Published December 2005

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If you’ve ever planned a seminar or conference for clients or prospects, or any other firm function, you know how critical the details can be. Good event planners make it look easy. But the key to hosting a successful event, they say, is a lot of thought and follow-up.

One of the first steps, says experienced planners, is to identify each task and assign it to someone—you, a reliable staff member of perhaps several staff members—to make sure it gets done, and done only once.

Don’t leave anything to chance: Figure out each step, from who is going to handle working with the venue’s staff to who will design communications materials to who is responsible for registration. Detail tasks in a chart showing the deadline for each one and the staff person responsible for meeting it.

And designate one person—likely yourself—to oversee it all. Make sure there is someone who can answer any question, from who is invited to ho how the room will be set up to which firm representative will give opening and closing remarks.

“Your chance of appearing disorganized at the event is greater if you don’t have a person in charge,” says Jean Caragher, president of Capstone Marketing, based in Chesapeake, Va.

Start with a purpose
When planning the event, set a clear purpose, suggests Marla Bace, director of firm-wide marketing at J.H. Cohn, headquartered in Roseland, N.J. At the Association for Accounting Marketing summit in June, she and Jessica Levin, director of marketing for business investigation services a J.H. Cohn, offered tips to holding a successful event, and they spoke with CPA Practice Management Forum in follow-up interviews. The purpose might be generating business, educating clients, networking or branding. The important thing, Bace says, is to know exactly what it is from the outset.

“Everything else you do, make sure you are meeting your objectives,” she advises.

The A-list
Think carefully about your invitation list, Caragher recommends. “That has to be very focused with up-to-date information. A lot of people when planning seminars go for big numbers. They feel they have to have 50 or 100 people or it’s not a success. They feel it’s more exciting to fill a big room full of people.”

But a small event with 15 or 20 good prospects might be more effective.

“When you’ve got the room full of a lot of people, it’s very hard to talk to and follow up with them,” Caragher explains. “If you’ve got 15 or 20, you could literally shake hands and talk to everyone that’s there.”

Offer a topic invitees will find interesting. How do you know what they want? Ask.

“If your firm does more than one event for this particular target group, that’s a great question to ask on your evaluation form,” Caragher suggests. “You could have the best list in the world, but if you’re not offering anything of interest on the program, that’s not going to get them in the door.”

Some seminar planners conduct very informal focus groups to determine if a topic is a good one, and Bace suggests forming a program committee, even if it consists of just one or two of the firm’s partners: If you get partners involved, you achieve partner buy-in and are more likely to present content that your target audience wants.

Make a date
When choosing the date, consider factors such as religious holidays, Levin notes. Offering an example, she says she once planned a conference in March and didn’t account for the fact that it fell on Ash Wednesday; the venue ran out of vegetarian meals.

The Internet provides an easy way to identify potential conflict dates. “If you run some searches, you can find a number of calendars that provide a list of religious holidays,” Levin says. “The other thing is to check the local schools calendar. If it’s a long weekend because of a teacher’s conference, people may be going away for the weekend.”

Consider industry dates, such as April 15 or dates of annual tradeshows or conventions, Bace adds. Know your audience and what events they may already be planning to attend.

Caragher agrees. “If you are trying to attract manufacturers to a seminar and there’s a big industry event for that group that day, obviously that’s going to be a bad day.”

And, look at what your competitors are doing. “If no one is doing anything in tax season, maybe clients are looking for an excuse to network,” Bace says.

Determine the format
A few key questions will help you define your event. Will you be conducting a half-day or full-day program? A two-day conference? A breakfast seminar? Will it be a general session with a keynote speaker? A panel discussion? An interactive round-table format?

Be careful not to take on a project that is too big.

“If you’re doing something, make sure you’re not taking on more than you can handle,” Levin says. “It’s better to do something small and do it right than to do something that’s too big and not be able to accomplish it. A marketer from another firm recently contacted me about doing a joint program. He wanted to make it the premier program in the state. As we started talking about it, it was very clear that what he wanted to do was not what the market would consider the premier program. And it was because he didn’t have the resources to do something that elaborate.”

And don’t forget about the room layout, says Erinn Keserica, director of marketing with Frazier & Deeter in Atlanta. To create an academic feel, make sure attendees have plenty of table space for taking notes. Place seats in the shape of a U to create a more personal and interactive environment. When using roundtables, consider assigned seating to avoid having one of your clients seated next to his direct competitor or make sure two clients with something in common are at the same table.

Location, location, location
Think about your objective when deciding where to hold an event. “If you want to create a warm and fuzzy feeling among a small group of clients, you don’t want to do it at a large facility where people will feel lost in the shuffle,” Bace points out.

Ask a lot of questions, of yourself and venue staff: How easy will it be for attendees to reach the site? What is the traffic situation at the time of day when the event starts? How many people will the room hold? What are the meal options? How many other events are taking place at the site the same day? Is parking free or paid? What is the potential for rearranging the room? Find out if the room size can be adjusted based on how many people attend. That way if you plan an event for 50 and get only 25 attendees, your event won’t feel like a flop.

Ask for references from potential venues, says Leslie Balmforth, COO at Tauber & Balser in Atlanta. And stick with the places that work. Tauber & Balser held a number of its 2005 events for its not-for-profit clients at the same location. “We’ve selected the Loudermilk Center because a lot of the [Atlanta] not-for-profit community knows the Loudermilk Center,” Balmforth explains.

There may be room to negotiate venue prices. “If there are hotel rooms involved, and if you are planning to spend a lot on food and beverage, ask for a discount on room rates,” Balmforth suggests. “It’s more practical if you use the site often.”

And, make sure facility staff can deliver what they promise. Visiting the site goes a long way toward resolving doubts. Bace offers an example: If you want five simultaneous breakout sessions and hotel staff claim they can accommodate the request, find out where the breakout rooms are: Venue staff may think it’s acceptable to hold two small breakout sessions in the same large room, but chances are you won’t.

Levin suggests getting everything in writing, from equipment to rearranging rooms to rearranging schedules. “Anything that you discuss with the venue about things they say they are going to provide or can provide, I would get it in writing.”

For instance, a facility’s staff may tell you that video screens will be provided, but as the event date nears, you are told you must contact the facilty’s audiovisual staff to get the screens. OR you may be promised easels and then find on the contract that you are being charged $25 each for them. “It’s much easier, before you sign anything, to get all of the details in writing,” Levin says.

Event Planning: Tips from the Experts
• Think about charging a nominal fee so attendees perceive value associated with the program. A free event makes it easy for people to reserve a spot and then not show up.
• Allow attendees to register at your firm’s website.
• Take care when sending invitations via email. If you send bulk mail or if you mislabel the subject line, your invitation could end up in spam folders.
• Call key clients and prospects a few days before the event and encourage them to attend.
• Confirm who is attending before giving a count to the food vendor to avoid meal charges for no-shows.
• Meet with speakers and on-site volunteers before the event to go over each person’s role. A full-day session will require more than one or two people from the firm to work the event.
• Make sure the equipment is what you need, and because renting audiovisual devices is expensive, consider bringing your own. If you do, bring extras.
• Consider a trial run. When hosting a two-day seminar to explain Sarbanes-Oxley rules to clients, Atlanta-based Frazier & Deeter held a trial run with a few select clients to make sure the presentations made sense before opening the program to 182 paid attendees.
• Stick to the timetable. Starting and ending on time sets the expectation for future events.

Once you’ve set the budget, stick to it. No matter how many leads you generate, the people you report will want to know if you stuck to the budget, Bace says.

She suggests looking for sponsors to pay for nametags, notebooks, registration bags, hotel room keys, snack breaks, cocktail receptions, breakfast, dinners, etc. “This is a neat way to meet the budget. You can sponsor anything. You just need to be creative about it.”

Bace also recommends using strategic alliances to help drive targeted attendance. J.H. Cohn conducted one event using a strategic alliance with a law firm and a key business association. And Caragher points out that if you co-host an event with a law firm, the law firm invites its clients, who become prospects for your firm. The same holds true for a bank or an insurance company, depending on the target audience and the topic.

Keserica says her firm, in organizing a Sarbanes Oxley seminar a couple years ago, teamed with two other accounting firms, “which we thought gave the seminar more depth,” and professors from Georgia State University. A law firm acted as sponsors for the two-day educational event.

“You want to align yourself with people you want to be seen doing business with,” she explains.

But don’t go overboard trying to cut expenses. “Don’t cut corners from a cost perspective if it’s going to jeopardize the integrity of the program,” Keserica warns. “If you’re going to pay someone $5,000 to come in and speak, don’t provide them with a $5 lunch of a cold sandwich and an apple and a cookie.”

When scheduling speakers, and thinking about the budget, look internally first, Keserica says: Your firm may already have the expertise you need. Universities also provide a good start, especially for technical subjects.
Levin suggests another source you may not have considered: In-office politicians can draw a big crowd, and because they cannot accept payment, they fit within any budget.

Be choosy. Get references for potential speakers. Bace suggests talking to people who sponsored an event where a speaker gave a presentation. Did he or she give a sales pitch or actually teach something? You may be able to get video clips of speeches, especially if you intend to pay the speaker.
Will the speaker stay true to the topic? Ask for evaluation feedback from previous speeches. Bace says references often are willing to share such information.

Rethinking handouts
When getting materials to seminar attendees, consider how those people got to your conference or seminar, Levin suggests. Did they fly? If so, will your three-inch-thick notebook of handouts cause their luggage to exceed airline weight restrictions for carry-on bags? Bace says some conferences offer to email presentations so attendees don’t have to carry anything home.

Levin says it’s not a good idea to hand out firm promotional materials such as brochures. Collateral material, she explains, changes the feel of the presentation to a sales pitch; attendees often throw the materials away. Instead, follow up the event by mailing a firm brochure to attendees.
But some low-key, high-end promotional materials are a great idea for seminar attendees. Levin says she knows of a firm that distributed Mont Blanc pens as a gift at a client event.

Follow-up & ROI
How do you know if your event is a success? A headcount will tell you how many people attended, but you likely want more evidence than that. Before attendees leave, ask them to complete evaluation forms. “It’s nice to know what went right, but it’s important to know what went wrong,” Bace says. At the next event, show attendees you have addressed their concerns.
And follow through on leads. Some will turn into business.

Keserica says Frazier & Deeter secured a couple of engagements from its two-day Sarbanes-Oxley seminar. “We also were able to get our name out to a bunch of people who, under other circumstances, would never have heard of Frazier & Deeter.”

Caragher suggests examining the attendance list, especially if your firm conducts multiple seminars for the same prospect group. “Are there people who are consistently showing up?” she asks. “The firm needs to actively get in front of that prospect outside of the seminars.”