trades for the New Zealand office of RICS (Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors) planning events was about 30% of my time – internationally RICS runs hundreds of events every year. Add to that I have run events for property development, hotel marketing and Internet software. I also have received a 2nd hand education from my wife. She spent 5 years as a fulltime event manager initially for the Arizona Association of Realtors and later for the Arizona Department of Health.
Even for the most basic event there is a lot of preparation and organisation required. However, rather than discuss the logistics in planning and running an event, I will explore some of the strategy, and tactical psychology involved.
Essentially, a corporate seminar style event is used to sell something. What is being sold is sometimes a little harder to pin down. Most events actually have multiple layers of sales, some obvious and some very subtle, some with the selling occurring not only at the event but also before and after.
In New Zealand I ran events for RICS focussed on one key strategic driver – membership growth. Membership growth in emerging markets like New Zealand was consistent with RICS being a globally recognised professional qualification and added value to existing members.
Events were my number one marketing tool 100% focussed on membership growth. I used events to sell memberships.
Membership growth involved retaining existing members and gaining new local members. In New Zealand, RICS for the most part was not a pre-requisite qualification to earn your keep (unlike the UK for example). My primary selling approach to retention and recruitment was that RICS membership can give you a commercial advantage.
Therefore, while the strategic objective for holding events was to achieve more members, the tactical actions in planning an event became focussed on commercial advantage.
The tactical formula I learned to apply includes a number of interrelated tools – what I call the seven secrets of successful events:
1. Get the right people to the event
Firstly you want a high number of attendees to start off with – it is a lot easier to focus on marketing when your fixed costs are covered. However, you can’t simply set up any old event and expect people to turn up, or worse rely on the fact that attending so many events a year is compulsory for membership. For some soft networking and a few drinks is a sufficient reason to turn up, but there are plenty of networking opportunities with the crowded event calendar in most industries today.
You need to give people a valuable reason to attend.
I quickly found out that if the right people were coming to the event that was one reason for many others to attend and I publicised the fact accordingly. Many RICS members and prospects, are consultants – to them the right people were potential clients. Basically the more property owners, developers and government authorities at the event, the more this event was a potential commercial advantage (via networking) for many RICS members. I applied a person by person approach and tailored marketing around the ‘you need to know this’ content of speaker’s presentations to get as many ‘clients’ as possible to our events.
2. Celebrate success
In New Zealand I made a point of giving new members the option of receiving their membership certificate, framed and personally presented by RICS Chairman at an event. For the prestigious Fellowship award, we tried to make attendance compulsory as these high standing achievers were certainly an attraction for other high achievers to attend. The commercial advantage for those receiving their certificate live is they receive recognition and exposure to event attendees. When fellowships were awarded, there were simply more top level contacts at the event to network with.
3. Provide real value to attendees
RICS had a real advantage in that many speakers are international RICS visitors with impressive experience and polished at public speaking. There were even a few that we bailed up while they were in holiday in New Zealand to give a presentation – one poor chap the same day as he and his family had arrived from the 24hr London to Auckland trip.
We would often supplement these international draw-card speakers with RICS members in NZ who were well renowned experts in their fields.
We actively pre-screened presentations and looked for the most topical and interesting subjects for the seminar events to provide commercial value for money.
4. Provide real value to sponsors
I did not view sponsors as a revenue source – although it did help!
For the first few events I was involved in, we stopped hiring expensive venues and approached ‘sponsors’ to provide their premises free of charge. As the brand grew in New Zealand we would get sponsors to provide a venue plus catering and later on we secured fee paying sponsors – eventually they started to approach us.
Sponsors were integral in so many aspects of the event promotion and helping to provide commercial advantage.
Firstly, our association with the sponsor brand was important, we did not take on any sponsor that would risk degrading the RICS brand.
Secondly, we promoted the sponsor at every opportunity. We valued their involvement and understood it for what it was – sponsoring a RICS event was a way for them to gain a commercial advantage. In the early days, we had to convince sponsors the commercial advantage was to associate themselves with a global brand, best practice and high ethical expectations RICS places on members. Later, the higher number of attendees and market exposure we generated helped sell more of a direct commercial advantage to sponsors.
Thirdly, having a good sponsor association had an attendance flow-on effect, with high quality sponsors helping to attract more attendees.
Fourthly, we treated sponsorship as a way to keep costs down to paying attendees. This further enhanced value for money for existing members and prospects.
5. Provide real value to speakers
Except for one sports celebrity during the rugby world cup, as a not-for-profit we generally did not have funds or sponsorship to pay speakers fees. However, we played on the psychology that while attendees get value from listening and learning from the speaker’s experience, the speaker gets market exposure to demonstrate their expertise.
In the property industry site visit events are an easy sell as most want to see how the latest project has turned out and learn from those involved in its development. The main ‘speaker’ in this case is the building itself and the development team behind it. I made sure when we promoted a site visit we did our part to sell a commercial advantage of the new development. Even the larger number of those who read the event promotional material but could not attend would have exposure to the project.
Another way to add value to speakers was to get media coverage of our events and those involved. We always made sure media was invited to our events and canvassed them to attend. Not always but often enough the event was mentioned in print.
6. Promote the brand, unashamedly
A little bit of my experience in America rubbing off; with a captive audience I made sure everyone heard the succinct but persuasive RICS global growth, educational and commercial advantage story. This was my one direct sales pitch of the event – brief and toned down for the Kiwi audience. I felt it was important to reiterate the value of membership as much to existing members as to potential newcomers.
This was also supplemented by collateral materials at the event. I mainly used examples of RICS publications and educational resources, rather than in your face ‘sales’ materials. The quality of these publications did more to sell the high standard of the qualification than me talking about it.
7. Don’t forget the before and after
Many more than whom attend look at the promotional material in the lead up to the event. We used the pre-event promotional material to sell not only the seminar but also the RICS brand and its competitive advantage – albeit subtly.
In event promotions I also highlighted those companies that had ‘sent’ attendees in previous events to solicit new attendees from new companies – i.e. a little bit of keep up with Jones psychology as well as if this company is a potential client of yours, they will be at our next event and so should you!
Post event was a good opportunity to canvas new sponsor prospects on the basis that either:
a) their competitors had sponsored us at the last event and therefore to maintain their competitive advantage they should considering sponsoring us on our next event!
b) they could now associate themselves with blue chip sponsors we currently had signed up – i.e. for example a small building surveying firm with sponsorship alongside a major bank or industry leading legal firm.
In the end some sponsorships became substantial and we were in a fortunate position where we had to make sure new sponsorship did not cannibalise existing relationships.
Within these seven secrets there is a lot of selling occurring – some obvious, some not so much:
– Event and seminar promoter is selling their brand
– Attendees are selling themselves (and indirectly or directly their services) to other attendees
– Speakers are selling their ‘expert’ status to attendees
– New members (receiving their membership certificates) get exposure
– Buildings and those involved in their construction are advertised
– Sponsorships are sold
– Sponsors sell their brand (and indirectly or directly their products and services) to attendees
– Prior sponsors and prospect client companies are promoted to competitively sell new sponsorships and increase event attendance.
So I have discussed the seven secrets in the context of seminar and site visit events for a not-for-profit professional membership organisation. However, many attributes of these secrets can be applied to whatever the event is ‘selling’.
For example, having the Mayor speak at an onsite property development launch (our objective was to sell condos and tactically have council onside) used the tools:
– 1. Get the right people to the event – Mayors seem to attract an entourage, and
– 5. Provide real value to the speakers – In our case a mention in the morning TV news and plenty of photo ops to promote inner city gentrification.
In my wife’s case she was ‘selling’ the latest improvements in vaccinations and disease prevention to health professionals throughout the State with the objective of reducing the State health budget. Her tools included:
– 3. Provide real value to attendees – Influential nationally regarded speakers (and potential medical networking and academic contacts) from the ‘Centre for Disease Control’ in Atlanta (think zombie movies), and
– 4. Provide real value to sponsors – A highly competitive but sensitive arrangement involving drug mega companies sponsoring state sanctioned events, gathering brand recognition without actively promoting their products