Could business events be made more affordable for SMEs?

SMEs are keen to get back to attending in-person business events after Covid, but it’s often an expensive exercise. What can organisers and attendees do to bring down the barriers to entry? 
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Now that the World Health Organization has finally declared an end to Covid-19 as a global health emergency, 2023 is shaping up to be a big year for business events. SMEs, which arguably suffered the most during the pandemic, are keen to get back out there to the shoulder-rubbing and hand-shaking that only in-person events can provide. 

Indeed, according to a survey by American Express Global Business Travel, SMEs are planning more meetings and events than any other kind of firm, with 65% budgeting to spend more on such activities this year compared with 2022. 

Weighing up an event’s value

After all, the rationale is obvious. Major conferences and industry events can be great opportunities for SMEs to network, promote their services and learn about new industry trends, best practices and innovations. 

But in many cases, attending an event can be prohibitively expensive for SMEs, especially amid a cost-of-doing-business crisis. Event expenditures, such as food, transport and labour, have pushed up the overall cost of attendance significantly in recent months. 

So, what can organisers and SMEs themselves do to minimise these costs and make attending business events more realistic and worthwhile?

With the price of a ticket, airfare and accommodation, an event can end up costing the equivalent of two or three people’s monthly salary

Ian Paynton is the co-founder and growth director of We Create Content, a content agency based in Hanoi which helps global brands enter the Asian market. He used to attend many business events in his previous role at a media company, but he now finds it hard to justify the cost as a business owner. 

“I would like to go to more events in big regional hubs like Singapore, as that’s typically where our clients are and it’s important to me that we get out there, meet people and get some inspiration,” he says. “But with the price of a ticket, airfare and accommodation, an event in Singapore can end up costing the equivalent of two or three people’s monthly salary in Vietnam.” 

As a result, Paynton typically passes up on the most expensive events unless he can set up multiple meetings on the sidelines to make a trip more worthwhile. 

How attendees can keep their costs down

Other steps that SMEs can take to minimise the cost of attending business events include selecting those that require less travel or booking tickets and accommodation early to secure competitive rates. They may also seek to share accommodation with other attendees, which reduces costs and increases the opportunities for networking. 

Ellen Green is the founder of Blue Badge Co, a British company that makes and distributes living aids. She takes a strategic approach to attending business events, conducting thorough research to identify those that will offer the most value and negotiating discounts with the organisers. She often speaks on panels as a way to gain free entry and accommodation and to reach a wider audience. 

“When you’re a small business, it’s vital to make strategic decisions about allocating resources,” says Green. “This may mean passing up on certain events in favour of others that offer a higher potential return on investment,” she says.

What can event organisers do to help out SMEs?

Naturally, though, the onus will often be on event organisers to proactively lower the barriers to entry for SMEs. Most offer early-bird discounts, and many provide packages that combine tickets, accommodation and travel for businesses with smaller budgets. 

The speakers that the event features will go a long way to determine the value of attending

Working with sponsors also allows organisers to reduce the overall cost of their events, according to Jonathan Morse, CEO and founder of Tripleseat, a catering and event management platform. He urges planners to look beyond the traditionally sponsored items, such as lanyards and gift bags, and ask partners to sponsor other elements of the event, such as custom cocktails, photo booths, meals or activations.

For instance, the Beyond Expo, which attracts some of the brightest tech minds in Asia to Macau each year, encourages SMEs to become a sponsor to gain discounted access for themselves and their partners. At this year’s event, the VIP dinner was sponsored by an up-and-coming alternative protein company. “At only cost price, their product reached over 300 C-suites, top management reps and investors,” says Stanley Chong, director at TechNode Global, an activation partner of Beyond Expo. “On top of that, the media coverage generated a much higher return than they could have achieved on their own.”

Can machine learning streamline events?

Technology is also increasingly important in cutting the cost of events for small businesses. Machine learning can be used to analyse attendee data and feedback from events to allocate funds precisely and reduce wasteful spending. 

Michaela Jeffery-Morrison, CEO and co-founder of Ascend Global Media, the company behind the Women in Technology World Series, says she expects to see a raft of tech solutions will bring down the cost of events. “Venue sourcing technology with virtual walk-throughs can save time for organisers, registration technology can permit attendees to sign up easily, and onsite solutions can be used to manage and check-in attendees without fuss,” she says.

SMEs can also use machine learning to decipher which events offer the best return on investment. Meanwhile, the more familiar social media sites allow them to network and keep up with other attendees and attend conference events, sessions and activities virtually if preferred. 

How to maximise participation at events

Ultimately, organisers will need to put in extra effort to make their events more cost-effective for SMEs. In his experience of attending events, Paynton found the keynotes uninspiring and the networking opportunities too surface-level. 

“The speakers that the event features will go a long way to determine the value of attending,” says Morse. Getting the networking opportunities right is just as important. “Give attendees time and opportunity to build solid relationships that can benefit their career and their company’s success,” he says. 

Phoenix Porcelli, vice-president of meeting and event sales at meeting planner Convene, predicts that an increased focus on quality and affordability will lead to fewer, more meaningful events in the future. 

“My advice to planners is to review why events are on and how you can reduce the number of events hosted, while creating more experiential, unique events that maximise participation,” she says.