When it comes to the crunch

March 18, 2005

Whatever the size of your conference, keeping downcosts is a must - which means savvy marketing, says Michael North. So forget the freebies, it's the quality of speakers that delegates are interested in

Joe McAleer took a pragmatic attitude to marketing his "Model United Nations" conference at Queen's University Belfast in January. "We basically took anything coming to us," he admits. This included promotion in the student newspaper, Gown , a plug on the university website and reciprocated advertising through similar societies in other universities:

"Many said they would advertise our conference if we advertised their society."

Though McAleer's event is in the minnow league - it attracted about 80 delegates - his need to work to an extremely tight marketing budget is common to all organisers of academic conferences.

Elaine Walters works for the Anglo-American Conference of Historians, a three-day conference with a budget of up to £30,000 that will attract up to 400 delegates in July. She says: "Our marketing methods depend on whether we have managed to secure external sponsorship. The events budget is run on an absolute shoestring. If we do not secure sponsorship, we use methods that cost us very little, such as our email databases of national and international historians."

Walters says email has been the key change in the way the conference has been marketed over its 78-year history. "It has enabled us to reduce costs significantly. It has meant a reduction in the need to pay relatively large sums to place ads in the press."

Marketing budgets for academic conferences also tend to be small so that registration costs can be kept down for impoverished delegates.Because academics don't have huge budgets for conference attendance, Walters says, they tend to be discerning about which they choose to go to.

Keynote speakers, above all, sell a conference. "The coherence of the conference and the quality of speakers market themselves," says Mel Kersey, from Otago University in New Zealand, who helped organise a two-day conference on Romanticism and Gothic Revisionism at Bristol University in January.

Nick Hillier, organiser of the Science Communication conference in the British Association's Festival of Science, agrees. "People attend to hear the speakers and, although catering and venue are often the things that people complain about, they are less important in attracting delegates. If you have a good programme, you are 95 per cent there for a successful conference," he says.

While large, long-established conferences do not struggle to attract delegates - Walters, for example, talks of an "expectant audience" of historians waiting to be contacted each year - some of the smaller conferences face tough competition. Terry Billingham, chief executive of Venuemasters, which promotes academic venues, warns that competition for conference hosting is growing every year, so marketing is an increasingly important consideration "if a venue wants to maintain or increase its share of the market".

Timing is also crucial. A spokesman for Crossing Cultures: Identities in the Material World , a conference that took place at Bristol in January, says: "We missed out on the North American market because the conference fell at the same time as the Archaeological Institute of America and American Philological Association annual joint conference, which has thousands of delegates and is the only national recruiting fair for jobs in the North American academic job market for classics, ancient history and classical archaeology."

The Aberystwyth Post-International Group worked against the clock to market its conference on Derrida: Negotiating the Legacy , at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, in January. "We expected there to be many similar events and we tried to move quickly to get as many big names as possible," says Marie Suetsugu, the organiser.

Peter Forshaw, who recently co-organised a conference on Biblical Exegesis and the Emergence of Science in the Early Modern Era at Birkbeck College, University of London, says he had to work hard to combat a clash with a conference on Petrarch and made the mistake of overlapping the conference with Thanksgiving Day in America "so the US speakers pulled out".

Partnerships between university departments and another body can greatly help the marketing of a conference. This year, the British Library will host a conference on Hans Christian Andersen, on August 8-10, in cooperation with the Institute of English Studies at the University of London, to run alongside a major exhibition on the author.

Heather Soderlind, the BL's head of public and regional marketing, says the conference and exhibition will work symbiotically to attract UK and foreign, particularly Scandinavian, scholars who may then become BL researchers.

The BL's exhibition catalogues, which the library hopes conference delegates will buy, are a rare example of merchandising by UK conference organisers. Again, the problem is cash. Walters says: "Aside from providing an Institute of Historical Research carrier bag, we do not provide merchandise, although delegates like them. Merchandising is a cost issue for us."

Publishers, who often run stands at conferences, can provide extra freebies for delegates. For Forshaw and his co-organiser, Kevin Killeen, the presence of publishers gave a good networking opportunity to "commercially savvy" dons, and led to an offer to publish a book of the conference papers. It also provided a few extra funds. "We spent the £50 on Pringles," Forshaw says. Clearly, academic conferences are not a money-spinner.

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