In short:

  • Want to develop customer intimacy? Nothing beats face-to-face meetings at a venue branded with your messaging
  • Don’t go it alone: Ecosystem partners will increase attendee numbers, offset costs and provide compelling speakers
  • Selecting the right location is a balancing act. Here are factors to weigh — and how to avoid a $50,000 hotel ‘gotcha’

Connecting with the four generations now in the workplace is a challenge. To maintain customer intimacy, companies need to juggle social, phone, text and email outreach, a challenge in the age of GDPR and CCPA. But one business communication channel appeals to everyone from Gen Z to boomers: A live corporate event, where you host customers and partners in an exciting city, spotlight executives, launch new products, generate buzz and share success stories.

CMOs at growing businesses look at mega corporate events like Salesforce DreamForce, Oracle OpenWorld and Apple WWDC and can’t help but envy the good vibes and brand visibility that result when tens or even hundreds of thousands of loyalists gather to drink your special Kool-Aid blend.

They want in, and CFOs should welcome that conversation.

Done right, corporate events can pay for themselves, or at least generate enough revenue to greatly offset costs. Those in the business know that big shows regularly post gross margins ranging from 50% to 90%, depending on the nature of the product and value of the audience.

The trappings of professionally produced corporate events — a big-name speaker, swanky location and VIP treatment for your best customers — might be surprisingly affordable.

The gotcha is that multi-day conferences take a ton of planning, beginning at least a year in advance. For companies without on-staff event professionals, lining up speakers, selecting venues and ordering food and A/V can be a distraction. Even if you employ an outside planner, there are plenty of details that require your team’s attention.

Don’t go into it half-hearted. The term “bridezilla” illustrates the level of passion required to make an event effectively reflect your company. As CFO, your job is ensuring that costs are managed, timelines are observed, ROI metrics are defined and focus on other projects is maintained.

That starts with a reality check.

The Go/No Go Calculation

Not all companies are good candidates for corporate events. If you make a commoditized or very simple product or service, say shoelaces or Ethernet cards, do you have enough content for two days — or even an afternoon if you opt for a roadshow? International events are complex — are your company execs and customers based in North America? Do you have an idea how you’ll measure success?

If not, opt to sponsor an ecosystem partner’s event, or a buy a booth at a relevant third-party conference.

In most cases, an independent event will sell space to any supplier that plays in its market. It’s a relatively turnkey experience — pay the fee, and expect to spend about two to four times that fee on your booth or backdrop, electricity, carpeting and labor, plus your travel and staffing.

The granddaddy of indie shows is CES, formerly the Consumer Electronics Show. Held every January in Las Vegas, CES 2019 drew 175,000 visitors. More than 4,500 companies exhibited, showing everything from healthcare and consumer electronics to smart cars, sleep tech and 3D printers. Smaller, more specialized independent conferences include women’s fashion event Coterie and ADM for advanced design and manufacturing firms.

In contrast, ecosystem shows limit space to companies that sell a product or service related to or integrated with the headliner’s offering. Salesforce’s Dreamforce, currently one of the largest vendor gatherings, drew 170,000 attendees in 2019. Cosponsors are looking to sell consulting services, integrated add-on products, vertical industry specialization and lots more, all tied to Salesforce’s core offerings. Partners who make up an ecosystem pay to be at the host’s event.

Infographic: Event Launch

If you have a universe of partners with shared customers, hosting a conference can drive down your costs while making the event bigger and more central to a joint client’s success.

The math also works better if 20% of your customers make up 80% or so of your revenue. Apple, for example, doesn’t hold events for end customers who spend between $500 and $5,000 per year. Instead, it holds developer conferences for the 10,000 partners that materially matter to its success and need a detailed understanding of product plans.

A rule of thumb: If a customer annually spends 100 times what it costs to attend your event, that customer will show up, including jumping on a plane. If her spend is 300 times or more, or if she influences others to spend 500 times or more, consider paying her way as a VIP attendee.

Those numbers may vary based on the size of your company and conference, but when customers start dropping near seven figures a year, showing a little love back is a good idea. Two nights at a nice hotel, preferred seating at keynotes and access to executives, say at a dinner and in a private box at a ballgame, is a good start. Your biggest customers already love your products, and after the VIP treatment, they’ll know you love and appreciate them back.

Ready to start building a winning event strategy?

Year One: When, Where, How Many

Getting your event right out of the gate is important, but you’ll be surprised at how forgiving customers will be if you don’t wow them at every turn. Focus on the basics: unveiling your product roadmap, putting top executives and go-to-market partners on stage and showcasing success stories. Feed attendees well, and offer a drink or two in the afternoon during unstructured networking time. If you get all that right the first time out, you’re on track.

So, when should that first year be?

Following the 80/20 rule again, project when you’ll have 1,000 steady, paying customers. That’s likely the right year to gather your 200 best clients for a day or two of sharing and learning. Why 200? Simply, it’s about right to fill a good-size hotel conference room and make your brand feel big.

Quote Networking

Consideration: Attendee Numbers & Timing

To have 200 people in the room, you’ll need 250 to 275 acceptances; plans change, and customers who intended to show get caught up in meetings or family crises. Expect attrition, even if people have paid to attend.

In addition to 200 guests, you’ll have 30 to 50 staffers, including marketing, sales, product and executive teams, in attendance. If you’ve got equity backers, they’ll want to be in the room. Implementation partners and those in your evolving ecosystem will want to join too.

Two hundred can quickly become 300. It’s not uncommon for the ratio of staff and sponsors to roughly equal the number of attendees. That’s often excessive and needlessly expensive, but the “right” number depends on your business. Your company is the lead singer, staffers are the band and roadies. Nothing good happens without them.

Avoid civil and religious holidays, including school breaks, and be mindful of asking people to travel on Sunday for a keynote that begins early on a Monday. Look at timing of competitive events. Poor scheduling can depress your attendee count significantly.

Use the event to acquire new customers via ecosystem partners — companies whose products combine with yours to make a complete solution and your indirect distribution channel. They’ll likely pay to be part of your show, but just as important, they can deliver attendees. Include them from the get-go.

Leverage competitive FOMO. In a former job working on events in the telecom space, we struggled to get AT&T as a sponsor. But once we did, Comcast, Spectrum, Sprint and Verizon quickly became interested. With them, again, came new audience. More ecosystem partners, more reach and incentive for people to show up.

As your event gets bigger, you can offer premium sponsorships with higher price tags. But unlike in the independent conference business, the size of your cosponsor’s wallet is secondary to its alignment with your product and ability to attract quality attendees.

Worried about getting top customers, even with comps? People love awards. Think up five to 10 categories for innovative use of your product or service, notify finalists that they’ll have a special pin or other identifier on their badges, and hand out statues over drinks or dinner. Post pictures on your site to drive interest in winning next year.

Consideration: Location & Venue

Many emerging businesses have geographically contained customer bases, so it’s easy to decide where to hold an event. If your customers are clustered in a different city or state than staff, often the case with incubated startups, go to your customers.

For those with clients across North America, deciding on a location means balancing four big considerations: length of the conference, cost to get to and stay in the city, importance of the “wow factor” and ease of access.

Quote Thank you

If most guests need to fly in and your show is one or two days, proximity to a major airport is critical. California’s wine country is a great locale, but airports are a few hours away in San Francisco and Oakland. Participants must show up early to grab cars and deal with the commute. That’s asking a lot unless you’ve got a three- to four-day event in mind.

Consider rooms and entertainment costs. Top-tier cities offer convenient airports, but rooms in Boston or Chicago can easily top $300 a night. If you expect to attract locals, talk to someone who lives there. A kickoff party in downtown New York at 5 p.m. when your customers are in midtown is a bad idea. Think about parking, proximity to a train station and seasonal weather.

Once you select a city, it’s time to weigh venue options.

While they may not be memorable, downtown hotels and resorts have a few things going for them.

First, events like yours are what these facilities do. They’re turnkey, and therefore easier for a smaller team to manage. They have the A/V you need as well as food, parking and meeting rooms large and small. Everyone stays within the venue. That’s beneficial to the experience. For conferences up to about 800 total participants, hotels are a good option.

Good, but not perfect: Expect to pay $300 for a pot of coffee and $5 for a can of soda to reflect the cost of service. Hotel A/V is usually just adequate. Spaces are generic, though adding LED uplighting in your brand colors and cool backdrops will personalize a basic ballroom.

Whether in a hotel or not, you need more than just a large room for keynotes and partner tables. Think space for one-on-one customer meetings and breakouts and roundtables run by you or your partners. Most hotels have smaller meeting rooms that you can add for reasonable fees. You may then be able to rent those rooms back to partners to recoup some costs.

A potential gotcha is that hotels are in the business of housing people overnight. Beware a surprisingly attractive rate on a ballroom and a few meeting rooms that comes with a requirement to fill about 80% of a block of sleeping rooms.

If attendees take the rooms, you’re golden. If they don’t, you pay full price.

The specter of room-block fees often lead event planners to entice people to stay an extra night by hosting a closing dinner with awards for customers and a big-name speaker. Better to pay $75,000 for that than $50,000 for 200 unused rooms at $250 a shot.

Alternatively, standalone business conference venues, like the Convene spaces found in major U.S. cities, don’t come with room-block liability. And, coolness goes hand in hand with inspiration, so it’s worth looking at outside-the-box options, particularly for one-day events. A venue with industrial or historic wow factor delivers a backdrop for your executives and customer success stories and will make the conference memorable.

Quote Business Partner

If you’re committed to building what will become a signature event for your brand, you could go big and rent out a premier golf or oceanfront resort, potentially asking partners to help foot the bill and charging attendees a bit more. Just be prepared for some sticker shock. These venues make more sense for years three to five, when you’ve established your ecosystem and have a better handle on the value of the event to your brand.

When to Start Planning? Yesterday

Events are complex beasts, and planning one is stressful. A big multi-day expo can take two years of prep, and lots of things can still go wrong onsite. We’ve seen events almost derailed by hurricanes and union strikes. Speakers cancel, A/Cs break, executives resign, hotels have water leaks.

Something always goes wrong. Getting an early start will buy your team breathing room on the back end.

Eighteen months out, start scouting. If you expect to have a Year 2 event, aim to include that date and venue in materials and signage. That’s critical so partners and attendees at your Year 1 show know where you’ll be in Year 2 so they can block off time. The goal is a signed Year 2 contract in hand six weeks before this year’s event; a binding letter of intent is good enough if you can’t get all the details worked out.

And, as you bring in ecosystem partners, they’ll need future dates to avoid double booking.

Before signing a contract with a venue, assemble a team to visit the facility and check out everything from A/V to food. Look at sleeping and meeting rooms along with the ballroom you’ll use for presentations. Find out if other groups will be in-house during your event, and ask about remodeling or construction plans in the hotel and its vicinity. Make a list of bars and restaurants within walking distance that could be rented for parties, and check out lower-priced or overflow hotels that staff could use if your room block starts to fill up.

Particularly if the venue is new to you, go look before signing. Don’t trust photos on a website.

Meanwhile, your contract team needs to comb through the venue agreement. Check A/V fees and available setups, furniture and stage availability, catering, where you’re allowed to put onsite marketing signage, when partners can set up tabletops or booths, and the fine print on union rules.

Add a dedicated event page to your website as soon as the location is booked, and post an agenda and main speakers five or six months in advance. Make regular updates as you get your program nailed down, and communicate additions through your social channels and newsletters.

Quote Education

The event page needs a registration capability so that you get room-block credit as attendees book, and so they can access negotiated rates. Get the IT team clued in so they can have that capability live when you announce the conference. Event management software can help, as can registration vendors, like Experient or Cvent; these firms can also help with sourcing venues, developing an app and marketing.

Time to Get the Word Out

Deciding to travel to your event might be a no-brainer for customers, or they may need insight into the program to get them motivated.

Direct email is good, with caveats: Use a reputable bulk email vendor that can track open rates and unsubscribes lest you run afoul of privacy laws. Keep your event marketing list separate from other lists. It’s not great if customers unsubscribe from your event notifications; it’s a disaster if they unsubscribe from product updates and releases.

Cosponsoring partners should be an integral part of your messaging. Negotiate an email blast inviting their customers, who may not yet be your customers, to the event, using a tracking code. Provide logos, registration discount codes and other materials so that communicating about your event to their audiences is easy.

And remember, this is an ecosystem: Where it makes sense, be a willing cosponsor when your partners throw their own events. Early-stage companies won’t be expected to pay a lot, but participating creates good feelings around the relationship and opportunities to meet new prospects.

Your marketing team may disagree, but in our experience, sales and post-sales support teams, with their intimate relationships and insights, are important drivers of customer attendance. Let them host their clients by, for example, facilitating meetings with executives or a key technical resource. That elevates salespeople to trusted partner status with their clients.

At the same time, don’t let sales hand out free passes like Skittles. Remember the 80/20 rule: It’s fine to offer discounts for virtually all customers, but VIPs should be an exclusive group. They’ll talk to one another, so be mindful of maintaining that exclusivity vibe.

Onsite, marketing means signage, and these materials require long lead times and professional design. Your team needs to know exactly where you can hang banners and place signs and clings. Every venue has different rules.

Banners are more important than you might think. In the tech space, we commonly produced banners thanking premier cosponsors, which have included Microsoft, Google, AT&T and Verizon. Key partner logos aligned with your name and logo is powerful stuff — and they paid for the privilege.

Logo inclusion is highly desired at events, and you really can’t overdo it. We’ve gone so far as to consider wrapping garbage cans with marketing clings. After all, everyone uses them. Windows and walls within and near the conference space are good candidates, as are pillars. You can sell branding on room key cards, and hotels will do a drop of welcome gifts, agenda flyers or sponsor materials, for a fee.

Quote Brand

These banners along with directional and informational signs, printed agendas and speaker backdrops need to be designed with the look and feel of the event well in advance, then printed and delivered.

If you don’t have a graphics team, outside event planners can help. You can hire these experts, as well as decorators (most useful for events with a dedicated, large expo space), outside A/V houses and temp labor vendors to provide auxiliary staff and security.

In your first few years, an outside event planner working with your team will usually be enough. Look for the CEP (certified event planner) or other professional designation.

Speaker Selection

Attendees want to hear from your executives, but not exclusively. Book peer speakers who are open to sharing success stories that highlight the utility and quality of your product or service. There’s no better advocate than a happy customer; set up an interview-style panel so you can guide the discussion. Cosponsors can also put your products into a larger context, which helps customers understand how your vision fits within the larger ecosystem.

As your program gets longer, give others increasingly more time with the audience. Eventually you may bring in analysts, industry influencers, even celebrity speakers.

Events in their first few years can usually get away with a single stage; as you add days and cosponsors, an additional stage or two can be helpful. But don’t book your audience solid. Whether through structured meetups or free-form, customers appreciate time to network. It will become one of their main reasons for attending.

If you have a technical audience, schedule some birds-of-a-feather sessions. If it’s executives, dinners and drinks provide networking time. Have executives and speakers mingle, so that the audience can ask follow-up questions. Salespeople can make introductions — but stress that this is social time.

On the Roadshow Circuit

Many organizations supplement their signature conferences, or get their feet wet in events, with roadshows. We will look at them more extensively in another article. Suffice to say that in some industries, they’re huge.

Quote Identity

We know of one executive whose company does nearly 100 roadshow events annually. He was in Finland one week and New Zealand two weeks later — literally travelling to the ends of the earth to drum up new business. It’s an extreme example, but going where your customers live has merit: Venues don’t need to be as fancy, and agendas don’t need to be as packed. Having a small team air drop into cities and host 30 to 100 current and potential customers is a great way to generate buzz.

Here, half-day events are the norm. Start just before lunch and finish with drinks and networking. Take VIP attendees to dinner that night, and move on to the next city. Bring a customer when you can, and line up cosponsors, whether for the entire series or just a few slots. Again, be open to participating in partner events in cities that aren’t in your first tier.

Measuring Success

Like any marketing effort, measuring ROI is not an exact science, though there are some standard KPIs.

Did you stay on budget, bring in the expected attendee and cosponsor revenue, and meet your attendance goals? That’s table-stakes, and if you succeeded, the event is worth doing again.

Other data to assess: How many new leads did you collect? What deals were closed in person? Did you get more social followers?

Less quantifiable is increased awareness. Marketing pros stress the importance of an integrated campaign as a success measurement: Did you get press coverage of the PR you released during the event? What can you do with the assets created?

Events are often a driver to improve and standardize messaging across the organization.

Surveys are helpful. We recommend inviting about half of your attendees and cosponsors to take a survey immediately following the event, while the Kool Aid is still coursing through their veins, and then asking the other half about 10 days later. Include questions about everything from food to facilities to speakers to whether they accomplished their goals, had enough networking time and feel they know your products and services better than before the event.

Polling attendee and non-attendee customers a few months down the road to see if there is a difference in affinity is also helpful.

Get your event’s Net Promoter score — it’s one of the few universal satisfaction measurements.

Net Promoter scores range from -100 to +100 and can be used to measure almost anything where you can poll for customer satisfaction. The number can be calculated for both attendees and cosponsors. Those who rate your event low are detractors and go in the minus column. Those who rate it high are promoters and go on the plus side.

For independent trade shows and conferences, scores above 50 are very good. Anything above zero is typically good enough to buy the show another year. For vendor-run shows, NPS should be 70 or higher, since the value proposition is typically very clear for corporate event attendees. Tracking results year over year is smart, as is comparing your scores to similar industry events.

If you’re using a CRM tool, and you should be, insist that the sales team enters all new prospects that come in during or right after the event. You’ll certainly see some uptick, and logging those contacts helps suss out whether the interest is sustained and turns into dollars. This is probably the best indicator of success, along with factors like customer retention and satisfaction. If you see sustained new interest in the quarter after your event, you clearly did yourself some good.

Art Wittmann is editor of Brainyard. He previously led content strategy across Informa USA tech brands, including Channel Partners, Channel Futures, Data Center Knowledge, Container World, Data Center World, IT Pro Today, IT Dev Connections, IoTi and IoT World Series Events, and was director of InformationWeek Reports and editor-in-chief of Network Computing. Got thoughts on this story? Drop him a line.