How To Exceed Attendee Projections During COVID: A Case Study

Since September, I have been touting an event that has managed to do the impossible in these times of COVID: exceed attendee number projections. The event, focused on small magazine publishers, is Super Niche. In existence for more than 15 years, Super Niche was purchased a few years ago by a friend of mine, Ryan Dohrn. A number of people have requested that I write about Super Niche, so I reached out to Ryan and he graciously agreed to share the ‘secret sauce’. Here’s what he had to say:
Warwick Davies (WD): What were the principal reasons you decided to purchase Super Niche?
Ryan Dohrn (RD):I did not want to see this event go away after seeing two other national events fold. The post-event feedback was always so good that I knew I could keep it rolling forward. Also, the virtual event during COVID had over 900 in attendance. I could just tell that people wanted to attend really bad. As a speaker at the event for 15 years, I knew that the event had a loyal following. In addition, I knew that the event email database was clean and engaged.
WD: Why did you decide to re-launch Super Niche and put it in a location where most of the attendees would have fly to it to get there?
RD: I took all of the past event attendee data and created a heat map to determine where most of the past attendees lived. Then I looked back at past attendance to determine which areas of the country tended to draw a pretty good crowd. Then, I looked in detail at where these attendees will potentially be flying from and which city would be easiest for most past attendees to fly out of. All data led to Denver and Chicago. The Windy City was out due to COVID restrictions. Denver was open for business and the psychological idea of the mountains, fresh air, and wide-open spaces was a marketing theme I could sell.
WD: What were the key reasons you exceeded your targeted attendance and sponsor participation in 2021 when on average most events are seeing a 65% decrease in attendance?
RD: I was very careful about the promotions, the location, the content, and the pricing. All the promotions had to be specific to reducing the cost of travel to get people there. The location had to feature wide-open spaces and a marketable idea around not being trapped inside of a hotel. Then, on the pricing, I had to avoid the typical model of the later you register the more you pay. We did a flat-rate pricing that never changed. In addition to that, and probably one of the most important pieces of the puzzle, was excellent content and wonderful experiences. To continue to play off the idea of wide-open spaces, we rented the Denver Broncos stadium for our attendees. There is absolutely no way that our crowd could’ve felt cramped inside the stadium built for 75,000. They had a blast. We also set a standard of excellence for creating experiences at the event.
WD: What is your opinion of being part of the community you serve?
RD: I find that one of the secrets of success is not to be an event producer but to be a participant in the community that you serve. That is really the only true way that you can give people what they want. It is very evident to me when someone is just an event producer and not a part of the community they serve. There is a significant mismatch in the alignment of content, events, and other details that I need to make an event a success. If time does not allow you to be a producer that’s also involved in the community, you really need to do your research. I would highly recommend an attendee advisory board that can guide you. Without them, the event could potentially be a mismatch or even worse a failure.
WD: What are the characteristics of your audience?
RD: Our audience for the Super Niche Media event tends to span all age groups from 30 to 65. They share a common passion for the media business. They also share a common passion for wanting to have a good time and also wanting to learn. When you can combine fun and learning, you have a winning scenario.
WD: What is your advice to event organizers struggling to get attendance?
RD:I find my attendee advisory board and my sponsorship advisory boards are two critical components to my success. In addition to that, I do a ton of surveys! When I say a ton, I mean a ton! I also look very carefully at the feedback I received from the event. This feedback is critical to our operations moving forward. To really get the most out of the feedback from an event you need to do the feedback in real-time and get information while it’s fresh in your attendee’s minds. Then, you have to have a thick skin and understand that you can’t please everyone.
WD: What have you learned in 2021 which will help you make your events stronger?
RD: My biggest learning moment was to see the true benefit of adding diversity to my speaker lineups at the event. One of the biggest compliments I received from an attendee was that they truly noticed that there were more women and minorities speaking at the conference this year than ever before. The other learning moment was to locate my event show office in the center of all the action. All too often I see event producers hide the show office in the back hallway away from everything that’s going on. Our goal was to create a place where every attendee knew they could come at any moment of time and ask for help or get a question answered. The final thing I learned in 2021 was that marketing is everything. Creating a robust marketing program using programmatic advertising to target people wherever they are online was a very important part of our success.

As you can tell from my interview and the success of Super Niche, Ryan has become an instant industry leader by knowing, anticipating, and becoming an authentic part of his industry. Hats off to him. Hopefully, the rest of us can adopt a similar approach, one that will bring our own events out of the dark.

Good luck with your own!

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