The conference industry works in long arcs of time, and short bursts of excitement. When a conference is won for Ireland, the landscape is often radically different by the time the first delegate steps off the plane at Dublin airport many years later.
For the 29th World Buiatrics Congress in 2016, the bidding process began in 2008. In those 8 years, the world changed; the Convention Centre Dublin hadn’t been built yet, the social media platforms so ubiquitous today were only beginning their lives and the methods of communication between industry professionals – such as journals and newsletters – were only starting to be moved online.
And in those 8 years the WBC attendances dropped from over 2,000 in 2012 to just under 1,000 in 2014. For one of the original bidders and the Treasurer of the Local Organising Committee, Kevin O’Farrell, it represented a big problem.
“It made it difficult to budget. We knew that Ireland had huge destination appeal and the WBC delegates were excited about Dublin and the CCD, but we simply didn’t have the database to reach them” said Kevin. “How can someone register for your conference if they don’t know about it? We used to send a printed invitation once every couple of years to our membership and that was that – now you are competing against every related meeting in the world. With the cost of travel, you’re no longer restricted to only going to your local meeting and neither are any of your potential delegates.”
Numbers are important, and predicting them can be just as critical. During the five days on-site at the CCD, 18,912 cups of coffee and 21,112 slices of cake were served, amply demonstrating why informed planning can make such an impact on the overall budget in a multitude of areas.
“The uncertainty over the numbers made us shift our early focus” said Ali Murphy, Senior Project Manager for WBC 2016. “We knew that the abstract numbers would give a great indication on the final attendance, so we consciously put additional resources – both time and money – into the period between launching the abstract campaign and its close.”
With an outdated database that was largely drawn from outside their 2016 target market and a record low attendance at the 2014 iteration, they knew a plan was required to reinvigorate the congress and the association.
A global marketing strategy, driven through digital, was put in place by MCI Dublin. Moving advertising spend away from traditional print to digital media, creating a WBC brand personality, using good content over sales tactics, running fun campaigns (such as the #CowSelfie competition which had nearly 100 entries) that generate engagement, were all key elements of the marketing plan.
“We found that a lot of the traditional outlets where a congress would advertise on either no longer had the reach they once had, or were charging huge sums of money for a single print advertisement” said Hugh Torpey, Marketing Manager in MCI Dublin. “So we simply said ‘no thanks’ and went elsewhere. We were able to actively reach tens of thousands of people – and get the data to back it up – for a fraction of the cost through digital advertising. We reduced our budget and increased our reach; all at the same time as reaching new markets and new potential delegates.”
Over the course of 12 months a record number of abstracts were submitted, the database tripled in size, social media followers came to the association in droves with the #WBC2016 hashtag receiving 11.3 million impressions on Twitter alone while the Facebook page received over 100,000 interactions, digital media partnerships were created to expand WBC’s presence online, and ultimately a record 3,198 delegates registered for WBC 2016 – an increase of more than 320% compared to the previous congress in 2014.
“The marketing was vital” said Michael Sexton, Chair of the Local Organising Committee “but it’s the organisational excellence behind the flashy stuff that really helps. Our delegates had such a smooth experience that word of mouth became our secret weapon. When every interaction a delegate has with you is pleasant and professional, then nowadays you see them praising you online. At the start we feared people complaining, like many people did a few years ago, but in reality we’ve seen nothing but positive praise; that’s down to Ali Murphy and her team in MCI”.
The Congress received an 89% satisfaction rate from the delegates in Dublin, with crucial elements such as on-site registration being rated ‘very good – excellent’ by 97% of attendees. The real results come from the words of these delegates, and the sponsors who made it happen. One major sponsor commented “I have worked in the industry for 18 years and I have attended many conferences – WBC Dublin was one of the best” while a delegate said “This is the best WBC congress I’ve been to in 20 years!”
Through a re-adjusting of the traditional marketing tactics used by the association, building a brand personality around the association, creating a genuine community online through humour and good content, backed-up by logistical excellence and superb customer support, the WBC Congress has expanded its future potential delegate base significantly, allowing the next organisers to plan without fear of ordering too much cake and coffee.
In an industry such as veterinary sciences that is fundamentally linked to the success of the natural environment it operates in, the CCD was the ideal venue to represent that ethos. From the very beginning the fact that the CCD was such a sustainable venue was an important factor in deciding the location for WBC 2016.
All elements of the Congress expected to have a negative impact on the environment were stripped back and replaced with digital alternatives; from digital distribution of the abstract book, a printed pocket programme alongside the Congress app to replace the full printed version, replaced physical delegate bag inserts with banner adverts on the app wherever possible, actively encouraged using public transport and using the CCD’s ingrained policies and infrastructure to produce the most environmentally sustainable congress in the association’s history.
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