Amy Bates of Bates Events in Northwest Arkansas knows the exact month that work started picking back up in the event-planning industry since the economic downturn.
“In January 2011, we saw the cap come off of spending and people were more willing to loosen their belts,” she said. “Our phones started ringing off the hook.”
Bates Events provides event planning services for occasions such as executive luncheons, private parties, public festivals, weddings and conventions or corporate conferences.
Other event planners said they’ve noticed that more people are willing and able to attend events that require a paid ticket. For example, this year’s Northwest Arkansas Business Women’s Conference sold out a couple of weeks before it happened on Sept. 11. In recent years, the numbers were down after several years of selling out, said Krista Khone, vice president of special projects and leadership at the Bentonville/Bella Vista Chamber of Commerce, which hosts the event.
ECONOMY A GAME CHANGER
Like many parts of life and business, the economy had a profound effect on the event planning and meeting planning industries. Not all those changes are perceived as negative, however.
“People are more about all-natural, very simple and elegant,” said Jennifer Keaton, owner of Kruton’s, Festivities and Botanicals.
Keaton created Kruton’s Catering several years ago and then purchased Festivities Tents and Events and Botanicals of Northwest Arkansas. The three companies combined to create an entity that provides turnkey events, Keaton said. Clients can get the planning, catering, decorations, photography, venue selection and every other component of an event from the same place, she explained.
Keaton said clients have been choosing more minimalist selections in everything from catering to decorations.
“It’s been more on the down home side of things,” she said. “Part of it is the economy. People don’t have a lot of money to spend so they are trying to save money where they can. With that comes choosing the less expensive items.”
Keaton said she sees that trend continuing even as the economy starts to pick back up.
“I think people are learning to appreciate the natural and simplistic side of things,” she said. “(For example) most weddings are very simple now and people appreciate that. Why spend money for something fancy when you can get something very nice that is simple.”
Courtney Backus Norton, director of special events and workforce for the Rogers-Lowell Area Chamber of Commerce, said that with the increase in the number of networking meetings as well as the economic downturn, she is seeing people become more selective on what meetings they attend.
“It’s a combination of everything (that is driving the changing trend),” she said. “(Meeting planners) need to get more creative on how to pull more people in, especially in the last few years when the economy has gotten worse. People hold on to their wallets tighter so they have to be convinced on why (attending a given event) is a good investment. People would attend almost anything before. Now they are looking more into the message.”
This changing trend has improved the meeting planning industry, Norton said.
“It’s made meeting planners dig deeper and make sure there’s a good purpose for the meeting,” she said. “There’s so many different opportunities that you have to make sure that what you’re providing stands out from the crowd and is beneficial.”
One major change the Chamber made to one of its signature events, the Northwest Arkansas Business Conference and Expo, was adding a theme.
“We’ve added a theme the last two years and people have really gotten engaged in that,” Norton said.
There is also an ongoing effort throughout the Northwest Arkansas region to bring more meetings and events to the area, thus boosting the local economy. The Rogers Convention and Visitor’s Bureau has a program called Bring It Home Northwest Arkansas, which encourages people who attend national or regional conferences to suggest that meeting planners move the event to Northwest Arkansas.
Another trend that seems to be created by the economy is that more corporations are reaching out to event and meeting planners for their services.
“We’re noticing more third-party meeting planners (because) the companies do not want to hire anyone full time (to plan events) so they hire third party for most meetings,” said Scott Beal, director of sales at the Embassy Suites Northwest Arkansas Hotel Spa and Convention Center.
The popular event venue offers event services including in-house catering and other meeting needs.
“The last year or so we have seen groups be more aware of overall costs and saving on a budget for meetings,” Beal said. “Groups used to not really ask about exact costs but now they want a breakdown of everything. ... It’s the economy and avoiding the perception that they are not wasting the company’s money on shrimp or high-priced hotels.”
Meetings are also being planned more at the last minute, Beal said.
NEW EVENT IDEAS
Event and meeting planners are noticing other changing trends in the industry that are not related to the economy as well.
“There’s been quite a bit of difference,” Bates said. “People are more comfortable with individuality and not doing something just because it’s been done before.”
Speaking specifically about weddings, Bates said she’s seeing couples choose many forms of personalization including unique activities in lieu of cocktail hours and instead of using table numbers, each table is named after a place that the couple has visited.
“It’s saying ‘I want you to know me and it’s not just me putting on an event,’” Bates explained.
Building relationships is another major trend in the event and meeting industry. This is largely driven, or at least fostered, by social media.
“Social media has had a huge impact,” Khone said.
She spoke about reading the Twitter feed of people using the hashtag for the NWA Business Women’s Conference (#NWABWC2012). She said a room full of 1,200 were able to share their thoughts on the experience they were experiencing together and in turn sharing that experience with people outside the conference.
“People were feeding off of each other,” she said.
Social media also played a major role in advertising the event and contributed to the event selling out several weeks in advance. It also helped that this year online registration was available, which is how 98% of the women chose to register.