Are Conferences and Events Worth the Freight?

Market Insight
Charles Sosnik

As the commander in chief of your business, you are constantly weighing decisions at the margin. Expenses like marketing, sales staff, business travel and trade show costs are always in question. Even the most carefully crafted budgets are subject to obliteration and redux quarterly if not hourly.

Is there a magic formula? No. Unfortunately, these are tough calls and you have to go with your gut as often as going with common wisdom. Your experience, the counsel of your inner circle and good information are your most important assets.

All that said, there are some relatively straightforward ways to look at these questions.

For conferences and events, the number one question to ask is, “Why?” What is the purpose of attending? To attend a major conference like ISTE, ASCD, FETC, BETT or TCEA, you need to weigh the hard cash costs plus the opportunity costs against the desired annual return. Ask yourself not only what it will cost to attend, but what it will cost not to attend.

The hard cash costs are easy to figure – your booth rental, staff travel and lodging, etc. Opportunity costs include how much per day you normally make from each employee while they are at the office working. Opportunity costs also include how much it costs you to have your staff chasing down non-productive leads collected from a mega-show.

Now weigh the returns. If you have attended the conference in previous years, you should know exactly how much business has come directly from the show. You should also try to estimate how much business has come indirectly – that one is much tougher. What is the value of brand marketing at a conference that draws 10,000 or 20,000 attendees? If you are a smaller company in survival mode, you won’t place as much value on this. But don’t discount it. Provided you are around next year and the year after, your later success will be built from the relationships and notoriety you established at these events.

If you want to make the best out of the large conferences, think small. It isn’t about collecting 5000 leads from people walking through the expo between speakers; it’s about making real connections with a handful of people who will be long-term customers and making real connections with individuals who are important in their industry.

One good customer will offset the cost of almost any conference.

Sometimes the biggest scores come from smaller events where you get one-on-one time with superintendents, curriculum directors, principals and tech directors. It sounds counterintuitive, but you are more likely to make real connections at smaller, intimate events – especially ones where it is you or a top lieutenant attending. A superintendent is much more likely to bond with you than a tradeshow representative or a member of your sales team.

There are literally hundreds of conferences and events each year to choose from. Consider the purpose of the event and the make-up of the attendees. Every organization in education has some kind of event. Many have multiple events. Look for events whose purpose mirrors your own – and whose attendees would be valuable for you to know. Does the organization have a real mission that creates opportunities for its attendees and ultimately learners, or does the organization hold events to add revenue to its bottom line?

When you explore each of these questions, the answer will almost always reveal itself.

Good hunting!


About the Author

Charles Sosnik is an education journalist and editor, and serves as Editor in Chief at the Learning Counsel.


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