Dealing With Data

“Big Data” !  I agree it is imperative that a meeting planner know who his/her potential attendees are so they can craft a meeting or event to hopefully exceed their expectations.

Data collection is not new.  We have been doing it for years… from mailed evaluations of an event, back in the dinosaur age, to emailed evaluations, to survey monkey, polls and surveys on your conference/event app, information from membership forms, member surveys, to name but a few.  But as more and more information is gathered, what you do with the collected date now becomes the issue.  What is relevant and beneficial and what is just unused data?  What data will help the planner create a better meeting, better engage the audience and attract more participation? 

In this time of instant communication, the demand for instant gratification and simply being just too darn busy, one can’t get bogged down in data analysis to the point where other deadlines slip.  On the other hand, you can’t disregard the attendees psychographic profile” without potentially hurting your event’s success.

How do you handle the data you collect?

Timelines Are Important

Communications is the core purpose of all meeting and this must be kept in mind when developing the meeting or event.  Whether the meeting is set up for interaction and networking or involves a lot of lectures by an industry expert, a schedule to accomplish the various components of the conference is critical for all involved.

The meeting plan, also called the critical path or timelines, is in fact, the to do list for everyone involved in the development of the meeting.  It outlines roles and each person's responsibilities, and how they affect other duties involved in the planning process.  The critical path/meeting plan is crucial to the success of the meeting.

You, as the meeting planner may be very aware of all that is involved and needs to be done but others involved with program components may not.  Does the individual handling the awards program know when the winners need to be provided to ensure their plaques are ready, or to ensure you have time to obtain a video, a picture or a quote that must be provided to your technical crew?   Does your CEO know when you need to have your Chair or President’s speech so it can be incorporated into the visuals for presentation at the AGM or Opening of your conference?  It is a group effort and while you may be intuitively aware of deadlines, but others are not. 

In short, the critical path is a flow chart that outlines:

What need to be done  =  the task:     When it will happen  =  start date (not always included):   When it must be completed  =  completion date: and,     Who will do it=  person, department or group responsible

Where does the information come from?

Some is based in meeting history.  Much comes from the meeting objectives – especially the lower level or sub objectives.  The critical path coordinates and puts into practice all the logistics identified in objective development.  

A good meeting plan or critical path has 4 components:   Date path – start and end dates;  who will handle this, who's responsibility to ensure this activity is completed;  A description of the activity to be done; and a cross reference for concurrent and interrelated activities when possible.

The path can be set up in a couple of different ways.  It can be set up strictly on chronological order.  It can also be set up by functional areas and then ordered chronologically within the various functions.  These functions might include:  Program details;  Financial;  Facilities;  Marketing;  Registration;  Contracts;  Print; Promotions  and many more as well.

Personally, I think if you chunk it into functional areas, it is easier to follow, but this is an individual preference. 

Regardless of how you develop your critical path,  it is a crucial part of the planning process to be shared with everyone involved and reviewed on a regular basis.  This ensures everyone knows the expectations for the meeting.

Financial Considerations

Expenses outline what is needed in order to produce a successful meeting.   Once you have the Expenses and the anticipated Revenue… you may have more money available to add enhancements or you may have to look for areas to cut back... One of two things will happen - depending on what motivates your potential participants

If they are motivated by education and content, then the quality of the speakers will be high on their priority list and the destination plays a minimal role in their decision to participate.  • If they are destination oriented , a good destination may increase both delegate and spouse attendance and while speakers still play a role, location may tip the decision to participate.

Revenue Considerations:  It is important to look for ALL sources of income… • registration, members/ non-member rates;  delegates/guest; • exhibits; sponsorship; advertising; • grants; material sales; tickets sales • investments.   Look at past history for guidance, keeping in mind difference destinations incur different interests by the potential participants.  Make sure you consider all potential sources of revenue BUT be conservative!!! 

Expense Considerations:  Make sure everything is included because the little things can kill you! • Actual current costs can be obtained easily from suppliers.  However, when planning well in advance - add a percentage to the current price for inflation.  Use historical data to predict future costs adding cost of inflation • Include a contingency fund for cancellation/attrition; admin charges - bank fees (credit card charges)  insurance;  committee planning meetings; site visits; comp registrations; overhead; temp staff, etc. Remember where you are going as, in some destinations, food and beverage, technical charges, etc. may be higher and provincial tax rates vary. 

Now you have your expenses and revenue decide if they are close to your financial objectives. Decide if they work or if you need to shave in areas. History can tell you if one particular area (Food and Beverage or technical or whatever) is exceptionally high   This becomes an area where cut backs might have to be considered. You might also show more surplus than you should.  If you are asked to break even on a meeting, a surplus of $65,000 may not be acceptable.  In that case you might be able to add program enhancements or reduce registration fees

Regardless of the philosophy your organization or client might have, they are important considerations when developing your meeting’s budget.

What Are The Financial Needs of Your Meeting

Financial Management of Your Meeting.  Look at the financial needs of the meeting from both the organization’s perspective and from the attendees’ needs analysis.   It is essential that you identify techniques, which provide fiscal control for the entire meeting to analyze expense and help determine registration fees and other anticipated revenue.   As well, identify procedures and practices for the on-site management of funds and budget.

The budget is developed after the establishment of the meeting objectives, since it is very difficult to determine costs until we know what must be accomplished with the meeting.  A budget is a realistic list of expected expenses and revenues that provides fiscal control for the entire meeting.   As the budget is developed, you must keep in mind who will attend this meeting; who will pay the fees; and, the philosophy of the sponsoring organization.  Is it okay to lose money on a meeting?  Yes; if that is the objective and the expectation of the sponsor.  Budget projecting in a systematic manner establishes a solid basis for later control and management of that budget. The budget must be updated and revised as necessary.

As an initial component of the process, you must know your organization or client’s budget and financial philosophy.  Like any other objective, budget objectives should be measurable so you can demonstrate the ROI of the meeting.  Are you concerned about costs?  Do you want to make a profit and if so how much?  Do you want to break even?  Some organizations do feel it is unfair to the attendees to make a surplus from their participation.  Are you prepared to lose money?

Financial control provides professional guidance to your employer and your suppliers


Feeding Your Attendees

I read an article recently on the PCMA discussion board “Making a Disruptor Less Disruptive” and it made me think about some of the challenges I have had over the years with special needs diets.   Kosher and Halal are often the most difficult because they must be special ordered from outside the facility most of the time and usually at a very high cost.  I was never sure how much was a mark up by the provider and/or the facility but a lunch often came in at over $100.00 just as an example.   The article noted above have some excellent suggestions on how a meeting planner might handle these types of requests.

However, a number of years ago I was doing a conference in Ottawa and the facility we were using didn’t know where to get Halal meals for a delegate.  I found a restaurant and made arrangements with them directly, with the facility’s support.  A couple of amazing lunches cost about $20 each and a great dinner $30.00.  One of our local volunteers had to go pick them up but based on the positive feedback from the recipient it was well worth the effort.    That was a very positive experience both for the attendee and financially.  They are not always that way.

In recent years, I have also noted that gluten free, vegetarian, sugar free, and other special requests are often also incurring an extra cost by some facilities, at least here in Canada.  Gluten free muffins added to a breakfast menu can be charged at double the price.  Vegetarian, higher priced than the selected menu.  I argue that If a special requirement is medical related, then the facility is obliged to provide for this need.  I have been known to say that if I have advised the facility of the  details on the special requirements the responsibility is on the facility to ensure the needs are met and not at an additional charge.  (religious needs not included in this line of thought).  I suggested to one property that I would not pay extra for special medical needs diets and if they chose not to provide in this case a gluten free option at the same cost, I would simply advise the attendee of the situation and if they became ill I would direct them to the property for any kind of complaint or action.  Needless to say the gluten free muffins were available, at no additional charge.

Having said that, I do have some sympathy for the facility’s position as well.  Too often, as noted in the article, attendees ask for special meals that are preferences, not medical… and once ordered, they don’t bother to pick them up.  I have seen it happen over and over.  Such a practice is not only inconsiderate and poor manners, it can be expensive.  I like the suggestions provided in the noted article – there is a part of me that would really like to charge those ordering a special meal and not picking it up for the unclaimed meal.  Unfortunately, I am not sure I would ever get the payment but I might feel better, and it might encourage those ordering to take more responsibility for their actions.  It might work, it might not?   It is important to honour dietary restrictions for medical reasons and religious purposes and Vegetarian is also relatively easy to accommodate.   Preferences, to my way of thinking, do not need to be honoured.

It is important to ask for dietary restrictions on a registration form.  The first question should be…

Is your restriction:            MEDICAL?  ___                 RELIGIOUS?  ___              OTHER? ___

                                                Please provide details: ____________________________________________________

                                                VEGETARIAN?   Y/  N

That is really all you need

Assess the “Other” to decide if it can be accommodated.  You can also track the special needs, by individual registrant to find out if they stick to the dietary requirements ordered or skip it when on site.  You can warn folks on the form that if they do not follow through on their request, it will not be provided in the future.  You can also follow up with those who do not pick up their special meal post conference, give them a warning for the future or let them know they can be tracked.

In reality, we have to face the fact that food in general is more processed than ever before, it is genetically modified and who knows what is being added to enhance shelf life.  That is affecting much of the food intolerances today.  Diet and lifestyle choices affect people’s health and as a planner the first step may be to work with your property to create menus that reduce the need for so many special meals.

Technology: Where do you stand?

I just read an article in a recent issue of Convene Magazine about new data collection advances “All in the Wrist” by Michelle R. Davis.  It speaks of a wristband.  Apparently the newest technology, the Lightwave wristband can record the movement, sound, and excitement of a crowd.  The article says it can help speakers and entertainers and meeting managers to explore “the interactive experiences, unlock key moments and change the environment dynamically”.  It is believed that if used at meetings and conferences it can enhance the program, not to mention distinguish who is doing what.  It seems it can even tell if you are distracted, looking at your phone messages.  If people are not engaged, the planner or speaker, etc can make changes to program and content to create more interaction.  Sounds like a good idea, but is it?  This is new and probably not within a price range yet to be feasible on a meeting to meeting basis.

However, there are other technology applications that are being used… such as beacon technology that is becoming more prevalent in the world of conference and meetings.  It can be included in a mobile app for the meeting or incorporated into a name badge and allows the sponsor to know where an individual is at any point in time throughout the meeting.  On a positive side it can work wonders if attendees at a meeting need to collect ‘continuing education units’ for designation retention… it relieves the need of swiping a badge at the door as you enter or leave a session.  It can also tell if you stay for the whole session.  However I am not sure I am comfortable with the organization knowing my movements, more on principle and on being somewhere is shouldn’t be.  It just feels intrusive.  I confess I was at a conference recently where the beacon technology was built into the app but at least it asked first if you would accept it.  I declined every time.

For more information on the benefits and pitfalls on beacon technology (in general) follow the link:

Over the past number of years, technological advances in the meeting industry have advanced in leaps and bounds.  We have real time audience response systems (been around for a while), video conferencing – while not new the improvements are astounding, live streaming, and even the even app is not that old and is evolving into a better and more interactive product year to year. 

I have been in the meeting management business a long time and I learned long ago you absolutely have to stay current with the trends and technologies to be successful.  Personally I embrace that point of view.  Most meeting and events technology is good, even great, but there are some things I will tend to take a pass on.  You have to decide what works for your attendees.  Just because it is new and innovative does not mean it is a keeper.  What do you think?

For some additional information on new technology in the events industry check out the following:

How Do You Select Your Speakers For Your Conferences?

As I was working on my "Call For Submissions" for our 2015 National Conference today, I was thinking about how other organizations select speakers for conferences and educational events.  Many, like me, look to members and other interested parties to submit proposals for conference presentations... both plenary and concurrent/education session presenters.

Does the program content fall under your responsibility?

Do you have an Education Committee or Department within your organization that makes the educational decisions?

Do you have a good selection to choose from?  (We are very fortunate to receive 150 + proposals to choose about 30 presentations from).

How do you deal with biases... do you do the first selection blind - not knowing the presenter and simply looking at the submission content?  This is how we handle the first wound of submission selection.  We don't want either positive or negative biases because of the person submitting the proposal.

Do you do your submission collection and review manually or do you work with a supplier such as Multiview who can handle the process on line.  Personally I love the on line process - not only is it eco-friendly, it does a superb job of tabulating the results as well!

Share your process... what do you like and what drives you crazy... yes a simple topic but one that can be fun and interesting or a huge effort.  Let's see what others have to say!