January 25, 2021

5 Reasons Why Most Events Don't Grow and What to Do About It

In my experience, I see the following five factors stifle the growth of events, conferences, annual meetings, and trade shows. Most events and trade shows don’t grow at more than a few percentage points year-over-year, and they certainly don’t grow exponentially. Why?

​Let’s take a look at these five key underlying root causes:

  1. Lack of ambition. P​​​​​eople and organizations change for one of two reasons: inspiration or desperation. The desire for growth is often not compelling enough to overcome the gravitational pull of the status quo. The current level of acceptable event results can lead to a mindset of “don’t fix what’s not broken.”
  2. Limitations presented by a finite addressable population of potential attendees. This can be a real barrier to growth but is most often a self-imposed perceptual barrier. The definition of a population that is limited to endemic audiences can be a major barrier to expanding your community.
  3. Resource limitations, specifically lack of staff, budget, and often limitations in expertise and experience in the high-growth strategies required for the break-away growth objectives to be accomplished.
  4. Competition that has captured market share by outpacing the events hosted by associations. The root cause of this factor is a competitor seeing opportunity and a blue ocean space that has not yet been seized by the incumbent market leader. Many non-profits suffer from what we call 'better sameness' in their event model, resulting in the lack of a reimagining of the event experience. The rapid rate of change and increased expectations of the new audiences that event organizers are seeking to attract is increasing faster than most events can keep up with. This growth limitation factor is exploited by competition who DO innovate and thus reap the rewards by addressing the changing needs of the market.
  5. Inability to scale. This is the most interesting growth limitation and has the greatest potential for organizations, particularly if they are not held captive by the first four limitations. Scale is simply how things change with size. Scale relates to the proportional efficiencies gained by leveraging the non-linear (superlinear) progression of applying technology, innovative thinking (such as new forms of curricular programming), and a host of other “super chargers” available to event designers in 2021.

Let me explain.

The first four growth limitations are relatively easy to fix: so much of what needs to change for organizations held prisoner by low ambition, lack of resources, lack of vision, the inability to identify new audiences, and the plight of better sameness can certainly be addressed with a good dose of leadership, some outside help, and enough pain to serve as the necessary catalyst to act.

So, then, let’s focus on how to scale your event. What does it mean to say that the inability to scale is the most vexing growth limitation and the one with the biggest upside?

Scale for our purposes can be thought of in terms of the progression (growth) or regression (shrinkage) of an organization over time resulting from the adoption (or not) of the necessary technologies, behaviors, and incentives to achieve progress that exceeds the effort exerted; hence the term “economies of scale.” Think “more bang for the buck,” more efficiency, and higher output per unit of input. You can also think of it as your “organizational metabolism.”

A fascinating insight was revealed to me in a wonderful book on this subject called Scale: The Universal Laws of Life, Growth, and Death in Organisms, Cities, and Companies, by Geoffrey West. Mr. West tells us that all mammals have approximately 1.5 billion heartbeats over the course of their life. He goes on to explain that the smallest mammal, a shrew has a three-year life span and that the largest mammal, the blue whale has a life span of over 100 years. Why? They both have 1.5 billion heartbeats. You guessed it: the shrew’s heart beats about 450 times per minute, and the whale's about 20 beats per minute. This is the result of what is called sublinear scaling of the metabolic rate as mammals get bigger. What this means is that as a mammal gets bigger it is about 25% more efficient as it moves (scales) from one mammal size to the next. A dog's heart beats slower than a hamster's, and our human heart beats faster than an elephant's. Fascinating right? Thus, the 1.5 billion average heartbeats over the lifetime of all mammals (including humans).

Now, let’s look at a company or an organization like yours. The opposite is true. As an organization gets bigger, it gets more effective at a rate of about 15% at each level of growth (scale). This is called superlinear scaling. Said simply, Apple is just a larger, more efficient version of your organization and has scaled at levels of 15% improvement over time, mostly through innovation.

So, what does this mean for your event or trade show? I see several major opportunities for associations and professional societies to accelerate their event growth, reduce their risk, and build a new event business model that sets their organization on a new trajectory toward success over the next five years. Given the disruption of 2020 and the uncertainly of 2021, do we have a choice? The factors listed below are the building blocks that allow your team to scale your event and, in so doing, create exponential growth, sustainability, and market share dominance.

How to Scale Your Event

  1. Capture and apply the strategic use of audience data. Demographics is destiny, and every event has to understand, design for, and attract the right composition of demographics to grow. Audience research, profiling and segmentation is the only way to build an event that is tailored to the audiences you have AND that you seek to attract.
  2. Adopt a product development mentality. Scaling your event requires reducing friction, increasing the efficiency of your “event metabolism,” and eliminating the unnecessary waste and cost that is slowing down your growth. The best way to accomplish this is to have your event “secret-shopped” by a professional that knows what to look for and who can help you design your next event using event product development best practices.
  3. Align your team and appoint an event CEO with full accountability and leadership across organizational boundaries. Organizational inefficiencies are a form of entropy (wasted energy) that reduce decision-making time, add cost, and produce friction, which results in limited growth. Events need a boss that can call the shots, align cross-functional teams, and own the outcome and success of the event.
  4. Adapt how you work with your board, volunteers, and committees to allow for input but not mandates or strategic and tactical direction. Leave the work of designing your new event “product” to the experts. You don’t have to change your governance (just yet), but you must get agreement that to scale your event, all interested constituents must support your vision, ambition, and event CEO to be ready for what is required for success in 2021, 2022, and beyond.
  5. Expand your horizon and apply best practices that work in other sectors, industries, and domains. Eighty percent of what you need to do to scale and achieve exponential growth has already been done somewhere else. There is no reward for starting from scratch. You do NOT have to reinvent the wheel, just study how others have used the wheel and apply it to your unique situation.

If this approach piques your interest and you want to learn more about how to scale your event strategy and accelerate growth this year, I hope to hear from you.

Don Neal
Founder & CEO

360 Live Media

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