I’ve been reading a lot lately about association events that have been shuttered, sold or sunset. The big question is, “Why?”
I’ve also just reviewed a report listing hundreds of association conferences with declining attendance and trade shows with shrinking square footage and exhibit sales revenue. I’ve heard a long list of reasons (many of which sound more like excuses) for why so many association and professional society events are struggling.
Whenever we face a challenge at our company or are helping one of our clients, the first step is to correctly diagnose before we prescribe. There are always obvious symptoms of what’s wrong, but often the root cause is seldom so clear – so you have to dig deeper.
Have you ever tried the technique called the “5 Whys” as a path to get to the root cause?
Wikipedia defines the 5 Whys as “an iterative interrogative technique used to explore the cause-and-effect relationships underlying a particular problem. The primary goal of the technique is to determine the root cause of a defect or problem by repeating the question ‘Why?’ Each answer forms the basis of the next question. The ‘5’ in the name derives from an anecdotal observation on the number of iterations needed to resolve the problem.”
We have done our own 5 Whys to diagnose why so many association and society conferences and trade shows are struggling, and these are the top 5 root causes we’ve identified.
The 5 Whys
1. Reacting too slowly to the changing needs and expectations of the industry
Many organizations don’t know that they should change, because they don’t have their finger on the pulse of the industry. We all recently learned this lesson in our presidential election, where so many experts didn’t know where a large part of our country was in terms of their needs, wants and expectations. Thus, an unexpected political upset. Don’t be like the media that was stunned after years of polling and analyzing the market only to be caught flat-footed by what was really going on.
New events are popping up every week, capturing a new sector of your market. Niche events may not look like a threat, but they are.
We’ve seen disruption in every market sector. Your association event must at least be current, if not a step ahead of your industry. I recently met with an organization whose industry is growing at a significant double-digit rate, but their event is declining at a similar double-digit percentage, creating a gap that will soon be impossible to close.
2. Lacking real knowledge about the audience
This is the silver bullet to improving the outcomes of your next event. You will be amazed at how little your organization knows about the mindset, attitudes, psychology and “care abouts” of your current audience and, more importantly, the 90% of your industry that doesn’t attend your event. Do you know, for instance, the percentage of your current and prospective audience that values continuing education as the primary motivator to attend versus the percentage of your audience that attends for new ideas, insight and learning not tied to certification or accreditation? Both cohorts look like “learners,” but how you market to them, deliver programming and engage them are drastically different. This one seemingly small distinction alone can dramatically increase the relevance, attendance and net promoter score of your event. Understand your audience, and they will reward you with their participation.
3. Not knowing what to do
This is the most understandable of all the reasons. The old playbook isn’t working, and knowing what to do now and next is often uncertain. The good news is that many conferences and events are being reinvented, remodeled and remade into new formats that are winning. Until you’re sick, you don’t look for a remedy, doctor or new prescription. Someone before you has had the same diagnosis. Don’t suffer alone. Get help. There is a way out of the declining revenue, a weakening value proposition and the diminished attraction of your conference and trade show. (I know a pretty good organization that can help.)
4. Resisting the risky path
It’s far riskier to do nothing and take the easy path of least resistance than to admit your problems and get your board, members and internal team to take the risk of changing the model of how your event is planned and executed. If you’ve ever met with me you’ve probably heard this bad joke: “How many psychiatrists does it take to change a lightbulb?”
“Just one, but the lightbulb has to really want to change.”
Do you really want to change? Are you concerned about the political risk or the squeaky-wheel volunteer committee that likes things the way they are? What is the cost to do nothing or, worse, do too little too late?
5. It’s easier to make excuses than to make change
It’s the marketplace, the economy, the election, the competition, a changing audience, millennials don’t attend events, the weather, holding our event in a location selected five years ago by the conference planning committee, people not traveling, attendees’ budgets being cut . . . the list goes on. While any one of these may be a factor, are you prepared to let these conditions keep you from succeeding? Leaders are paid to solve problems, fix things and be smart enough to steer through the challenges that others see as insurmountable obstacles and reasons (excuses) for something not working.
If you have an event that has room to grow, needs renovation or is struggling to survive, now is a good time to get clear on the why and how. A problem well-defined is a problem half-solved. The how can be answered by working with someone who’s done it before, successfully.
Where there’s a will (a want), there’s a way. Email me if you would like help diagnosing the why and defining the how.