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Planning a Successful Conference and Exposition

By Lisa Block, VP, Meetings and Conferences, SHRM   
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Planning a successful conference requires adequate time and preparation. The following information will help you get started. This is not intended to be a complete guide to planning meetings and expositions; rather it offers some suggestions and guidelines to follow. Please do not hesitate to contact us if you have any questions as you plan your meetings. The SHRM Meetings and Conferences staff collectively has more than 40-years of experience in all facets of meetings management and we will be happy to assist you.


To secure the best possible site for your meeting, consider the following:

  1. Location and accessibility
    • Downtown vs. suburbs vs. resort.
    • Proximity to airport, major interstates, train or subway stop.
    • Cost and availability of parking.

  2. Scheduling your meeting
    • Avoid religious holidays and state or national holidays.
    • Ask what other groups are scheduled in the facility during your meeting and immediately before and after your meeting.
    • Determine the basic schedule for your meeting before you select a site.

  3. Site Inspection:
    • Ask for references from other groups which have recently met at the property.
    • Is the hotel accessible for persons with disabilities?
    • Is there adequate meeting, registration and exhibit space for your program?
    • Is there an Audio Visual company on site? If not, how can you obtain equipment at the last minute?
    • Is there a business center (if not, what arrangements can be made for last minute copying or faxing?)
    • What are the emergency procedures?
    • Is airport transportation provided?
    • Are the sleeping rooms clean and well appointed?
    • Check for general cleanliness and quality of furnishings and decoration throughout the property.
    • Ask if any renovation is scheduled and what impact it might have on your meeting.
    • Determine if any meeting room charges will be requested and how those charges are determined (these can often be negotiated, particularly if you plan to hold meal functions)
    • Observe attitude of hotel staff at the front desk and in restaurants to determine the level of customer service.

  4. Contract Negotiation

    Negotiating a contract should be a win/win for both you and the facility. Remember, while it never hurts to ask, the hotel will rarely accede to all your requests. The bottom line is that the hotel realizes its revenue from sleeping rooms and the more rooms your group uses, the more the hotel will negotiate on other issues. The following should be considered during your discussion of the contract:

    • Provide the hotel with your meeting history including sleeping room pick up at the prior meetings.
    • Discuss sleeping room rates, meeting room rates (if any) and costs related to exhibit space rental (if any).
    • Include a complete meeting room schedule with meeting room names and hours required.
    • Should you require an extensive A/V set up, ask for a 24-hour hold on rooms so you avoid expensive re-set charges.
    • Ask for a complimentary microphone (if needed) in meeting rooms.
    • Ask for one complimentary sleeping room for every 50 used by meeting attendees.
    • Review attrition clauses very carefully to determine your liability in case your meeting attendance drops. Make sure to ask the hotel for a sleeping room reservation total before the meeting starts and an actual room pick up report after the meeting concludes. This will give you a sense of history, which is crucial when negotiating future hotel contracts.
    • Cancellation clauses are standard in hotel contracts. Study these carefully and be sure these allow your organization the right to cancel should the hotel change materially from the time you contract (this can include a change in ownership, service quality or construction/renovation plans).
    • Block a suite if necessary for a VIP and ask it to be made either complimentary or at a discounted rate.
    • If you are meeting over a weekend, ask for a reduced room rate.

  5. Service
    • The slowing economy and War on Terrorism has impacted staffing and service levels at many hotels. It is in your best interest to get to know your Convention Services Manager and work closely with that individual. Additional questions around service and staffing might include:
      • What changes in staffing has the hotel experienced in the last 12-months.
      • Are there any changes in service that I should be aware of.
      • Flexibility in providing service on-site.


  • The Market

    The hotel industry is currently a buyer's market. However, this situation is not expected to last long-term. Hotels right now are hungry for business but not willing to "give away the store". You may be able to renegotiate room rates and meeting space charges more successfully in the near future.

  • Sleeping Room Attrition

    Most hotel contracts require groups to commit to utilization of a certain number of sleeping rooms for guests attending the conferences. Sometimes hotels demand 100% of the total room block while others are more flexible and will negotiate down to 80% of the total block before charges are assessed. You need to be very clear as to your vulnerability in this area.

  • Early Departure Fees

    Many hotels charge an early-departure fee to guests who do not stay for the length of their reservation. While this fee is usually waived for family emergencies, the practice is becoming common.

  • Food and Beverage Attrition

    You may see hotels asking for food and beverage guarantees when they submit the contract. For obvious reasons, this is something to negotiate carefully. They are essentially asking you as the sponsoring organization to guarantee a certain amount of food and beverage revenue to the hotel. They will usually allow a certain percentage of slippage but be sure you understand these clauses and the potential impact on your meeting. For instance, if you have promised the hotel a meal function and later decide to hold that event at an off-site venue, be prepared to pay the attrition fee.

  • Deposits and Payment Arrangements

    Many hotels are asking organizations to make substantial deposits before the meeting takes place. If you can demonstrate a good payment record by your organization, it is our opinion that a deposit should not be necessary, particularly if you agree to pay the bill within 10 days of receipt.

    Also, pay close attention to the payment portion of the contract. We regularly see billing cycles of fifteen days or the imposition of an additional percent fee. This is often negotiable by agreeing to pay 80% of the bill immediately and the remainder upon careful (usually more in depth) review within 30 days.


    The most critical factor in planning and producing a successful conference is developing and managing the budget. Following are budget tips and suggested Income and Expense areas you need to consider in your planning.

    • Determine the financial philosophy and goals of the meeting.
    • Should the meeting break even or produce a profit
    • Do you have a specific revenue or bottom line goal to meet
    • If possible, have an idea of the meeting program and schedule before you develop the budget

    1. Zero based budgeting or starting from scratch

      • Review records from previous meetings and compare budgets v. actual costs.
      • Identify and understand major discrepancies.
      • Research costs with suppliers (hotel, a convention bureau, decorator, travel agent, transportation providers, A/V company).
      • Contact organizers of meetings scheduled in the hotel immediately before and after you to investigate sharing decorations, menus, etc.
      • Get quotes in writing.
      • Become familiar with the history of the meeting.

    2. Clarify authorization and decision making

      • Who makes the final decisions on expenditures?
      • Who signs hotel master bills.
      • Limit number of people who can make decisions on-site regarding expenditures.
      • At what expense level is further authorization required.

    3. Record Keeping

      • Keep files current.
      • Copy all bills.
      • Create and review regular budget reports.
      • Develop clear and well-defined registration process for both advance registration and on-site registration.
      • Keep central files that can be shared with future planners.
      • Prepare a detailed final budget report for future use.

    4. Managing the Budget

      • Use available software for record keeping and budget projections
      • Benchmark progress using meeting history
      • Revise projections regularly and inform others as to changes
      • Conduct formal budget reviews to ensure expectations are clear
      • Know you budget well and if asked to cut expenses, be aware of the impact of those cuts and share that information


    Income Areas

    Description Explanation
    Advertising Income from ads placed in conference programs and directories
    Exhibits Fees from companies exhibiting at conferences
    Mailing List Income from rental of conference registrant mailing list to exhibitors and advertisers
    Registrations Income from individual registrations for meetings, seminars and conferences including differential in fee for members and non-members
    Sponsorships Support from outside organizations for various items and activities at conferences
    Ticket Sales Income from sales of ticket s to various events at conferences
    Miscellaneous Income Sales of conference audiotapes and other product sales

    Expense Areas

    Description Explanation
    Audio Visual Rental of A/V equipment, labor to set up equipment in meeting rooms, cost of a technician to monitor or run equipment during the meetings
    Awards Awards given during meeting (plaques, etc.) and expenses for award recipients
    Decoration Decoration of registration area, theme parties, centerpieces, etc.
    Exhibits Rental of exhibit space in facility. Service contractor fees including; pipe and drape, drayage and other equipment rental. May include printing and mailing of exhibit prospectus.
    Facility Rental As above, may include exhibit hall rental, meeting room rental, convention center charges or facilities for special events
    Food and Beverage Cost of planned meal functions, refreshment breaks, receptions Note: a gratuity charge and tax are almost always applied to food and beverage charges
    Gifts and Amenities Items purchased for VIPs (speakers, Board members/spouses, key staff) including delivery charges and taxes
    Gratuities Tips (either cash or gifts) given to staff to recognize exemplary service
    Insurance Cost of cancellation/interruption insurance (an additional rider may be required for off-site events)
    Labor Cost of labor to move boxes, equipment, set up meeting rooms
    Marketing/Promotion Cost of marketing plan, producing advertisements, purchase of mailing lists
    Music/Entertainment Professional/amateur musicians for events, licensing fees paid to ASCAP and BMI, comedians, magicians, strolling entertainment (include rental of instruments/sound equipment as necessary)
    Office Equipment Copiers, fax machines, computer and printers as needed on-site or in the office
    Postage & Shipping Cost of mailing promotional material, shipping materials to meeting site
    Press Cost of press releases, media tours, press room throughout meeting, press conferences
    Printing & Artwork Printing of promotional materials, conference program, exhibit directory and prospectus, directory of attendees, conference logo development, photography
    Professional Services Production support, consultants, child care providers (etc.)
    Registration Cost of badges, tickets, forms, outside computer services, bags or briefcases, other materials
    Security Professional security guards, ushers, ticket takers in exhibit hall, registration or in meeting rooms
    Signage Cost of preparing directional signage banners, podium logos, etc.
    Speakers Fees Fees charged by professional speakers including expenses
    Staff Expenses Sleeping rooms, travel and other expenses for staff
    Supplies Office supplies
    Taxes Sales tax
    Telephone Long distance charges and cost of installation and operation of telephones on-site
    Temporaries Cost for temporaty staff to support regular staff both pre-meeting and on-site
    Tours & Spouse/Guest Charges for tour operator/destination management company, speakers, gifts and food and beverage for spouse/guest programs
    Transportation Shuttle bus, car rental and limousine charges
    Volunteers Charges incurred by volunteers, including supplies, food and beverage


    • Take advantage of the times when attendees are not in sessions to build exhibit hall traffic. Make the exhibit hall an informative, interactive place to conduct business. Arrange for non-conflicting exhibit hall hours. This is exclusive time in the exhibit hall that does cont conflict with your conference program. Below are a few ideas to attract registrants and potential buyers into the exhibit hall.

    1. Prize Drawings

      • Solicit exhibitors for prize donations. Make the drawings interactive between the exhibitors and attendees. As the organizer, you can give away a free conference registration for the following year's conference.

    2. Food Functions

      • Hold meal functions in the exhibit hall. "Meals" would include:
      • Receptions - themed
      • Lunches
      • Continental Breakfasts
      • Coffee and refreshment breaks
      • Desserts


    1. Sponsorships

      • The Key to sponsorships is perceived value. If you choose to have sponsorships at your meeting, make sure that company sponsors receive value for their dollar. A good way to price sponsorships is to offer different tiered pricing with the most expensive sponsorships having the most benefits. Price your sponsorships realistically with value to the sponsor in mind. Recognize your sponsors and give them appropriate thanks. Here are a few ideas.

        • Sponsor names and logos on your conference website
        • Print company name and logos in pre-conference brochures and on-site programs.
        • Custom signage
        • Complimentary mailing labels
        • Acknowledge sponsors during general sessions
        • Complimentary registrations for sponsors
        • Sponsor ribbons

    2. Mailing List Rentals

      • Create a database using names of conference registrants and sell the lists exclusively to exhibitors for pre-and post-show mailings.

      • Advertising - If you have a Chapter Newsletter, dedicate one issue as a show issue and sell space to exhibitors. Sell advertising in your-on-site conference program.

    3. Customer Service

      • Provide excellent customer service. Remember that the exhibitors have made a big investment of time and money in your show, treat them with respect. Here are several ways to communicate with the exhibitors.

    4. Promotion

      • Promotion is critical to the success of any meeting. The exposition should be promoted to potential exhibitors and to the attendees of the conference. The following suggestions are geared specifically to attracting exhibitors.

      • Create a Database - A current and accurate database of potential exhibitors is vital. Centralize your records and pass your files on to your successor. There are several ways to create a good database for your trade show. Here are some ideas:
        • Past exhibitors - This should be your #1 source for exhibitors
        • Human Resource magazines - Advertisers are always good leads
        • Vendors - Anyone who is selling to you as a human resource professional, can be an exhibitor
        • Trade Shows - Attend competitor trade shows or other local shows
        • Local Chamber of Commerce lists

      • Exhibitor Prospectus - Design a functional brochure that is separate from your conference promotional brochure. Be specific and give detailed information on the exposition, some items to include are: attendee demographics, exhibit hall hours and event schedule, pricing, rules & regulations, exhibitor registration information, contact information, last year's exhibitor list, an exhibit space contract and a floor plan. Tell potential exhibitors why they should attend your meeting.

      • Mailings - If possible, start promoting the conference and exposition at least one year in advance. If detailed information is not known, prepare a simple promotional flier or brochure to hand out on-site. Your detailed exhibitor prospectus can be sent at a later date. If the exhibitors had a positive experience, they will be back. Mail to your database at least 3-4 times during the year.

    5. Select Contractors and Vendors
      • The Service Contractor is the most important vendor that you will select. Your Service Contractor will design a booth floor plan, set the pipe and drape, handle exhibitor freight and can assist with special decorating and furniture needs. Select a contractor who has an established track record and who will provide excellent customer service to your exhibitors. As volunteers, this will take a lot of the detailed move-in and move-out questions off your hands. Of course, the contractor should fit into your budget (refer to the budget section of this handout). The Service Contractor should be able to recommend other contractors, such as photographers, florists, A/V companies, etc.

      • Service Kits - Your contractor will prepare kits that contain information regarding the services they offer (carpet, electricity, booth furnishings, etc.). You can relay pertinent information to exhibitors by adding it to the service kit. The decorator will collate, stuff and mail the kits with your information included. Service Kits should be mailed 60-90 days before the conference to allow enough planning time for exhibitors.

      • Newsletters - Send a monthly newsletter to all exhibitors. It is an easy way to relate new information and reminders to exhibitors. It is also a venue for selling mailing lists, sponsorships and advertising.

      • Expo-Only Passes - Send free exhibit hall passes to your exhibitors. They can then invite their clients to visit the exhibit hall at no charge. This is also an excellent way for you to build your database.

      • Board Visits - Assign members of your chapter board to visit certain exhibitors during the show. Give them a floor plan and an index card for each exhibitor to write down comments. It is an easy way to make sure each booth is visited and thanked for an important member of your group.

      • Be Visible - It is also important for you, as the main contact, to visit all of your exhibitors. Be visible on the show floor to help answer questions or just talk to exhibitors.

      • Thank You Notes - send thank you letters to all exhibitors and sponsors. If your budget allows, send your best sponsors a small gift. It is an easy way to promote next year's conference too. 
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