benchmarking association events

Benchmarking Association Events

I had a brilliant day at the Event Strategy Conference in London on the 16th July. It was great to see almost sixty association event professionals taking the time out of their busy schedule to think strategically about their events and about benchmarking association events.

Association event professionals, similar of course to many other event organisers, find it hard to lift their eyes from the events in the here and now to think about the future.

However, attending a conference like this allows organisers to do exactly that. It’s not just the content and the speakers, it’s also about having time and a space to think about things differently, and perhaps see challenges in a different light.

As someone who has run a few association event departments I know the main challenge all too well: running enough events to ensure you satisfy all of the members.

how to benchmark association events

Benchmarking your association events

During my “expert briefing” I decided to help the attendees to benchmark the events offered by their association. We had 2 x 25min sessions on “new event formats” but before we covered new formats, like Barcamps, Hackathons and Virtual Summits we looked at what I believe, should be the core events for every association.

Both sessions were really busy with almost 75% of the audience choosing to join my sessions. Owing to the interest at the conference I thought I would share the key point that I hoped the attendees would take away from the discussions: offering a variety of events is the key to a successful association event department.

During the discussions we found out that very few associations were running what I would call a “full suite” of event options. I believe that the best way to serve the members of an association is to offer:

  • a variety of formats
  • in different locations
  • different prices

Offering a “full suite” of events allows an association to offer this choice.

So what do I mean by a “full suite” of events

It’s been seven years since I ran the commercial department at the Council of Mortgage Lenders. Over the three years I led the department I focussed the team on running a variety of events. So with the CML in mind, I think it will be useful to have this as an example. So here’s how one very successful association offered a variety of events.

Content led events

The first and most important type of event for an association is the content led event. The fundamental purpose for most associations is to provide information to their members.

Most associations run events that disseminate information. Almost all of the attendees across my two sessions organised conferences however almost half of the attendees didn’t run shorter formats. There were few briefing style or seminar type events being run by the attendee event organisers.

While at the CML we ran around 10 conferences a year. We also ran around 25 seminars each year. As conference were§ common across our group (and the association sector) I explained the reasons why we ran shorter more simple formats.

– Firstly there were many important issues that simple didn’t need a full day to cover. We had to address the issue, so it made sense to run shorter events.

– We were also aware that our conferences were quite expensive for some members. So we were able to run these half days cheaper than a conference.

– As booking a smaller venue for a half day was less risky than a large one day conference, we were also able to run seminars across the country, rather than concentrating on London (where we knew we would get the numbers)

– And finally it allowed our team to be more nimble as we were able to react quickly to a new policy development. We could pretty much turn an idea into an event in around six weeks. This would be a huge challenge for a conference but was manageable for a smaller, shorter format.

This approach made our content led events more accessible to more of our members and we were able to earn revenue from more events.

Exhibition and sponsor led events

We occasionally had our seminars sponsored, however we tended to focus on our conferences as the vehicle for our sponsors.

Around half of our conferences had exhibitions. I felt that we had to have at leat 100 attendees before our exhibitors would get value from taking a stand so our seminars almost never had stands.

Our annual conference and exhibition had 300 attendees and around 30 stands.

So it was very easy to attend a CML event and never have to visit a stand. Again, we believed that it was important to offer our members a different environment in which to engage and learn.

A few times a year we had a sponsor led, free to attend events. However, for most of our events delegates had to pay to attend.

Social events

The CML ran the mortgage industry’s largest annual dinner. Almost 1250 attended our largest dinner in 2011. It was our industry celebration. There was no “content” and was a very typical black tie dinner, with entertainment and a large charity raffle.

We also ran an annual lunch. This attracted around 600 attendees and was much more of a working event with a keynote address followed by lunch. We also had a smaller annual lunch in Scotland.

We had two annual golf days in England or Wales and one in Scotland.

Training courses

The CML offered a variety of training courses. We had around 12 courses which tended to run three or four times a year. So all in all across a year we had around 40 training sessions. These sessions tended to be regional and they delved very deeply into a particular mortgage related topic.

Online training

The CML partnered with an e-training provider to offer a few online courses. These courses were accredited and tended to be around 20 – 30hrs of online learning.

Offering a variety of events is the surest way to overcome the challenges running any event department

This is how we structured our full suite of events at one of the UK’s largest trade body associations and I believe there are lessons to learn for many different types of organisations.

We offered as much variety as possible and tried to ensure that each member had an opportunity to engage HOW THEY WANTED with a CML event. This approach pleased the members and crucially, it allowed us to generate a significant profit from our events. Our little department of three organisers made a profit of over £400,000.

Offering a variety of events not only keeps your members happy, informed and engaged but allows the organisation to create revenue that can be invested in other parts of the association.

This was the fundamental point I hoped to get across to the association attendees at the conference. Events are crucial for their members but they are also essential for the success and increasingly the survival of many associations.

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