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EVENT INTELLIGENCE

When Size Does Matter—for Meetings, That Is

How meeting professionals choose when to host large conventions and when to hold smaller, more intimate conferences.

By Martha C. White October 11, 2013, 7:00 AM EDT

Bloomberg Link, Bloomberg L.P.'s executive conference division, hosts numerous gatherings each year, convening speakers and attendees in various locations, including New York, San Francisco, London, Israel, and Qatar.

Photo: Courtesy of Bloomberg

Is bigger better? Or is smaller smarter? When it comes to event sizes, planners have debated the question seemingly forever.

The reason behind the lack of consensus, meeting organizers say, is that there isn't a definitive right or wrong answer. The intimacy and audience participation fostered at regional TED conferences wouldn't work on a cavernous convention center floor. Similarly, the Consumer Electronics Show wouldn't be a must-attend magnet for the industry if it were broken into a cluster of smaller events.

Meeting professionals say there are a number of factors to consider to determine if small or big will work better for your event.

Look at who you want to attract
“Consider how busy people are,” says Adrian Segar, a consultant and author specializing in participant-driven meetings. A C-level executive who attends your industry's big annual trade show or conference might not carve out the time to attend a local event.

“If your audience is small-business owners who are not likely to want to take time away from their office or might not have the economics to travel, you may have to go to them,” says Scott Schenker, general manager of worldwide events at Microsoft Production Studios.

And while corporate head honchos might not have the time to attend a national event, mid-level staffers might not have the leeway to expense a trip halfway across the country. “People don’t have the budgets they once had,” says Thom Casadonte, global head of events for Bloomberg L.P. Sometimes, that means going to them. “It’s almost like a concierge service,” he says. “You have to dissect the market.”

Big events deliver big clout—and big returns
An argument for holding a single, big flagship event is that it gives the organizer the chance to attract more high-profile speakers. “There's an issue of prestige. At a larger event, you can get better speakers and everybody who’s everybody will be there,” Segar says.

“By virtue of our attendance, it becomes appealing to those higher-echelon speakers,” says Lori Luna, vice president of event operations for BlogHer, whose flagship conference with more than 4,000 attendees attracted President Obama (via video feed) and Facebook exec Sheryl Sandburg this year. “Because it’s a larger event, one thing we’re able to deliver to attendees is a high quality of speakers,” she says. “That presents leverage, so to speak, with our bigger speakers.”

Budgets can be another factor. “I think for many organizations, that flagship event is the moneymaker, and that’s what’s critical,” says Tracy Petrillo, chief learning officer at Educause.

On the flip side, a shoestring budget might call for the type of event where this kind of fanfare isn't the norm. “The other thing that tends to happen, and I think this is a legacy expectation, is larger events are expected to bring certain elements—keynote, celebration—they tend to bring elements a smaller event wouldn’t,” Schenker says.

Starting small gives room to grow—or not
Local or regional events can be a way to get a foot in the door, planners say. “On the national level, there’s a lot of competition in certain verticals and I don’t see much competition on a local level,” says Ryan Begelman, C.E.O. of commercial real estate media and event company Bisnow Media.

What’s more, it can be hard to get traction for a big event right off the bat. “If you go big the first time, do you risk it not working and compromise the integrity of your other properties,” Luna says. “Your reputation is also a factor.” Starting small lets an organizer dip a toe into the water without as much of a commitment, she says. “It allows for scalability. It’s easier to scale up than scale down.”

Sometimes, though, staying small is a deliberate decision driven by a desire to let participants interact more than they could at a larger meeting. “There are certain events we have intentionally kept on a more intimate level,“ Luna says. One example is BlogHer's food conference, which about 600 people attend. “That size is working really well for that particular vertical, and it provides the type of intimacy the food blogger and aficionado want.”

“With a local event, you can create a sense of community for your audience for your brand that a national event can’t do,” Begelman says.

Technology splits the difference
With technological advances, large events increasingly can serve as “tentpoles” for a franchise that include hybrid events, real-time communication, and social elements—potentially building that sense of community across the miles. “Nowadays all content should have some sort of syndication plan,” Schenker says.

“For Cisco Live, we have an online event that is a year-round community,” says Staci Clark, global marketing strategy manager at Cisco Systems. “In this case we’ve taken the large event and recognized there are travel restrictions for people, so [now] they have the opportunity to participate virtually.”

Rather than cannibalizing their attendance, “We’ve found it’s actually building our audience for the on-site event,” Clark says. “You’ll never find someone who’s going to substitute one for the other. Online extends our reach exponentially. It still keeps them involved in the Cisco brand.”

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