Back to Basics: Conferences and venues - Live events to boost your brand

Ben Lerwill

Many charities find that live events, which allow charities to come face to face with members and beneficiaries, are as effective as direct mail or websites.

Image counts for everything these days. Positive brand recognition is vital for everyone from insurance companies through to celebrity chefs, and with 153,000 general charities in existence, this rings as true in the voluntary sector as in any other.

An organisation can be wonderfully efficient and professionally structured, but if the public has no way of differentiating it from countless others, the whole process is seriously undermined.

Of course, a brand is far more than just a strong logo. A well-defined and properly articulated brand should give a clear indication of the charity's message, not just to current supporters but to potential backers at the same time.

Websites and direct mailings have long been accepted as two of the most valuable ways of building brand recognition, but live events - where charities can come face to face with members and beneficiaries - are now something many organisations find to be similarly effective.

Communication tool

"Live events are the most powerful communication tool we can offer as a charity," explains Patricia Collins, legacy acquisition manager (events) at Cancer Research UK. "We're bringing our work to life, and in that sense it's not comparable to direct mailing."

Events can vary widely in terms of format, scale and budget. While most will be exclusive to one charity, exhibitions that showcase a whole range of different organisations also fall into this category.

This step-by-step guide covers all the main considerations to help you use your event to enhance your organisation's brand.

1. Picking an appropriate venue - This can be a tough decision to make. Choosing a disused warehouse might be cheap, but it's unlikely to chime with the core messages you want to put across. On the other hand, if you stage something in a stately, out-of-town manor house, donors might raise an eyebrow at the spending implications.

Huge numbers of venues offer preferential rates for charities, of course, and the best piece of advice is to go for somewhere smart and accessible that's fairly unpretentious.

Geographically, some organisations always opt for a London-based event, whereas others try to bring more variety to the location, giving as many members as possible the chance to become involved. The National Trust has used Brighton, Manchester, Cardiff, Belfast, Birmingham and Newcastle for its annual event, and is due to go to Leicester in 2006. In addition to this, the recent introduction of a live webcast means that the whole thing can be taken in by anyone with internet access - not perhaps as effective as having members there in the flesh, but a less costly alternative.

The destination is more than just a place in which to hold a conference - there's a strong possibility that hotels might be used and, although lunchtime catering will almost certainly be done in-house, you might need somewhere with good bars and restaurants in the evening.

Charity chief executives' body Acevo tends to use the capital, making use of the Novotel in Hammersmith as well as the Congress Centre off Tottenham Court Road. "It's good to have somewhere central because it gives you the chance to go elsewhere during the day when the plenary sessions are over," says head of events and professional development Ann Gregson. "Being in the heart of town doesn't necessarily mean the costs are that much higher either."

It's worth noting that since the laws of the Disability Discrimination Act were amended in October last year, more venues are now able to accommodate staff and delegates with disabilities. Where hotels are concerned, many groups, among them Jarvis Hotels, have made all their properties fully accessible.

2. Naming an event - Giving an event a suitable name is important. Like a book or film title, it needs to pique people's curiosity before they're even sure of the content. You've essentially got one of two options. There's the 'does what it says on the tin' approach illustrated by events such as The National Trust's Members' Weekend and Cancer Research UK's Afternoon Receptions, or there's the method, often associated with campaigns, of tying in a buzz word or two with your central message. Good examples would be the Crisis Innovations Fair or the XL (or 'excel') clubs that the Prince's Trust runs to raise awareness in schools. If you're trying to attract a specific demographic group, tailor the title accordingly. It may be that a simple name is exactly what the event calls for, but if it's too long, ask yourself whether it's really going to have the desired effect.

3. Make the event visitor-friendly - Establishing brand clarity might be the priority, but the agenda for the occasion itself should be geared as much as possible to the visitors, who are likely to be giving up their own time and money to attend. If possible, find out in advance what the key issues are that they'd like to have addressed, then put those across in the clearest, liveliest way.

The RSPB runs an annual event for members at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in London, attracting about 700 each year. "We make a real effort to ensure it's not just a dry, business event and, as a result, our members love it," says events manager Christine McDowell. "All the speeches are illustrated with different images and we make sure the day is interactive.

You have to add a bit of colour to the proceedings."

Cancer Research UK's Collins is another firm believer in creating a lively occasion. The charity runs more than 30 afternoon receptions around the UK each year, and is always keen to make them memorable. "People don't always know what to expect when they arrive," she says. "So we like to make the experience human, warm and friendly, trying to avoid a corporate feel wherever possible. It always goes down very well - people come away saying they'd previously thought of the organisation as quite remote - and we get a measurable response in terms of donations."

Taking delegates' busy schedules into account is also essential in the run-up to the event. At the Institute of Fundraising's annual convention in July, delegates will be given the opportunity to pre-plan their schedule online, meaning they can make sure they get the most out of the various networking and training possibilities that the three-day event has to offer.

The National Trust, meanwhile, uses its correspondence to advise members of suitable hotels that will be available to stay in over the course of its annual meeting, and also runs a number of social events around the main conference programme.

4. Choose the right speakers - While it's a good idea for face-to-face events to be just that, with input from both sides, it's inevitable that formal speeches will play their part, too. Senior staff are probably best suited to illustrating the core aims and objectives of an organisation - although bear in mind that even the most collected chief executive might not be a natural orator. Bringing in a well-known name can also work wonders.

A celebrity ambassador not only draws in a greater audience, but also differentiates your brand.

The RSPB has, for example, used celebrity bird-watcher Bill Oddie at past events to help attract a greater level of publicity for its messages, while Barnardo's has the bonus of being able to turn to Cherie Blair as its president. However, the fact that the fame of the speaker might detract from what's actually being said shouldn't be overlooked, and importing a media star isn't always wise. "It's as much about finding someone who's appropriate and really knows the subject," says Barnardo's conference and events co-ordinator Michael Phillips. "In the past we've used ministers, members of the Food Standards Agency and, recently, someone who used to lead a unit in Manchester Police, because the areas we were concentrating on demanded specific expertise."

Cancer Research UK also follows this trend, inviting local scientists to make presentations at its live events.

5. Use exhibition space wisely to attract new members and reinforce the brand. Taking out exhibition space to raise awareness is a proven and time-honoured way to get results. Importantly, it's another way of showing a human face to your organisation. The appropriate fairs and exhibitions can be extremely effective if they're used in the right way, as you're faced with a steady supply of people likely to find what you're doing of interest. Just being seen at the right show can be a productive way to strengthen a long-term brand message.

The downside in terms of carving a specific niche for your particular charity is that you'll probably be surrounded by a number of similar organisations.

"Exhibitions can be really worthwhile, but there is the danger that you can get slightly swamped by other charities," explains Helen Williams, events officer at the National Deaf Children's Society, the challenge events arm of which exhibits at the Daily Telegraph Adventure Travel and Sports Show. "It's important to make sure your stall has a good way of attracting people to it, and that it offers something different." This could either come in the form of a gimmick - perhaps some sort of interactive game or a branded free gift - or a striking visual design that marks you out from the crowd. In both cases, it's vital to make sure your brand is being suitably bolstered at the same time.

CASE STUDY - CRISIS INNOVATION FAIR

The sixth Crisis Innovations Fair was held at the ABN AMRO building in Bishopsgate, London. Under the official title of 'Homelessness and Loneliness: Building Social Capital in the Twenty-first Century', the day gave nearly 150 professionals, service users and volunteers a chance to meet under the Crisis banner.

The itinerary for the day was made up of a series of keynote speeches on major issues, a number of break-out sessions and a 'big debate', which actively encouraged participation from the conference floor.

The keynote speakers were an intentionally varied group, including Paul Boateng, MP, and US poet and street trader Jack Tafari, as well as the head of policy of the charity.

There was a positive, upbeat feel to much of the event - sculptures and paintings by homeless artists were on show throughout the day, performing artists mingled with delegates at breaks, and refreshments were served courtesy of Crisis's own Starlight Cafe, manned by people with experience of homelessness.

Mark Flannagan, director of communications and campaigns, was delighted with the way in which the annual event continued to grow the brand. "It was, and is, a really great vehicle for engaging everyone in a debate," he says. "It's a unique forum that addresses some huge issues on a strong platform, and we'll continue to see it evolve. The venue was great because it allows you to think differently."

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