Face-to-face events continue to deliver the greatest return on investment over other customary marketing tools including advertising, according to an annual survey released Monday of U.S.-based corporate marketing executives. The survey was conducted by global event marketing agency the George P. Johnson Co. and the MPI Foundation, the research and development arm of Meeting Professionals International (MPI).

For the past three years, the Global Event Trends Survey has monitored opinions and intentions of corporate executives regarding event marketing and its role in their marketing plans. The latest report is based on interviews with more than 200 decision-making marketing executives and personnel in U.S. corporations that have recorded sales above $250 million.

The U.S. findings of the 2004 Global Event Trends Survey reveal that marketers are using events in original ways. While in previous years corporations typically used events and sponsorships to increase brand awareness, the latest MPI Foundation/GPJ research shows that marketers recognize the role of events in relation to consumer and employee education, with measurable and value-added results. Other key findings include that 82 percent of respondents plan to include event marketing as part of their overall marketing mix, an increase of 6 percent over 2003.

The findings were announced at MPI's 2004 World Education Congress, held July 25-27 in Denver. Dallas-based MPI is the world's largest association for the meetings profession with 19,000 members in 60 countries. "We are pleased to announce the United States event trends at this important congress for the meeting profession," said Robert Vallee Jr., the George P. Johnson Company CEO. "This joint research has proven invaluable for global companies to use in evaluating their marketing programs."

For the purpose of the 2004 Global Event Trends Survey, MPI/GPJ surveyed executives from four industries, including automotive, healthcare, high-tech and financial sectors. Across these four segments, respondents reported that the return on investment from events and the strategic role of event marketing in the sales cycle continued to strengthen, a trend that has carried through from the earlier surveys.

"The respondents' continuing integration, recognition and valuation of face-to-face events are extremely encouraging findings," said David A. DuBois, CMP, CAE, executive vice president of the MPI Foundation and vice president of corporate services for MPI. "This data expresses an industry confidence in the use of events as a strategic and efficient business tool, which we foresee growing only stronger as our economy and general corporate health continues to recover."

New Strategic Role for Events in the Sales Cycle Emphasizes Education as Much as Awareness

This survey distinguishes itself from previous years with the elevation in the importance of using event marketing to increase product knowledge and to increase brand preference. As the communication markets become increasingly saturated, corporations are becoming more strategic in their outreach with customers. The 2004 data also shows an increase in agreement over the 2003 survey that successful events can increase product knowledge, brand preference and brand awareness.

The recognition of the need for knowledge-based events is reflected in the makeup of event types. A trend this year saw companies holding more internal events than in previous years. External events still lead at 69 percent, however, a record 31 percent were internal. Relative to those internal events, 53 percent of executives stated that education and training events account for the majority of their internal event budget. The increasing role of internal events in corporate marketing indicates that companies are learning to brand "from the inside out," understanding that employees and partners are the banner carriers for the brand.

Marketers continue to believe that event marketing provides the greatest return on investment, becoming the top choice of survey respondents at 44 percent, compared with 47 percent in 2002 and only 29 percent in 2003. Advertising ranked second at 18 percent, followed by direct marketing at 15 percent and single-digit marks for public relations, sales promotion and Internet advertising.

In a significant shift from the findings in previous years, sponsorships appear to have diminished in their perceived ability to generate the greatest return on investment, the survey said. Some 60 percent of surveyed companies reported they spend less than $1 million on sponsorships, and rights fees account for 6 percent to 15 percent of those dollars. This trend correlates with the respondents' rankings of the goals for their events. Sponsorships generally promote brand awareness, but with the new energy behind increasing product knowledge and brand preference, information-conveying shows and conference presentations have moved up as favorite formats for reaching external audiences.

Shift Budgets to Measurable, Cost-Effective Media

In a seemingly contradictory finding, the survey determined that while event marketing had won the favor of the highest proportion of respondents for its return on investment, fewer companies expected to devote more dollars to event marketing in the near future.

Some marketers are shifting some of their resources to increased investments in Internet advertising and public relations. These choices likely relate to the executives' concerns for highly measurable results for economical investments. Interestingly, both Internet ads and media placements by PR firms can be measured by the number of "hits" they generate. Another consideration is that event marketing often incorporates both public relations and Internet communications, through news and feature articles, employee communications, ads, promotions and/or e-mail.

Agencies Move to Event Arena

Even though event marketing is viewed as the leader for return on investment, marketing executives are not yet fully aware of event marketing agencies and are turning to their ad agency partners for help. Marketers have said that for both internal and external events, 63 percent of respondents used an outside source for assistance in planning and handling an event.

The primary providers used to plan or handle events are advertising agencies cited by 22 percent, with 19 percent citing an event marketing agency. Twelve percent indicated a "public relations firm" while 7 percent cited an "independent meeting/event manager." Of that 63 percent, event marketing firms assist on only 30 percent of those events. Eighty-seven percent of U.S. companies surveyed indicated that they have an "in-house" meeting planning department.

For a white paper of the research findings, please visit www.mpifoundation.org. 2004 event marketing data from Canada, Europe and Asia Pacific will be released later this year.