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The Main Event

Maximising your number of viable revenue streams is long-accepted good practice, and events have been seen as sensible brand extensions since pre-internet days. For those publishers yet to dip their toe into the events pool, or for those who might have had an unhappy experience first time around, Ross Sturley has some tips for would-be organisers.

By Ross Sturley

I remember, just as the magazine market tipped into the beginnings of the latest recession, I spoke to a venue owner, who said that he wasn’t worried about the economic downturn, because the internet had produced a stronger need to get together physically.

He didn’t mean through the astonishing variety of dating sites. He thought the trend to consume more and more business information online would produce a greater need to meet face-to-face.

He was of course wrong about this being an insulator against the recession. It’s been hard work in events these last few years too. But the event industry does seem to still be in reasonable health, especially when compared to, say, a controlled circulation magazine largely dependent on recruitment advertising.

It’s no surprise then that lots of publishers are looking at starting or beefing up their programme of events. They’re low risk, reason the accountants, because if they don’t succeed in capturing the imagination, you can cancel them before you’ve incurred any cost.

While this is true to an extent, anyone who goes in to events with this sort of thought foremost in their mind is at best destined for an unfulfilled experience. Spending money on making things work is, I’m sorry to disappoint, just as much a part of the events world as the magazine one. At the very least, your effort and time spent on a cancelled event would go unrewarded, which isn’t good practice.

Better make them succeed then. What makes events tick? Let’s use one of those old marketing stalwarts, the 4Ps, to have a look.


As with everything, product really matters. If your event is dull, or doesn’t press the buttons of the paying public, then they won’t take any notice of it, no matter how loud you shout. To be successful in what is now a very crowded calendar, events have to really stand out, and novelty and originality are just as important as authority.

Don’t think, “what would I go to?” Start with the audience, the readers of your magazine (or website). What events do they go to? Do conferences work in your market, or exhibitions, or both? Then, looking at what succeeds – can you do any of them better than the people doing them now? What gaps can you see? Where might there be an unmet information need that can best be satisfied through some sort of event?

One of the key considerations is why you might succeed. What is it that you can do uniquely better than anyone else? What subjects, speakers, people can you pull together that nobody else can? This is likely to be the area where you will have the most success.

Three models of conference usually succeed – the scrap, the legislative change, or the cutting edge. The scrap is a straight forward debate – one weighty opinion against another on some key issue. People will always pay to see a good punch-up.

Legislation is another great driver for events. If laws or regulations alter, then people need to change the way they do things. If you can package up the experts on a particular regulatory change, and put them on a platform, then you’ve delivered an “all-you-need-to-know” guide for your customers that will usefully shortcut a week reading through government documents, or trade association advice papers.

Cutting edge, best practice, excellence – whatever you call it, it’s a draw. People love to improve themselves by listening to “this is how we do this” talks from people they perceive to be the leaders in their fields. Perception is important here – it won’t be good enough to get a speaker who knows their stuff, they also have to be known to know their stuff – or people won’t pay.

Before plumping for an event, a bit of testing is usually a good idea. Try the concept out on a few people before you sign your venue contract. You wouldn’t launch a new magazine without research, so apply that good sense to events. Apart from anything else, if you’re attaching your valuable magazine brand to the event, it will be enhanced by the event’s success, and tarnished by its failure.

There are many types of event; conference, confex, seminar, webinar (yuk, hate that word), training course, exhibition, virtual exhibition, awards, breakfast club, dinner.... successful ones are united by the fact that they bring people together to learn something that will help their business, or to meet someone they can do business with. Why will someone pay £1,500 to come to your three day conference? Because they think what they learn will make them a hundred times that when they apply it back in their business.


Place is about much more than location. Although where your event is matters a lot, when it is, and how it is, matter just as much. One of the most frequent reasons for an event’s failure is a clash with something which is important to the customers. Don’t try to run your conference in Manchester in April if everyone who matters is at the big industry trade show in Aberdeen. Try to avoid Christmas Day, obviously, as many people have other commitments. School holidays and half terms have a much larger effect on attendance than you might think. Don’t be the business equivalent of the bride who organises her wedding on FA Cup Final Day; it won’t make you happy.

The location of the venue matters tremendously, of course. But your ideal venue is determined not by what you think, but by the optimum travel arrangements of the customers and the speakers. If you want to get a government minister as a speaker, for example, then the closer you can be to Parliament Square, the better.

Do your customers travel by road, train, or Shanks’ pony? If they’re all drivers, then hotels at motorway junctions can work, but if they generally use public transport, then you’ll need a city centre venue. Do you expect international visitors? Be handy for an airport then. Once I watched a company, when planning an office move, get a map of their city out and plot the addresses of their employees onto it, then determine the location which provided the shortest average travel time.

That they then ignored that and chose a location close to the CEO’s club makes it no less a good example. For employees, read customers, and remember, your ideal location may not be the same as everyone else’s.

The character of the venue also matters – it needs to be in tune with your brand values. Is your brand hyper-trendy, design-conscious and a bit snobby? Avoid chain hotels. Are you conservative, middle aged and respectable? Don’t hire the Ministry of Sound. Also please get a venue which will be appropriate – think about size, air quality, lighting and noise. Air and light can keep the audience awake, or send them to sleep, and noise will interfere seriously with their enjoyment of a speaker.


Traditionally the hardest P, this is a difficult element. The best sense you can get is by looking at similar events in your market. Most trade shows are free to visit, but I know of one (MIPIM – in property) that costs over £1,000 just to walk through the door. Many European trade shows have a substantial visitor entry price – over £100. One-day conferences in the pharmaceutical sector cost upwards of £1,500 to register, while those in civil engineering command more like £300. Your price needs to be commensurate with what your audience would expect to pay.

And while it has nothing to do with how much you can charge, the costs do matter. You can work out, in advance, your break-even point based on costs and price. Is that achievable? Do you have enough data to sell to? Do other similar events attract those sorts of numbers?


In the old days, you’d organise your event, then send out a ton of direct mail. Then you’d send another ton. That’s less common now, and, just as with your subscription promotions, it’s important to use a variety of communication methods.

It’s increasingly important to use electronic or online methods – you have to have an event website, for example. Email is increasingly used to promote in the place of physical direct mail. Many events have LinkedIn groups, Twitter accounts, or Facebook presences.

Press is really important. It’s odd to be saying that in a magazine aimed primarily at publishers, but hopefully you, the reader, will enjoy hearing it. Sadly, by press I really mean editorial. If you think a big schedule of house ads will fill your event, you are mistaken. Your readers will need to believe the event is important to attend because editors or columnists think it is, because that’s what implies it’s important to the industry.

I once worked on an event where the editor of the associated title was uncomfortable about writing about it – he judged it not to be of sufficient interest to his readers. If this happens to you – a giant alarm should start going off. A mismatch between the event and the audience (see “Product” above) will not lead to a sustainable profit stream. That editor was right, in the end. The event closed two years later.

It’s possible that your own titles may not provide the full communication mix you need. Don’t be afraid of sending PR to other publishers in the sector, the worst they can do is ignore it. You might even approach someone who publishes something similar but non-competitive – could they be a media partner? B2B magazine led events can attract support from a newspaper for example.

Then there’s word of mouth – your speakers, sponsors, exhibitors, and already-booked attendees all have a vested interest in the event being a success. Get them to put the word out among their networks – let your speakers and sponsors give their customers an “extra-special discount”.

It’s also important to start early. One conference organiser I worked with had a patient 16 week promotional cycle for every single event. You can’t give your audience a month’s notice and expect their diaries to be clear.

Do it properly

Finally, a word about resources. Invest in some.

You may not have all the skills necessary in-house, so don’t be afraid to hire some in, or perhaps better to outsource some of the aspects of delivery. Publishers won’t necessarily have the logistics, venue management or customer service skills required for an event, and there are a large number of agencies who can deliver some or all of that better and cheaper than you can do it in-house.

Above all, don’t expect your existing team to accommodate the extra work in their lunch hours. At best, the event will affect their day job. At worst, both will fail catastrophically. A job fair I once worked on used to use the recruitment sales team to run the show. Unsurprisingly, the issue following the show was always a bad week for recruitment revenue. Funny that.