Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Virtual Trade Show Booth…? What is That?

According to an article in the July issue of Forbes Magazine, Virtual Trade Shows are a way to generate leads for your business without spending a significant amount of time and money. You can build your own trade show booth in about 30 minutes or use one of the on-line booth designers to build it for you. The booth can be interactive by being logged on to your site, or you can set up a virtual chat rooms you can interact with visitors in real time. Many businesses have been turning to the virtual world for ways to market their business, generate leads, and save money – and Virtual Trade Shows are one more way to do this.

We are building our first Virtual Trade Show Booth in preparation for a Virtual World Trade Mission beginning December 2nd. This event is sponsored by the ASTRA Women’s Business Alliance and will run from December 2nd to January 30th.

The booth is created largely with tools you should already have for your business – such as brochures, business cards, company websites, blogs, and the like. It is a different way to participate in a trade show and we are curious to see how this will ultimately play out.

If you are interested in seeing how a virtual trade booth works, come join us on December 2nd at 8am for the ribbon cutting ceremony. The first four hours (8am – 12pm PST) will be live and after that, we will be available for on-line chats. To log-in as an attendee, click here.

Once the Trade Mission is completed, we look forward to sharing our experiences with you.

Linda Begbie • Executive Director, RDL enterprises

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Database Creation & Management for Meeting Planners

A Philosophical Approach to the Basics

How many of you reading this use at least one database in your work? Most of you should be raising your hand right about now as databases are an inseparable part of meeting planning. If you don’t believe me, I have just one word for you: Registration. For you suppliers, thinking this doesn’t apply to you… think again. You, too, use databases on a regular basis – just check out your contact lists or the programs you use to check what space is available when planners send you an RFP. All of these are databases and, if you use an off-the-shelf program like Microsoft Access or FileMaker Pro, there are a few strategies and techniques to bear in mind to make the final “product” user-friendly and effective. In this column, we’ll take a quick look at some of the basic concepts of database Functionality, Structure, and Appearance.

Functionality Step One: Put Down the Mouse! That’s right – put it down! Most people want to start right away and get to work, making it look good right off the bat. However, before you begin typing, you need to do some thinking. Functionality is the first thing to address. It is primarily about purpose, but does need to take into account who will be using it – so your two basic questions at this point are: what do you need it to do and what is the user’s skill level/comfort level with the software? Each of these questions can lead to very different databases depending on the answers you come up with. A registration database that has to be regularly updated to track payments, purchase orders, menu and workshop selections will be quite different from a database set up to track your CD collection. Similarly, a database that my great aunt Helen would be comfortable using would look very different from one set up for my brother, the computer programmer. Just remember that the only “right” answers to these questions are honest answers.

Once you have decided what the database needs to do for you and who will be using it, you can begin to build the Structure that will support the final product. Again, spend some time thinking about this before you begin actually working on the computer with the software. The single most important item that exists in any database, regardless of the software, is “the field”. Fields are where your data will actually go once you start using the database. How they are set up and how they are named (yes – named!) can make or break the file for you. Typically, you can set up fields to contain text, dates, numbers, or even pictures. If you are not sure what you need a field to be when you begin, it is usually best to leave it as text, which is generally the default type. The software program you are using will dictate what you can set up fields to be and how that needs to happen. Of more importance, though, is the naming of the fields. My two rules for naming fields are: 1) Make it Short, and 2) Make it Obvious. If I use the field names FN, LN, O, and A, I have definitely made them short. Are they obvious, though? You might recognize them as First Name, Last Name, Organization, and Address – or is it First Notice, Last Notice, Order and Agency…? You may not think this is a big deal, but consider what might happen if you have a large database and many people entering data. Even if you are the only person who will be using the database, you may forget after a month what the field names meant. [Note: my usual field names for these four are FName, LName, Org, and Address.] If you make the field names too long, it may distort how you view or print records from your database.

Now that you have created your fields, you can begin making the database “look pretty” and work on its Appearance. The key thing to keep in mind here is: how does it “flow”. In other words, is there a logical progression in how you maneuver through the database, or does hitting the tab key just cause the cursor to jump around the screen. I like to group data together into coordinated blocks of information on the screen. I’ll put all of an attendee’s contact information in one spot, their payment information grouped together in another, and correspondence tracking in yet another grouping. This allows me to look at an attendee’s record and quickly find the information I am looking for. I also make sure that fields are placed in an order that makes sense to me (and, hopefully, other users). The field that is for someone’s last name follows the field that contains their first name, and so forth. If the database flows well and makes sense to you and others, it will be much easier to navigate through and makes finding specific information a snap.

Fancy extras like scripts, buttons, calculations, and alerts are wonderful tools that can certainly make things easier for the average user but they do require a bit more knowledge and understanding of the software to use properly. If you remember some of the basics, you will be in good shape no matter what software you are using. Even if you are not the one creating the database, knowing what it was built to do and who was intended to use it is helpful – especially since not all database designers talk to the people who will actually be using the file! Knowing the structure will help you to make changes later (or suggest them to the designer). Keeping field names short and obvious means that anyone (including yourself) can understand what you have created. Having notes actually included in the database is also a good way to remind yourself of what you did in certain places. Finally, making sure that the database “flows” well will make even the most complicated file easy to manage.

Function, Structure, and Appearance form the basis of every database. What we’ve gone over here is just the tip of the iceberg and, if you are interested in learning more, there is a wealth of information out there about every database program on the market. If you work with a custom database, designed just for your company, talk to the designers if possible and get your information from the source! Remember – no single program can be everything to everyone. This is why most database programs are customizable by the user (that’s you!) and partially why there are so many options to choose from. If you are in the market for a new database program, take the time to learn about what the software can do – don’t just grab the first box you see that has a cool cover! Decide what you need it for, who will be using it, and how flexible it will be to your changing needs. If you already have database software, which most of us do, then you are ready to jump in and start building the database. Just remember to keep Function, Structure, and Appearance in mind as you do so…

Karl Baur, CMP • Project Director, RDL enterprises

This piece previously appeared in the September/October 2007 issue of the Pony Express, the newsletter of the Sacramento chapter of SGMP, and is used with permission of the author. – ed.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

“Surviving the Holidays” Business Strategies

The holidays are a funny time for Meeting and Conference Planners. The typical client does not want to plan any type of a business event (other than a Holiday Party!) between Veterans’ Day and New Year’s. Normally, this is a time for many meeting planners to wind up their fall events and start preparing for spring events. In the current economy, though, it is important to look at ways to keep clients coming to your business year-round. Here are a couple of ideas to consider:

One is to offer a ten percent (10%) discount on your services to anyone who, for example, books their 2010 event by the end of 2009. This may motivate those who know they need to have an event to move beyond the “thinking about it” stage and get a meeting planner on board to get things moving for them (site selection, etc.) so they can relax and enjoy the holidays.

Another strategy to keep clients thinking about your business is to offer holiday specials for any events they are planning during your slow periods. Even those planners who do not specialize in holiday parties can handle those types of events – and, if this is not currently a service you offer, you really should consider adding it!

Not every approach or strategy is right for every business. You need to take your own particular circumstances into account but, even if you only use these suggestions as seed ideas, you can generate strategies that are right for you.

Do you have a unique approach to motivating clients to use your services? If so, please share your thoughts and leave a comment. We’d love to hear how you “Survive the Holidays”.

Linda Begbie • Executive Director, RDL enterprises

As you may have guessed, both of the options presented are ones that we offer – not just to our current clients, but also to new clients. For more information about the 10% discount or our holiday specials, please email Linda Begbie with the subject line "Holiday Special". – ed.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Planning a Gala Event

I recently finished planning an annual conference in Washington, DC. The last day of the conference my client held a gala dinner for 200 people. Being their conference planner, I coordinated the gala logistics including; venue location, contract negotiation, room arrangements, décor, transportation, audio-visual, food and beverage arrangements, tracked the budget, and hired a DJ, just to name of few responsibilities for this type of event.

During the planning stages, the venue required an itinerary so their staff can accommodate the flow of the banquet dinner. In this case, my client wanted to do an awards ceremony, announcements, fundraise, and a comedy show. The comedian was also our emcee. It takes time to coordinate the minute details for the agenda to maintain the quality and value of the event.

Here are some tips to create a program and schedule a flow for the event…

In creating the program handout, it’s important to thank all of your sponsors. For the content of the program, start with the title of the event and whom it is hosted by. Use a classic font like, Lucida Calligraphy or Monotype Corsiva. Then, start with the timing of the event. 7 pm is typical for gala dinners and would start with a welcome cocktail hour. Next is dinner, usually an hour after the welcome reception. At 8:00 pm, we moved them into the ballroom or main function area where the presentation begins and the first course has already been pre-served. Then, it’s on to the awards ceremony, a comedian skit, and a special guest presentation. At 8:00pm the entrée was being served. That can take up to an hour. Following the banquet dinner, we had our presenter’s finish off the awards and make a short fundraiser speech. Coffee and dessert were then served during the last presentation. Around 10:00 pm, we closed with a thank you and reminded everyone to stay and celebrate. This was the entertainment part and included a DJ for dancing. During the program schedule, when there were gaps, the DJ would play background music to comfort the silence.

If you can believe it, this type of event has its share of anxiety. The part that has a certain level of stress isn’t selecting the venue, or arranging of the gala agenda and who goes where, what time is what, do we have awards, no… It’s when it all goes live. It’s crossing your fingers the schedule of event works and works with the venue staff. If the hors d’oeuvres are exactly the way you ordered them, if the food is going to taste good, and mostly, if people show up. Then, are people going to show up? Are we ready for them to show up? Will there be more people that show up? Will there be fewer? Did I order enough food? Did I order too much? Make sure to smile. Are we within budget? Does the DJ have the agenda? Do I need to feed him or her? All the while, making sure to greet everyone, including the VIP guests. Can you imagine the pressure?

Indeed it is a lot of anxiety and you barely get to enjoy the great meal but that’s the life of a planner. We wear many hats and put out fires when no one is looking. In the end, the Gala was a huge success and people had fun. That is the reward. Being organized is one of the key elements of planning a successful event. Although, you can’t expect it to go perfectly, you can manage whatever gets in the way of running a smooth event. When all is said and done and someone says thank you, you know you did a good job.

Tess Conrad • Meeting and Conference Planner, RDL enterprises