By Bryan Borzykowski for The Globe and Mail
For the past five years, mortgage broker Dominion Lending Centres has held several events a year, ranging from cocktail parties to industry conferences, as it tried to woo more agents – and business – its way.
But the Aurora, Ont.-based company had no way of really knowing which of, and whether, the events were actually contributing to its growth.
Making the calculation “All we’d say was, ‘Is this a good event?’ and people would respond ‘Yeah, I think it was good,’” says president Gary Mauris, who knew he couldn’t keep spending money on such events without getting quantifiable results.
So last year, he hired an in-house events planner. One of her mandates: to track each event’s return on investment.
For years, many businesses have held meetings and events without giving any consideration to their measurable payoff. Companies would say, ‘let’s have a meeting and do it at a cool resort because I attended a wedding there.” Or, “it’s our annual conference and it’s time” for it, says Terry Breining, founder of Breining Group LLC, a California-based meetings and events consultancy.
But after the recession forced many small and mid-sized enterprises to start scrutinizing every last expense more closely, many more are starting to look at whether their meetings and events actually deliver a return – and what kind – beyond “everyone had a good time,” she says.
More clients are asking to track their events' ROI, says Rose Timmerman-Gitzi, owner of Ottawa-based RTG Events and president of the Canadian Society of Professional Event Planners. “It’s definitely a buzzword,” she says.
In the past, companies did try to look at immediate and more superficial results, such as whether a meeting came in under or over budget.
Now companies want to know on a much deeper and broader level about how a meeting or event affects their overall strategy and whether, and specifically what kind, of meaningful value it provides, Ms. Timmerman-Gitzi says. And they want it to be measurable, she adds.
The ROI focus is especially trained on large, important events, such as annual meetings, major conferences and sales retreats, says Suzanne Schell, owner of Ottawa-based ROI Institute Canada, an education and consulting service.These events can cost a lot of money and take up significant time, she says, so businesses want to make sure the expense returns a result.
“Many businesses are still afraid of this, they’re afraid of what they’ll find out,” she says. “But ROI studies are there to improve processes and to help funding decisions.”
It’s also meant to tell companies whether their meetings are achieving significant strategic results.
Last year, for instance, Dominion held 16 day-long meetings with franchise owners and potential new lending agents in a number of cities -- and it was important for the bosses to know they weren’t just providing a free lunch, says Veronica Love-Alexander, Dominion’s director of events and franchise relations hired to develop a way to track the meetings’ROI.
“What’s the purpose of having an event if it’s not ultimately worthwhile,” she says.
While ROI tracking can produce meaningful results, it takes time and effort. The process starts months before the meeting, with top brass figuring out exactly what they want to get out of their event.
Hanging out in a warm locale isn’t good enough. “You can’t have fuzzy aspirational statements,” Ms. Breining says. “You need clear objectives that can be measured.”
Goals may range from boosting sales to developing better teamwork, but, whatever the purpose, it has to be measurable — like a 5-per-cent boost in sales or, in Dominion’s case, a specific increase in hiring on new agents.
Setting tangible goals also helps to dictate what the event will look like. If the aim is networking, a sandwich lunch that leaves people free to roam may be the way to go, if a company wants its employees to learn new information, a formal sit-down dinner with a keynote speaker may be a more appropriate, Ms. Timmerman-Gitzi says.
When the goals are determined, businesses should then conduct a pre-meeting survey to find out what employees want from an event.
Dominion’s Ms. Love-Alexander, for instance, e-mails a survey to franchise owners and agents three months before her conferences take place. She asks what topics they’d like discussed and if they have any speaker recommendations.
The idea is to get staff involved in the planning process. “We build the sessions based on survey results,” she says. “We never assume to know what people are educated in.”
Ira Kerns, managing director of New York-based MeetingMetrics, suggests asking eight to 12 questions on the pre-meeting survey. “Find out their wish list,” he says. Ask what they feel the meeting should accomplish, what they think the company’s objectives should be and how they hope the meeting will help months after it’s over.
After the answers are returned, companies are in a better position to plan the event. As long as the recommendations fit with the end goal, the surveys often help dictate the agenda.
It’s shortly after the event that the ROI calculating really begins. Ms. Love-Alexander sends an e-mail survey to participants a day after the event, with questions on things such as the educational value of the meeting and what people thought of the networking opportunities.
Not everyone wants to fill out paperwork after an intensive training session, though, so she offers incentives – often a draw for a gift card. “It’s surprising how many people fill out the survey when a gift card is involved,” she says.
The post-meeting survey serves as an evaluation and a benchmark, Mr. Kerns says. Companies want to find out if staff found the event useful, if they think their skills have developed and what they plan to do with their new-found knowledge. The survey should be mostly multiple choice, with a few open-ended questions, he says.
The next step is following up some time later to find out if the new skills employees indicated they had learned have actually been put into practice, and if original objectives have been met. In Ms. Love-Alexander’s case, that’s a month after the conferences end. Other people wait several months.
Either way, you have to make sure enough time has passed in order to measure results, Mr. Kerns says.
When it is time to gather the final pieces of information, it’s again, done with a survey. If increased sales was the goal, Mr. Kerns suggests looking at employees’ sales records in the months since the meeting
If they’ve gone up, ask them what they attribute that increase to. Get your staff to assign a percentage to the reason why their sales increased. “Was it the conference? Or maybe a new manager or ad campaign?” Mr. Kerns asks. “People need to assign a percentage to each of those elements.”
There is some playing to make the numbers meaningful. Someone might say 50 per cent of the increase was due to the conference. Then ask how sure he or she is. If the person indicates being 80-per-cent sure, you’d reduce that 50 per cent by 80 per cent to get 40 per cent, and then you’d take their sales increase and attribute 40 per cent of that to the conference, Mr. Kerns explains.
Finally, you’d take the increase attributed to the conference and stack that up against how much the event cost. If the conference generated a 100-per-cent ROI, that would mean the meeting paid for itself, he says. A 200-per-cent ROI would mean the meeting was worth $2 for every $1 spent.
Asking employees to figure out how their sales were affected by an event may seem subjective, but Mr. Kerns argues that, since everyone is answering the same questions, the collective results present an accurate tracking measure.
Calculating ROI is hard work and can take up a significant amount of time. A lot of companies give up after the first meeting survey – they can’t fathom working on the same event for months on end. Other businesses don’t want to go as far as calculating the financial ROI, which requires gathering documents, event costs and other complex details.
Ms. Timmerman-Gitzi says an improved financial result doesn’t have to be the final goal. Many companies just want to change behaviour or thinking, and that can be tracked without having to gather financials. The same process of multiple surveys applies, but companies don’t have to take the final number-crunching steps. The key is to make sure the non-monetary objectives are still specific, she says.
After a year of tracking, Ms. Love-Alexander has determined that 163 of 204 potential new agents – or 80 per cent of those from other firms who attended last year’s events –have switched to her brokerage.
Now, her company has thrown her a new challenge: a national event in Las Vegas. Instead of regional meetings this year, franchise owners, agents and potential brokers will gather for three days in Sin City.
She’s had to come up with new goals – networking and encouraging referrals between brokers – new surveys and new measurements to determine if this costly meeting will be worth it.
While it’s hard work, she can’t imagine holding a conference that doesn’t measure return.
“Calculating ROI gives us purpose and direction,” she says. “If we can keep our agents and owners happy, that’s more money in the bank for us.”
Special to The Toronto Globe and Mail: www.the globeandmail.com