October 30, 2008
When Amex Loses, So Do You
Just had an interesting experience with American Express that I think does not bode well for the meeting industry.
I'm doing a project for a conference using an online printer. I went to charge a not-all-that-unusually high figure to cover print and postage.
I've been doing this for the same client for roughly the same amounts at the same time each of the past four years. Because he's also a good friend, it's the only time I'll advance print/postage charges on my card. Never had a problem before.
I call Amex to see what's up. They tell me that because my monthly charge total has been averaging X for the past six months, this new charge, which is higher, was automatically declined as it does not reflect my "pattern" of spending. That, and I had a Sign and Travel balance I'd been carrying.
And here I thought the whole purpose of the Sign and Travel feature was to allow for carrying a balance. Silly me.
It didn't matter that I've had this pattern of major Q4 print and postage purchases for the past four years. To Amex, it only matters what has happened in the past six months.
The representative (who was very nice) told me that if I pay my current Sign and Travel balance AND the charges I've incurred this month to date - which I haven't even received a statement for yet - then, with the approval of a supervisor, I can put through the print and postage purchase I'm trying to make.
I pay. My purchase goes through. My conference can now be marketed.
Then I ask her a question. I have an even bigger job that I need to print in three weeks. It's 3x the amount I just charged. I've also done that for four years running. The rep tells me I have to call ahead to get that charge approved. And that I may have to prepay some part of that charge in order to get it approved by Amex.
At that point, it simply makes more sense to pay by check, doesn't it?
Now, I've been a "member" with Amex since 1984. I understand they're having some difficulties. But this seems absurd.
And while I am willing to work around this because I have to get this print job out, how many potential attendees whom you're targeting for your next conference will find themselves in the same situation, trying to put through a big flight or hotel or registration fee that exceeds their six month spending "pattern", and when their purchase is declined, will just say, "Screw it," and not attend?
My guess is that it will be quite a few. For two reasons. First, it's a pain to deal with and even if it's Amex's fault and not yours... well, it rubs off. And there's a decent chance many of those potential attendees won't have the funds handy to pay off their current balances.
Second, and this is more critical, is that anything that in the way of completing the registration process is an opportunity for your potential customer to reconsider whether they really need to attend your event. As many attendees use Amex to complete their purchase, many are going to be in for a rude surprise. And my guess is, that once they're done fuming over the problem with Amex, they may discover it really wasn't as urgent to register for your event at that moment as they thought.
In other words, when Amex has a problem, it creates problems for others. And you lose.
Be prepared for it.
February 08, 2007
A Belated Happy New Year. Our Resolution: Get Relevant Again
Before I get started, wanted to thank those of you who took the time to vote and/or forward the ballot for Best Coffeehouse in Pittsburgh on AOL CityGuide. We finished second (actually we won according to the rules, but AOL changed the rules... however, that's another story for another blog.)
I had planned on revisiting the TSMR blog and re-thinking it for the new market dynamic of smaller, more targeted events. I've been slowly rebuilding my marketing business, taking a bit more time off from the coffeehouse to do so. Been looking for copy work while I bone up on numerous applications I plan on working with later this year in an effort to provide a reasonable copy/design alternative for small conferences.
The "new' TSMR will be a work in progress in that regard as I try to shed a lot of my "big show" baggage in order to focus on noteworthy smaller events and marketing tactics they use. Hopefully the result will be something any bootstrapper can look at and apply on their own event(s).
It's been a very rough two months going without my own computer. My trusty ThinkPad (purchased December 2002) bit the big one, thanks to being picked up by the screen, which partly separated from the body and somehow resulted in its inability to take a charge (after just spending $190 back in Sept. for a new battery, too).
Given it was going to take about $650 to repair the ThinkPad and Vista was on the verge of being released, I decided to hold off purchasing a new laptop while waiting until the new Vista machines were released. Meantime, I read a large number of reviews of Vista and the various laptops that would run it.
All that Vista research resulted in my buying a MacBook this evening (the black one with 120GB, to which I added an extra 1g of RAM). By this time next week I'll be back online every day. And much cooler, too, from what I hear.
In the meantime, I missed out on a story I really wanted to get into. The most fun thing each New Year is knowing that out of the gate you get to report on CES. There's never been a mega-event that's had it more together than CES.
But this year was different. The big news at CES wasn't in Las Vegas. The big news that week was in San Francisco. It was emanating from MacWorld - the iPhone. Yet everyone in Vegas was talking about it.
And despite any protestations that might be spewed from Dallas, what Steve Jobs did during the week of MacWorld/CES is exactly what's right with the world.
That MacWorld has run across virtually the same dates as CES for so long has always seemed to me to be one part rebellious/one part opportunistic/one part dumb. Mac junkies always ferreted out news from the show, but for the rest of the electronics-consuming public, the noise from CES Vegas drowned out everything else.
Not so with the iPhone. It was big enough to be carried on every network news show. Investors took notice. It was a big BIG deal even though every analyst cautioned that Apple would never have more than a miniscule share of the market for phones.
But what of CES? Certainly things must have been announced there that are earthshaking, no? That's where the big trends in electronics are every year, right?
OK, then. Name one thing announced at CES of similar impact. No fair Googling.
Two things happened that week in January:
1) MacWorld proved once and for all it isn't just for Mac nerds anymore.
2) CES lost its place on the pedestal after a half dozen years as the logical successor to Comdex. It's not going to just disappear like Comdex did, but Jobs saw to it that CES is just a little less relevant (sorry Dan).
If you don't believe me on this, check back next year.
August 01, 2006
Agreeing to Disagree on the Fate of Large Shows
In the wake of the E3 announcement:
This morning Bob Scoble says large shows are dead. 53 people (as of right now) have chimed in with their comments.
It's about split down the middle with half the folks saying large shows are indeed dead - generally because the internet offers alternatives - and the other half saying that the trend applies to tech shows (or only E3) and not mainstream expos.
The arguments in support of both sides are pretty good. Read the comments for yourself.
We can only hope our associations are listening.
April 16, 2006
For those who wondered, a) why the hell would I leave this industry for coffee? or b) what the hell am I thinking with this blogging crap? or c) well, good riddance you talentless hack...
I point you to the Global Microbrands discussion on Gaping Void.
Thanks Hugh. You point the way.
www.aldocoffee.com. There is life after trade shows.
Btw, I'd like to think this actually validates some of my earlier thoughts vis a vis blogging for trade shows. If it's not really "you", just don't bother. Seriously. The best blogs in the specialty coffee industry besides ours are portafilter.net (podcasts), gimme! and about 30 or so other blogs that aren't written by the owners, but by their baristi and/or roasters, like Blue Bottle Clown College, Tonx and GodShot among others.
You can't fake blogging. You have to believe what you're writing. If you don't, people will catch on you're a fraud pretty quick.
So we do know a thing or two about blogging. Now, as far as barista skills, yeah, I'm still a talentless hack... but getting better. Besides we have competition-level staff now, so if you see me behind the bar, just ask for someone else ;-)
April 14, 2006
SCAA: Overcoming Image Issues Through Podcasting
CoffeeFest is an indie run event from a (somewhat cocky) group in Seattle. I'd guess the DC event was about 300 booths or so. They do everything in house, including designing their own reg software. Their DC show looked like a pretty typical mid-budget affair, but we were less interested in the show than in the Mid-Atlantic Barista Competition and the Millrock Latte Art Competitions, both of which featured baristi from our little joint, first time Pittsburgh represented at either.
The owner of CoffeeFest, David Heilbrun, is generally considered a hero in the industry for providing several venues (generally 3x year - East/West/Central) for baristi and coffeehouse owners to meet suppliers. He's viewed as a facilitator. Few if any in the specialty coffee industry begrudge him whatever he makes on his shows.
The SCAA event was 830 booths give or take. It was a bit more upscale, with some superb parties. It was very much like AD:TECH in that there exists an easily identifiable group of thought leaders who influenced traffic at the booths they deigned 'worthy'.
The SCAA doesn't generate the same love that CoffeeFest does. In fact, lately the association seems to be more a liability than an asset as it pertains to the industry's largest show. And everyone is a critic about everything the association does. Particularly its reliance on the annual event for most of its revenue.
Thus it was the SCAA event where I got a lesson on how show attendees are forcing change in their association.
The SCAA has been plagued by mismanagement and worse over the past year and change. To suggest the association is troubled would be an understatement. Nevertheless, the SCAA's incoming president, Rob Stephen, who developed Dunkin' Donuts program for sustainable coffee purchasing, was on two podcasts (CoffeeGeek and Portafilter.net) during last week's national convention. And his candor seems to have changed some people's opinions about the SCAA in a positive way.
According to CoffeeGeek, it appears the 'old school' at the SCAA didn't like their new president going "outside traditional media channels" one bit, claiming podcasts were "amateurish and inappropriate."
The SCAA has an online forum. But it's the smallest of any of the players. CoffeeGeek has a much more active and larger one, as does Home-Barista. The new Barista Guild of America was created to give baristi a greater voice vis a vis shop owners and suppliers and while hosted by the SCAA, the BGA has its own agenda as evidenced by its forum. And there are at least 52 active blogs in the specialty coffee space, plus the two aforementioned regular podcasts.
The number of voices and the numerous opinions shared by the more than 1,000 baristi, coffeehouse owners, suppliers and others who participate in these online forums and read these blogs are in and of themselves, an alternative to having to go to an association for education. There is so much knowledge openly shared and available online it's a wonder anyone pays for any kind of consulting.
Being an astute businessperson, I'd imagine Rob Stephen sees the writing on the wall. This is an industry that's moving forward with much greater velocity than its association, which is being viewed less as leadership and more as sticks in the mud.
Stephen's choosing to use the podcasts, whether approved by the SCAA or not, was an ideal way to begin to fix the relationship between the SCAA and its constituents. And in this case, it appears to have been absolutely necessary.
for those who weren't in the tech/media early adopters of podcasts - and especially those in associations - this should be fair warning that podcasts just came of age.
January 11, 2006
Dana Vanden Heuvel wonders what Web 2.0 technologies would facilitate a "Conference 2.0" environment (and hey, isn't that a pretty good name for a conference on conferences?)
Here's his list:
I've come up with these tools so far, please add your thoughts in the comments:
1. A blog (of course)
2. A wiki
3. A Frappr map (like Loic's) of conference attendees, speakers and followers
4. A del.icio.us account tracking links about the conference
5. A flickr photstream with conference photos, tagged with the appropriate keywords
6. A technorati link to the conference keywords & tags
7. Buzznet Buzzwords
There are more suggestions in the comments to the post.
There is a point at which this all makes so much sense, yet, nobody (or so few as to be counted) in our industry are sincerely thinking about applying this stuff that even I at times wonder when I'll see any of it applied correctly to a significant non-tech, non-marketing conference or trade show. Hopefully soon.
As a personal aside, I see Dana tagged this post "Wombat", referring to WOMMA's upcoming WOMBAT (Word Of Mouth BAsic Training) seminars. In addition to Dana, Toby's one of the "Wombat bloggers", so it'll be interesting to see what they have to say about this conference. I'm not going, but I admit to being skeptical about applying science and methodology to word-of-mouth. I can hear echoes of John Houseman grousing, "We make customers the old-fashioned way. We EARN it."
I just can't wrap my arms around *wombat* because it was my nickname on Prodigy for several years in the 90s. My wife knew me as *wom* for two years before she knew me as *rich*. It just feels really odd to say the word now.
December 06, 2005
Session Formats - Surprising Research
E-venting posts about finding interesting patterns in session evaluations. Given all the complaints we hear about the moderated panel format being a dinosaur, the results that E-venting posts are quite surprising.
When the session was a Panel Presentation (where speakers prepared individual or a collective presentation), the Session Score was almost always higher than the Speaker Average.
When the session was a Roundtable Discussion (where 3-5 speakers conversed without a presentation), the Session Score was almost always lower than the Speaker Average.
Why would this be? Here's their opinion:
I think it's due to two reasons:
1. Increasingly, conference audiences want something tactical they can benefit from immediately upon returning to their desks. Panel presentations -
despitebecause of their uninspired outline-driven, bullet-pointed format DO provide some clear take-aways.
2. Conference attendees warm to a session where the speakers show enough respect for their audience to actually create a physical work product by way of preparation. The audience knows they're not just showing up, speaking their mind, and splitting. Sessions that respect the audience score better.
Interesting, but it begs the question on the age of the audience and the type of content being presented (scientific/engineering/medical/business?). Regardless, I wouldn't have thought this would be the case for any audience under 35 or so. And even myself, at 49, prefer a lot of give and take in sessions.
IMO, panel presentations do not have to be "uninspired". The ones I've been involved with the past couple of years have been extremely entertaining and pretty dynamic - lots of room for personality, going off-topic and dealing directly with specific audience situations (although these have followed the "collective" presentation model, not individual presentations). I believe successful panels require the moderator having enough confidence in his/her panel and the moderation skills to know when to give up control and when to take it back.
November 18, 2005
Unconferences Vs. Conferences
David Gammel offers his thoughts on how to think about an "unconference" vs. the nomenclature used by the same-old-same-old event 99% of organizers are putting out there.
However, I think David left out two things:
Powerpoints Stories (aka 'examples')
Note the use of the word "Donations" as it applies to Sponsorships. Personally I think corporate sponsorships will still be in effect, but attendee registrations may take on more of a donation aspect. Either way, wrap your arms around that word and give it a big hug. Learn to love it.
November 16, 2005
Conversation Share - The New Currency
Some big picture thoughts...
Back in the 80s, over beers following a softball game, Tom Caridi, currently CFO for Questex Media, uttered these words to me and some fellow teammates: "Nobody ever didn't buy a booth because of the cost."
Money is generally not the object with exhibitors or attendees. Time is. We've talked about this over here before, most notably in a February post on "The Ignorance Premium", which riffed on a idea provided by Hugh McLeod of Gaping Void.
Hugh is at it again. This time he's talking about how you're not only competing with others in your market, you're competing with Microsoft and everybody else.
More importantly, we're both competing for what they call "Conversation Share". People have a choice; they can spend their limited time on earth talking about the X-Box, or talking about a small vineyard in South Africa. Their choice, not ours. All we can do is make their choice easier to make in our favor, using what limited resources we have. And that in turn sustains our markets. That in turn allows us to meet payroll.
How much time do attendees and exhibitors spend talking about your event? It's worth knowing, because if they're not talking about you, they're talking about something else. So what are you doing that's worth discussing? And who's doing the talking?
This is why plugging into the social networks in your markets is becoming more important. If you're worth talking about, the influencers in your market will carry the water for you.
November 08, 2005
Are Small Bites Enough for Conferee Appetites?
When I first read about Al Gore's latest project, CurrentTV, I didn't really know what to make of it. I wasn't the demographic they were trying to reach, so no big deal to me. It was an easy newsbyte to ignore.
For some unknown reason, a year later, it pops into my head again. And it now makes sense.
If you're not familiar with CurrentTV, it's often referred to as "Television for the ADD generation." Its content comprises short films usually three to ten minutes in length.
I wish I could explain this connection, but CurrentTV entered my thoughts when I was discussing the fact that our coffeeshop sold more panini when we made them smaller than larger.
Sounds counterintuitive, doesn't it? But it bears out. We learned early on (from painful trial and error) that when we decided to cut our original oversized panini in half, we sold more halves than wholes. So we built that into our business plan and menu.
Maybe it's time we think about smaller servings at our educational events. And I don't mean food.
Here's why the "smaller is better" works in the coffeeshop: No guilt, no regret. There's nothing left after lunch to throw away. No waste that could've fed the starving children of China. There's no dealing with, "I'll wrap this up and eat it later," only to find a science project growing in the back of the fridge a month from now. And you never feel like a glutton when you're ordering.
Naturally our profit margin on the half panini is higher.
How does this apply to conference education? The conference business is built around some firmly embedded universal conventions. Session lengths are never less than 45 minutes and usually in the 60 to 75 minute range. Workshops are a minimum of 90 minutes and as much as 180.
What if sessions were 20 minutes? Or 15. Or five.
Back in the halcyon days of internet IPO, Red Herring used to have a conference where pre-IPO companies looking for funding had something like 15 minutes to do their pitch to a room of venture capitalists. Having worked on the slides for one of those, it forced the presenter to be extremely economical in what information was being conveyed.
When you're asking for several million dollars to support your company for the next year or more, you want to say everything you can think of to sell the investors. But you can't. You've only got 15 minutes. So what's really important?
So much of what we're exposed to at typical conference sessions seems wasteful in a world where seconds matter. Introductions, speaker biographies, feel-good audience participation gimmicks, rehashing beginner information over and over and so on. Perhaps these things have their place at some meetings, but certainly not all.
What is lost if at the scheduled time the presenter just launched into his/her topic?
For the sake of argument, let's take a session on direct mail copywriting. Does everyone really need to see another slide on AIDA (attention, interest, desire, action)? If we do, then that's the 101 session. Basics. 15 minutes on how to structure letter copy. Get in, get out, move on.
Sound silly? Undoable? Why?
What if the same session had time blocks listed in the program. Basics went from 9:00-9:15. Writing the close from 9:15-9:30. Johnson boxes and other tricks from 9:30-9:45. Lift notes from 9:45-10:00. And you could attend any 15 segment you wanted. Or leave.
As an attendee, wouldn't that make more sense to you? Isn't that a better use of your time? Would you start to nod off in a 15-minute long session? Would a mediocre speaker even try to fake their way through such a scenario?
Sure, it's a logistical challenge for the organizer. But what if you could accommodate all of the above in the same room concurrently and just move from table to table? Logistics solved. Time saved. Everybody happy.
I understand variations of this theme have been talked about. I've been hearing about them for at least a decade. But I've never attended a single conference - and that includes a couple of dozen in the meetings industry itself - that employs this type of setup.
We know from Seth Godin and others that less can be more. And a lot of "less" strung together as in this structure is definitely more. As conference-goers, it seems we're less gluttons for knowledge and more gluttons for punishment.
Trust me, there are no children in China starving for these leftovers.