By Maureen Sojka
Just like real estate, a conference is about location, location, location. Before picking a hotel or conference center, consider all the factors surrounding the location of your event.
The location sets the stage for attendees and can become as big a draw as the conference itself. A great location that people want to visit makes saying yes to attending your event that much easier. Often, attendees may stay an extra day or two before or after your event to relax and explore the location.
When choosing the perfect location, there are several factors to consider:
Time of Year
Timing is critical when planning your conference because it can affect location availability, budget and transportation.
If your group holds its major event in February, New Orleans might not be the best choice because the city celebrates Mardi Gras throughout the month, which will occupy hotel rooms and drive up costs.
Weather can be a major factor at certain times of the year. While planning a November event in Aspen sounds idyllic as you picture a networking session around the lodge’s fireplace, Mother Nature may have a different idea and decide your convention week is a great time for a snowstorm.
Many locations heartily welcome conventions in what’s known as “shoulder season” or off season, which is the time in between peak travel. As an example, shoulder season on the East Coast tends to be after children go back to school in August or early September to mid-October when the weather is still nice enough to enjoy the beaches, but the summer vacation crowds have waned.
Looking at shoulder season times will give your convention more flexibility in terms of room availability and accessibility to dining options or popular locations because of diminished crowds.
These times will also give your group some wiggle room with its budget. Hotels are looking to fill rooms and restaurants are looking to fill seats during these times, so there is room for negotiation that benefits everyone and is gentle on your bottom line.
Transportation & Accessibility
When selecting a location, transportation is a key component. How are people going to get there? Is there an airport nearby? Is that airport an international airport where there are regular flights? It is tough to plan a conference in the off season at a beach resort when flights might not be as plentiful and many local services close for the season.
For example, Chicago is a great city for a conference because it has an international airport and a transportation support system to take passengers to their final destination once they arrive.
Some regional airports are smaller than others and do not have the amenities business travelers might need, such as an onsite hotel in case of major delays or a car rental service to get around town.
Transportation around the host city should be thought about as well, especially if your conference is not self-contained in a hotel convention center. Is the city easy to navigate? Is there a public transportation system attendees can use?
Location of the Location
When considering locations, it is great to go somewhere, but your association has to ask if it is feasible.
You don’t want attendees staring out the window and daydreaming about their toes in the sand or skis on the slopes. Consider if the location itself will distract from the objectives of the conference.
Also, consider where the majority of the attendees are located. Is there a concentration of members somewhere? Would it make sense to have an event closer to them to keep the travel expenses to a minimum? For example, if you are planning an event for the Northeast Boxmaking Society, the journey and expense to get to a conference in California, will impact attendance.
When planning a faraway conference, you need to allow time for travel. Could extra travel days make it more or less attractive for attendees to come to your event?
You should also consider what the membership prefers. Listen to requests they have made on previous year’s surveys and review attendance of past events. If you get more attendees in one region, explore why attendance was high—did they like the property itself? Was it easy to get to? Was it economical? Based on the answers, it might make sense to repeat having an event there or at least in the same region.
Or, would it make sense to rotate your location to appeal to all members? This way, one year some members get to stay close to home while others travel and vice versa the next time.
Meeting the Budget
There, we’ve said it. The evil word—budget. While everyone likes to dream of fabulous conferences in exotic locales, the visions of grandeur come to a screeching halt once the budget comes into play.
The location of your event, getting there and time of year all impact the budget. For example, the group that wanted its conference in February in New Orleans has several options. First, choose another month when it is not Mardi Gras, or if they are committed to February, look at another city that offers housing and restaurant options that are not in the height of their season.
When thinking budget, think not only of the association, but the attendees coming to the event. Is the overall cost of your event within their budget? Are they paying to attend your conference or is their company?
Picking the location is one of many crucial steps in planning a great conference that will generate excitement among its attendees. Care and attention here will generate great results later.
Maureen Sojka is an events manager at CMA Association Management. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you would like to leverage CMA Association Management’s experience, we would love to chat. Please contact us at 800.852.4269 or email us at email@example.com.