Are start-up firms eventful?

Entrepreneurs tend to be visionaries, but given all the operational balls they typically have in the air at once, it takes a lot of imagination – not to mention nerve – or a new sole proprietor to think he or she can put on a relevant seminar, let alone a conference. Still, we've seen it done time and again in Madison, as businesses like Lindsay Stone & Briggs build conferences like Brandworks from the ground up.

Most of the necessary ingredients, particularly energy and expertise, already are present in the entrepreneurial class. The challenge, of course, involves time and scale, but the former can be addressed by tapping into local meeting planning expertise, and the latter can be built up over time. The key is to have something valuable to contribute. "Always keep in mind, when formulating the program, of the need to make it worth their while," said Alison Huber, sales manager for the Wisconsin Dells Visitor and Convention Bureau and a one-time meeting planner. "For attendees, their time is precious."

In Your Plans

Whether you're an accountant who can go into great detail about Sarbanes Oxley compliance, or an attorney who can offer guidance on preparing for the implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, there is no need to make the faulty assumption that meeting planning is above your pay grade.

Jodi Goldbeck, an instructor in the Meeting and Event Management Degree Program at Madison College, said the first question business owners have to ask is: "what are my objectives?" This is where you examine what you have to offer as a professional and why it's relevant to the core audience you wish to attract. If you can't get past this point, forget about it.

The second question, according to Goldbeck, would be: can I handle this on my own? Doubts over whether you can plan an event, even one that is likely to begin at a smaller scale, need not sink the event because there are meeting planners who work with sole proprietors and large organizations alike. However, it is crucial to answer this question because your time is as precious as that of the attendees. You have to be able to run your business and tend to meeting details simultaneously.

"If they wanted to have customers come to an event so that they could be made aware of their services, it's something they can do on their own," Goldbeck stated, "but a meeting planner has expertise behind where you hold the meeting. What are the logistics? Who are your attendees? Asking the what, when, where, why – that would be something that this person [entrepreneur] would have to ask themselves."

Huber said establishing a program that offers value would entail a hot business topic, which would provide a compelling business reason to attend, and having something actionable that attendees can take back to the office. Whoever plans the event must figure out who to market the meeting to, and use a cross-channel approach to communications. "Market online, via postcards, and through e-mail blasts, and get the word out there," Huber said. "You want to be able to provide people with a service."

Meeting Professionals International (MPI) is an organization of independent meeting planners, most of whom have built relationships with facilities and suppliers and other vendors who serve business events. There are more than 300 MPI members in Wisconsin, some of whom entrepreneurs might hire for a project (most are already employed), or to network with to pick their brains, if you're determined to do it yourself. Building relationships with people who do meeting planning for a living could be beneficial because generally they are willing to lend advice.

Goldbeck, a former director of conference services at the Fluno Center for Executive Education, said when selecting a venue, a typical practice is to send out

Requests for Proposals to facility contacts to gather information about rooms, conference amenities and equipment, and costs. (The Greater Madison Convention and Visitors Bureau has a complete list of hotel amenities and conference centers in Greater Madison, including number of rooms, capacity, equipment, and contacts.)

"That is where meeting planners would be a good place to turn," Goldbeck said, "but if they were doing it themselves, they would want to do a lot of comparison shopping. If you are going to have a 100-person meeting, that's going to be different than a room for 15 people. Once you figure out who your attendees are going to be, and how many you would want to attend, then you can compare different facilities on space, costs, and whatever restrictions they have. When you sign the contract, you need to know exactly what you're getting."

Added Huber: "The location should be easy to access and have a good reputation. Also, does it fit with the image you want to convey?"

Consider your audience when determining the time of day and any food service. "Think of the best time of day to come, with travel time factored in," Huber noted. "The first stop in the morning or last stop at night might be best to cut down on the attendees' travel time."

Planners also are increasingly interested in calculating return on investment for their clients, something that business owners should take into consideration when selecting a planner. "You are really valuable if you can walk into the office of an entrepreneur who wants to have a meeting and say, 'This is what I can do for you, here is your investment in me, and here is the return you are going to get,'" Goldbeck said. "I would think a smart planner would do that."

Goldbeck said there are several types of planners, including aspiring ones who can remove some of the cost for start-up businesses. Madison College students who have advanced toward completion of its associate degree program in meeting management would be willing to assist, and they are a low-cost option. "A lot of our students do volunteer work, so that business person could get in touch with our internship coordinator. It helps their experience and with writing a resume. We wouldn't refer them to somebody who wasn't toward the end of the program."

Even if students have largely mastered the curriculum, business owners would need to look at how much time they could commit. Madison College students take between 14 to 18 credits per semester, so you're competing with academic pursuits.

Finally, when the day of the event arrives, it's your show. You not only need to raise awareness about your business, you must share your expertise in the process. So needless to say, you are the main presenter until the event takes off and you can build it into a bona fide conference.

A post-event survey helps you assess what went right and what went wrong, and it can lead to future growth. "After the event, you don't want to just say it's over and move on," Goldbeck counseled. "You really have to evaluate your attendees to find out what worked and what did not, and to see if you want to do it again. That rolls back into ROI."


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