New Survey Looks at What Drives the Decision to Attend a Conference

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In a new survey of almost 9,000 business conference attendees, 78% of all generations report that destination factors into their decision, with 20-30% saying it's the deciding factor. Write-in comments ranged from destination appeal, to drivable distance, to airlift, to overall cost. Also mentioned was the importance of rotation and experiencing new places.

The report—titled The Decision to Attend Study for Conventions & Exhibitions—is a collaborative effort conducted by The Experience Institute. It's taken every three years, so the results give a good indication of trends. Here are 11 of the biggest takeaways from the report:

1. Keep education at the forefront of marketing. The top three drivers of the decision to attend changed little from 2014. They are: Education (dropped from 95% to 92%). Destination (dropped from 82% to 78%). And networking (rose from 75% to 76%). The education can be gleaned from the formal program or the exhibit floor.

2. Highlight ways to connect face-to-face, especially for younger people. While 76% of all generations say it's important to give them opportunities to network and make connections, 49% of Gen Y Millennials rated it as Very Important, the highest of all generations. Creating and promoting on-site opportunities may impact their decision to attend.

3. Provide interesting things to do or links about the location. Because destination is so important in the decision-making, promoting new things to see and do in the city/destination can be huge. Remember, your audience is discerning. You need to entice them. Some 73% of all respondents will search local websites to see what the destination offers, up from 70% in 2014.

4. Include information that can be presented to a decision-maker. Although 67% of all generations say it's their decision, 50% of Gen Y Millennials and 40% of Gen Xers need approval. You may want to use a Justification Toolkit to help them get approval, including a sample letter to their supervisor and list of benefits to their organization.

5. Start marketing early and then later focus on evaluating costs and finding the time. Over 55% of all respondents report they normally register 3-6 months prior, with an additional 26% 2 months prior. Just 7% reported registering one month prior and 2% within 30 days. Of those 9%, three of the main factors are: Don't Get Around to it Sooner, Waiting to See If I Can Get Away, and Evaluating Overall Costs. Cost continues to be the biggest barrier, regardless of generation or attendance frequency.

6. Use social media in creative ways. "Fuel impromptu meet-ups on topics or special interests. Mine the thread for intel that may tell you more about the changing profile of your attendees."

7. Entice people with ways to extend their stay. It's time for new thinking, the report says. "For decades, our industry has viewed attendees as people who 'come in and out' of the destination for meetings, conventions, or exhibitions with success measured by final attendance, filling the block, and overall economic impact." But today, over 50% of attendees are likely to extend their stay; 55% are likely to turn their trip into a vacation; 49% are likely to bring others with them; and 79% are likely to explore.

8. Emphasize easy transportation, safety, friendliness and service. When asked to rate the importance of nine destination factors, the results were remarkably similar by generation and attendance frequency:

  • 89% Transportation Options
  • 89% Appears Safe
  • 86% Appears Clean
  • 86% Wayfinding/Ease of Getting Around
  • 85% Welcoming, Friendly People
  • 78% Service-Oriented Front-Line
  • 75% Variety of Things to See & Do
  • 69% Easy to Access Local Information

9. Make your surveys easy and accessible. "Attendees will give feedback, if it's quick and easy," the study says. Some 87% report they will give feedback on the convention/expo, and 81% on the destination, if it's quick and easy to do so. I'm still a proponent of paper surveys—in addition to digital. It's easy and immediate.

10. Emphasize that attendees will be updated on all of the latest information, as 67% indicate keeping up and staying abreast of their industry or profession is Very Important.

11. To get more people in your room block, address these areas. Event planners need to fill room blocks. "Of the 18% staying outside the block, Gen Y Millennials are the most price sensitive. Cost is the main factor, with many responding, 'can get a better rate on my own.' The top four reasons are: cost brand, loyalty, hotel location and non-hotel environment."

Download the complete study here.

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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…