Every national association has different wants and needs from its conference host city. This blog is not meant to convince you to choose one city over another. Instead, I hope to break down the major decision factors when planning the geographic location of an association conference. For simplicity purposes, I will focus on Canadian-based association conferences. However, the factors will likely remain the same when looking beyond country borders.
A natural place to start when determining a host city for a national association conference is where members are geographically located. Members likely make up most of your conference attendees, therefore choosing a location that is accessible to a good fraction of members is effective. Choosing a city that members need not fly to eliminates travel costs and encourages greater participation.
Factor in how many local members live in or close to the host city. It is equally as important to factor in how many members do not live nearby. Elevated travel time and costs will negatively impact a member’s decision to attend the association conference. As a result, choosing a certain city could isolate and exclude a number of members. For this reason, most association conferences adopt a geographical rotation when planning annual conferences.
Each association’s membership base will have varying preferences when it comes to their conference location. Some association members may prefer a destination-style city where they are more motivated to travel. Others may not have the flexibility in their schedule for travel and can only attend a conference if it is hosted locally. Another group may only consider destinations based on affordability. This is why it is extremely important to poll the membership frequently to understand their motivating factors when attending an association conference. For survey tools and other benefits to surveying members, please refer to my colleague’s article, Why Survey Members of an Association?.
The affordability of hosting an association conference in a specific city will affect both the association and its conference attendees. Some cities are more affordable when it comes to hotel room rates and meeting space rental. This is where the deciding factors become a balancing act. A city that is posting higher room rates and rental costs is likely because that city is considered more of a tourist destination. As a result of that destination appeal, does it attract more delegates? Are delegates willing to pay the higher room rate because of the appeal of the destination? Historic registration trends and member surveys can help answer these questions and justify whether a more expensive city should be considered.
Most destination marketing organizations (DMOs) can include some sort of city funding assistance as part of their city’s bid to host an association conference. Remember that this funding is typically only available during a destination’s selection process. Once an association has selected its host city and venues, it is too late to apply for any city funding. The destination can offer incentives in the form of a financial grant or in-kind opportunities such as airport signage. These city incentives can help offset some conference expenses in order to meet the association conference’s bottom line.
Some destinations will have different peak seasons than others. Depending on the timing of the association conference, find out when each potential destination reaches its peak. Room rates and rental costs will be higher during those peak seasons so looking for a destination that is on its low or shoulder season over the association conference dates can result in cost savings overall.
Always ask the DMO if any other events are being held at the same time that as the association conference. If the conflicting event is large enough, it can result in delegates competing for flights and hotel rooms. A large-scale event can also drive up costs in the area which will impact both the association’s hosting costs as well as the delegate’s personal expenses throughout their stay. The DMO plays a huge role in bringing association conferences to their city and the relationship should be mutually beneficial. For more information on how to best work with a DMO, please review my article interview, Association Event Planning Tips – An In Depth Interview with DMOs.
Overall there is no perfect formula that exists to determine the best destination for your association conference. There are, however, several factors that should be considered before contracting a host city. By paying special attention to these major factors, you are delivering on member expectations and encouraging greater attendance. This results in a more profitable conference overall. Once that city has been determined, the venue proposal fun can begin! For best practice advice on what to ask of venues in an RFP, refer to my previous article, RFPs for Association Conferences – What to Ask and How to Ask It.