Tepper Services Incorporated
Marketing New Seminars

Published in Association Management Magazine March 1989.


For small associations in particular, marketing new seminars has to be a carefully crafted effort.


Imagine a small association, say one with just seven staff members. For years, this association has had a seminar "program" consisting of one standard seminar, presented four times a year. Although the association has become more active recently, it has trouble distancing itself from a reputation of dullness and inactivity.

Then imagine the following changes occurring all within 18 months: The association disaffiliates from its parent association, moves its headquarters, changes its name, and plans a merger with a competing association.

Then amidst these changes, imagine the association developing a virtually new, wide-ranging seminar program.

That's what's happened with the National Private Trucking Association (NPTA), Alexandria, Virginia, a national organization representing manufacturers, distributors, processors, and retailers that operate their own truck fleets. NPTA was formerly the Private Carrier Conference of the American Trucking Associations.

While the focus of this article is on the marketing of this new seminar program, it's necessary to keep in mind that with NPTA, as with many associations, meetings and seminars represent only one of many services and activities. Thus,

  • seminars may not always have the highest priority; and
  • such programs serve multiple uses, from revenue enhancers to membership services.
Out of NPTA's annual budget of approximately $1 million, $250,000 comes from membership dues, $430,000 from advertising in the association's The Private Carrier magazine, $200,000 from meeting-registration fees, and the remainder from publication sales and miscellaneous items.

Thus, the income from meetings is a substantial portion of our budget, and with meeting and convention expenses projected at S84,000, the net revenue from meetings and seminars is critical to NPTA's financial health.

Developing the Theme

The first step in marketing a new seminar is developing a seminar that can be successfully marketed; that is, creating a seminar that people will want to attend. After all. even a marketing whiz would have trouble promoting a seminar on "Raising Dodo Birds for Fun and Profit."

We've found that there are both formal and informal channels-and external and internal sources-for developing successful seminar topics.

Every other year, for example, NPTA's monthly magazine, The Private Carrier, which has a circulation of 35,000, conducts a readership survey. The survey includes three types of questions: demographic ("How many trucks do you operate?"); readership ("How long do you spend reading an issue of The Private Carrier?"); and general ("What are the biggest issues confronting your private fleet today?"). Information derived from the answers to the demographic and general questions helps shape future seminars.

For instance, the one seminar program we offered two years ago, "Private Fleet Management Workshop," heavily emphasized opportunities for private carriers that arose from so-called motor carrier deregulation. An advertisement for that seminar in The Private Carrier began: "Private Carriers--It's a brand-new ball game. The 1980 Motor Carrier Act and subsequent ICC decisions have drastically changed the rights and privileges of private carriers and the entire status of proprietary motor truck operations. Are you keeping informed and up to date on new options available in your company?"

But, in 1986, how strongly did private fleet managers care about regulatory reform on a national level? It turned out that the new ball game had gone into extra innings-at least as far as seminar content was concerned.

Our readership survey showed that deregulation wasn't their top concern. In fact, when asked the question, "What are the biggest issues confronting your private fleet today?", readers' leading answers were state taxes and registration, safety, federal highway taxes, and intrastate regulation.

The survey also asked a second, similar question: "What topics would you like to see addressed in future issues of the magazine?" These responses closely paralleled those from the first question; the most frequently mentioned subjects were safety, taxes, insurance, and regulations.

These topics clearly indicated where our readers' interests were and, presumably, which topics might make good seminars.

NPTA already held an annual safety seminar, as weli as a mid-year and an annual meeting. These three meetings, we felt, would generally provide a suf~-cient outlet for the high level of interest in safety issues.

From a predictive standpoint, this gave us an indication that our safety seminar would be particularly well at-tended. Indeed, it was: Attendance was 230, up from 97 the year before.

From a marketing standpoint, we beefed up the safety content of both the mid-year and annual meetings, and followed up by stressing the safety presentations in both. For example, the annual meeting included a session on, "Are You Prepared For Your DOT Safety Audit?"-not, coincidentally, the theme of our highly successful safety seminar earlier that year.

We also increased the mix of tax and registration issues in those two meetings, and we altered the content of the "Private Truck Management Techniques" seminar series'to give attendees more information on these issues, and somewhat less on federal deregulation.

Evaluating Current Seminars

To determine if a seminar can be successfully marketed and, if so, how, we evaluate our current seminars. For some of our seminars-such as our private fleet management workshops and the equipment cost control workshops-we provide attendees with formal evaluation sheets.

For the former workshop, for example, attendees are asked to rate each speaker on both presentation and content. This helps us identify hot topics even if the speaker is less th~n scintillating.

We also ask for suggestions on which topics should be added, excluded, or modified. This has helped us not only to tailor this seminar series, but also to develop or add to other seminars.

A word of caution, though: These evaluations can come only from those attending the seminar. While it's reassuring to know that 30 or 40 attendees found a seminar informative and worth-while-and that they might attend a seminar on another subject-the responses don't necessarily reflect the 1,500 members, or 35,000 magazine readers, who did not attend the program. In other words, are we only preaching to the choir?

To be more specific, while our seminar addresses using computers for truck routing, how many people out there simply want to know how to choose a word-processing program? While we're telling our 30 attendees how Section 8 of the Motor Carrier Act allows food customers to receive a discount if they pick up the commodities, are there 300 people who just want to know how to negotiate discounts?

To overcome this problem, we've created both formal and informal techniques to shape our programs. In the case of our safety seminar, for example, we've established a safety program committee, whose primary function is to suggest topics for that annual session, The committee is then largely responsible for securing the speakers they've chosen.

In the case of our private fleet management workshops, the program is being fine-tuned constantly, with sessions being trimmed, expanded, dropped, or added. Thus, while it wouldn't be productive for one person to attend two consecutive seminars, it is useful for the same person to attend the same program every 18 or 24 months. In fact, we do see repeat business. We also see companies sending one or two people to each of our programs.

Using Promotional Brochures

We handle the promotional aspects of seminar marketing in a variety of ways. The first and probably the most productive is the use of promotional brochures. We develop one or more brochures or fliers for each program. In the case of programs held more than once a year, a brochure will typically feature just one meeting date, but will contain information on the other upcoming meetings on the topic.

Depending on the lead time available, the brochure will be mailed either once or twice to NPTA's 1,800 members nationwide-usually piggybacked in a newsletter mailing. Similarly, we promote the meetings in our newsletter. We find that our publications typically are read by three or four people at each address; if one person early in the chain intercepts the brochure, the newsletter may make it through to the remainder.

A second distribution channel for the brochures is through the instructors of the various programs. In a number of cases, several of our session leaders are consultants with established client bases. In other cases, the session leader is an attorney-again with an established client base. We have had very good success when session leaders spread the word among their clients.

And it helps the marketing effort to have a well-recognized person making a presentation. This, though, is a double edged sword. Just as some celebrities make the rounds of talk shows (Oprah yesterday, Phil today, Geraldo tomorrow), there are some speakers who simply make the rounds of transportation association meetings. In the trucking industry, there are perhaps two dozen national associations and groups-ranging from NPTA, the Private Truck Council of America, and the American Trucking Associations (ATA) to such groups as ATA's Management Systems Committee and the Transportation Brokers Conference of America.

With each of several dozen associations in related fields holding from 1 to 19 or more meetings annually, it's easy for a speaker to become overexposed. And it's difficult to persuade a prospective seminar attendee to pay several hundred dollars to hear a collection of speakers he or she has already heard.

For our larger meetings, we try to mix the well-known speakers with some new faces. For our smaller seminars, we try to use a limited number of people who seldom appear elsewhere. What we lose in name recognition we make up in exclusivity.

Seminar promotion by speakers may offer several benefits to those meeting leaders, as well. First, if a seminar leader's compensation is tied to total registration income, then the greater the registration, the higher the compensation. Second, although our programs are strictly non-promotional, seminar leaders with consulting or law practices may nevertheless attract new clients through their seminar participation.

A third distribution method consists of a targeted mailing of from 5,000-i0,000 brochures to the geographic region in which the meeting is to be held; we use The Private Carrier's 35,000-name mailing list to contact nonmembers. The brochure is accompanied by a cover letter that briefly outlines the upcoming seminar and stresses that association membership is not a prerequisite for attending.

We'll occasionally borrow a local transportation group's mailing list to supplement our own, again accompanied by a cover letter.

Although membership is not a prerequisite for attendance, we do offer member discounts-up to $100-for all our meetings. This subtly reminds the member that he or she is receiving a membership benefit, and it encourages nonmembers to join NPTA in order to take advantage of the discount.

Through 1987, NPTA dues were $100 per member company; in 1988, dues rose to $150. Thus, there has been a real incentive for people to join NPTA, even if their primary interest is simply attending one meeting or seminar a year.

The meetings are also promoted through news releases mailed to the trade press several months in advance of the event. This ensures that our events are listed in magazine "Coming Events" columns; the news releases also sometimes generate short articles. Although we receive relatively few inquiries from such listings, it's a low-cost promotional method that more than pays for itself. A side benefit is that these mailings keep our name in front of magazine editors, which raises our visibility and adds to our credibility as an active, viable association representing its members.

Magazine Advertising

The meetings and seminars are also marketed through advertisements in The Private Carrier. Most meetings are promoted via full-page ads that appear once or twice 30-90 days before the event.

The results of the magazine ads, frankly, are disappointing; far more registrations come from the direct-mail brochures. This is probably due to two factors: 1) The brochures attract more immediate attention because they stand alone, unaccompanied by 50 'or 60 pages of other advertising and editorial matter; and 2) to justify the time and expense of attending a one-, two-, or three-day meeting, a private fleet manager would rather have a four-page brochure than a one-page magazine advertisement to show his or her supervisor.

Nevertheless, the advertisements do produce registrations. And they do remind both members and nonmembers of the services offered by NPTA.

In the case of our equipment cost control workshops, which we co-sponsor with a trade magazine, Fleet Equipment, full-page promotional advertisements appear in that magazine as well.

NPTA's The Private Carrier magazine is an effective after-the-fact marketing tool. The publication is always looking for solid, practical articles, and these can often be developed from presentations made at meetings and seminars. Articles ranging from "An Insider's Guide to Accident Investigation" to "Tips on Controlling Your Equipment Costs" to "The Future of Labor Relations in Trucking" were developed from meeting presentations.

When possible, advertisements for upcoming meetings on similar themes-i.e., safety, maintenance, or labor-are placed near the articles. If someone is interested in reading about equipment cost control, he or she may be interested in attending our next seminar on the subject.

Defining Success

How successful has NPTA been in marketing its new seminars? Without meaning to be evasive, that depends on the definition of success. Some of the programs have made money; some have lost money. Our two labor-related programs, for example, were well-structured, decently promoted, and very well received by those attending. Unfortunately, there were few attendees-an average of 14 per program. Our break-even point for such programs is usually an attendance level in the low 20s.

Were these programs failures? No. We provided valuable information and a tangible member benefit.

Will we hold more labor seminars? Probably not. Even discounting the financial loss, the time and effort required to develop, market, and coordinate a new seminar is simply too great for only 14 attendees.

We've had better success with our equipment and cost control workshops, but again, attendance has not been what we had hoped. In this case, the problem may be that other organizations already offer similar programs. And manv of the attendees are not our traditional members-private fleet managers-but others in their companies, such as equipment or maintenance supervisors. The credibility and visibility we have among private fleet managers may not yet exist elsewhere in those companies.

On the other hand, we continue to be successful with our safety seminar and our annual meetings. In these cases. we've got the credibility and name recognition, and we can adjust our programs to today's hot subjects.

Lessons Learned

What have we learned from marketing new-and existing-seminars?

  • Marketing cannot create a need; it can only answer a need. If people don't perceive a problem (such as personnel or employment law), marketing won't help. Only once they recognize that a problem exists (such as drug abuse) will they respond to promotions for a program offering solutions.
  • An organization's credibility and visibility at one level of a company isn't easily transferable to another level. It can be done (by offering a multiple registration discount-"Mr. Fleet Manager: bring your equipment manager to this program at a reduced rate," for instance), but it's not always easy.
  • Keep improving and refining your programs. True, if it ain't broke. don't fix it. But your programs may be wearing out. Don't become complacent.
  • Whenever possible, use existing seminars to test new topic ideas. If that segment of the program gets rave reviews, try spinning it off into a separate program.
  • Use a broad-based marketing strategy--magazine, newsletter, direct mail, news releases--but don't be surprised if one elements works much better than another.
  • More and more companies have fax machines. We've put our fax number on our brochures, and we've found people use it to register. We don't know if it has increased registrations, but anything we can do to make the process simpler should help.
  • Try out different locations. Because of our membership distribution, we're most successful east of the Mississippi--Atlanta, St. Louis, and Charlotte, North Carolina are especially good for us. Larger cities (New York City. for instance) and those west of the Mississippi (Denver, Los Angeles) don't work well for us. You may find that the same program is an outstanding success in one city, a disappointing failure in another.
  • Not surprisingly, airport hotels work best when you expect a large number of attendees to be flying in. in-town hotels work best if you expect a lot of local attendance.
In summary, then, developing and marketing new seminars isn't easy, and there's no guarantee of success. But there are a variety of tips and techniques that can ease the process-and improve your odds.
Donald Tepper is editor of The Private Carrier, and Karen MacArthur is director of marketing, at the National Private Trucking Association, Alexandria, Virginia.

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