Jack Molisani has produced an annual event for senior-level content managers, LavaCon Content Strategy Conference, in cities throughout the United States for the past 15 years. It’s a niche audience, but Molisani has grown attendance to more than 350 decision-makers — a group that is very attractive to his exhibitors. Some time ago, his European-based exhibitors began telling Molisani that there was demand for the conference in their backyard.
So Molisani organized LavaCon in Dublin in 2016. It was a flop. Among the many missteps that Molisani shared with Convene last year, was scheduling the conference during a bank holiday. (He thought that “bank holiday” meant only that the banks were closed, not that the whole country took a holiday.) Attendance was only half of what he had planned for.
Nonetheless, Molisani brushed himself off and started planning a second version of LavaCon in Dublin, held this past May. “I lined up a phenomenal program,” Molisani said. He moved the event from its 2016 location at Trinity College to Croke Park. It’s a beautiful conference facility, he said, and because Croke Park is a nonprofit — “it’s run by the organization that is mandated to preserve the Gaelic games,” Molisani said — he got a “ridiculously” economical per-person, per-day rate that included the meeting space, lunch, tea and biscuit breaks, Wi-Fi, and AV.
Croke Park has a 200-person minimum, but that didn’t worry Molisani, who was confident he could meet that number. “So I signed the contract with Croke Park, yay. I lined up these amazing speakers, yay. Two months [after registration], we had 16 paid attendees,” he said. “Sixteen.”
In an attempt to drum up more interest in the event, Molisani launched a content-strategy meetup in Dublin and flew to the city to coordinate it. Unfortunately, he said, it didn’t inspire any new people to register.
What Went Wrong
Molisani minces no words when evaluating how successful LavaCon Conference — Dublin 2017 was in attracting attendees: “It tanked, crashed, and burned spectacularly.” And Molisani mostly attributes the poor turnout to his own lack of local market knowledge.
“There’s a tiny conference in Holland called Information Energy,” geared to his audience, Molisani said. Since it’s run by academics and is academic in approach, the conference, he thought, didn’t pose a threat to LavaCon. However, another conference company in Germany had acquired Information Energy “and turned it into a content-strategy conference using the same speakers and the same exhibitors as I had,” Molisani said. The conference was held in Holland a week before LavaCon.
Molisani had signed the contracts for the second Dublin conference prior to that business acquisition, so he couldn’t have known this conference would become a serious competitor. And he didn’t discover the other event was taking place until two months before his own. To make matters worse, registration for LavaCon was 1,200 euros, which was comparable in price to the U.S. version. The Holland conference cost 400 euros.
“Had I known this six months out, I could have changed my marketing and my budgets,” he said. “I could have done more, but by the time I found out, it was almost too late.”
Molisani had also made some faulty assumptions about the potential LavaCon audience in Ireland. One of the primary reasons he chose Dublin for the conference is because tax incentives have made Ireland the European headquarters for hundreds of U.S.-based high-tech companies, which Molisani figured he could tap into. But what he came to understand — by chatting at a pub with a local resident who runs a financial services company — is that the Dublin workforce of those companies isn’t strictly analogous to their U.S.-based workforces. The companies in Dublin tended to have a higher proportion of entry-level workers, which meant that there were fewer senior-level employees, which are Molisani’s target audience.
Molisani also misjudged the kind of experience that his potential attendees in Dublin would be willing to pay for, he said, and mistakenly brought his U.S. conference model to Europe. “We’re a very high-end conference,” he said. “We have gourmet food and networking events at off-site venues. I realized that’s not what the European market [for this sector] is looking for. They’re looking for thrifty basics.”
Also a big factor affecting pricing and attendance is whether attendees pay their own way or if their employers regularly pay for registration. “That would be part of the market research I didn’t do,” Molisani said, “and still haven’t done yet.”
Setting Things Right
In the end, he was able to salvage low attendance by offering registrants extra passes for their colleagues. He also contacted event strategists he had met through his LinkedIn group and offered them passes as well. “I ended up comping like 60 people at this conference,” he said. It was important that he fill the gap — not only had he already paid for the F&B, he had promised his exhibitors that he would bring at least 120 attendees to the event.
He also relied on another strategy to punch up the numbers: livestreaming sessions. “I opened the virtual track to anybody for free,” he said. “We actually had 320 virtual attendees and 109 physical attendees, which meant that we had 400 total new names for my exhibitors that they didn’t have before.”
When Molisani calls the Dublin LavaCon a failure, it’s because he lost money on it. Those who came to the event, he said, “had a blast and asked me if I could bring the conference back again.” Despite being burned twice, he may consider it, but plans to gear the educational program to a lower level than the middle-management strategy segment.
Or he may opt to organize a LavaCon track at his competitor’s conference. “That’s zero risk for me,” he said, “but I still get to keep my European presence. Win/win.”