By Andrew Prough, CFE
(Editor's Note: Prough is the president of the Austin Area Chapter. The chapter board recently decided to expand meeting capacity and upgrade the atmosphere of meetings by moving to a newer facility. February’s luncheon attracted more than 100 attendees.)
In early 2013, the Austin Area Chapter was using its fourth restaurant in eight years, a local fried seafood restaurant, for our lunch and full-day fraud education events. We had previously used a small women's club, a pizza parlor and a local Mexican food restaurant, each time moving to a new venue so we could fit more people at our lunches. Over the years we had steadily grown from a monthly lunch attendance of about 20 members up to about 50 members per event, and occasionally we were hitting spikes of attendance of up to 70 or 80 members at a time. These spikes in attendance were too much for the fried seafood venue in 2013, and we held several events where some attendees were forced to stand at the back of the room, making it difficult for all attendees to get lunch and driving some members away.
The venue was in an older building in an industrial part of town, and the chapter’s board decided that an upgrade in atmosphere was needed. We began to research other venues that were convenient for downtown workers to easily come and go from a lunch event, had free parking and a meeting place with enough room for our larger meetings of more than 100 people. Also, we wanted to keep our lunch costs less than $30 per person. As we found out, this was a tall order - almost no venues in town were able to fill all our needs.
Over the next year, we looked at hotels (parking fees and catering fees knocked these out of consideration), country clubs (inconvenient locations and catering fees), wedding venues (inconvenient locations and dates and catering fees) and a large number of restaurants that advertised large meeting spaces. However, nearly all of the restaurant meeting spaces we looked at wouldn't actually accommodate our larger events.
Ultimately, we found a wonderful Italian restaurant which fit most of our needs. The only problem was that our food price was going to increase by over $10 per attendee, requiring us to increase our members’ cost per event. And, for the first time, we had to guarantee a minimum number of attendees (50) per event to the restaurant.
These two issues divided our board. We were worried that it would be too expensive and that we would not meet our guaranteed minimum. Any event under 50 attendees would require us to pay the difference.
After more than a year of trying to find a new venue, we decided to vote on the issue. Either we stay in the fried seafood venue at a lower per-person cost and no guaranteed minimum attendance, or we take a big leap of faith and jump to the new Italian restaurant. The Italian restaurant motion won by one vote. We wasted no time, and moved immediately to the new location in November 2014.
Our experience has been mostly positive. We ran into some unexpected event fees, so next year we will have to adjust our event pricing slightly. But our members have responded in a resounding fashion that they love it. The lunch events have become extremely popular and attendance has almost doubled from an average of 49 per lunch to an average of more than 90.
We did have some complaints and have lost a few regular attendees. One state agency decided that the increased driving time and the increased cost of attendance would necessitate that they reduce their attendance at our lunches.
One thing we found is that the pressure of guaranteeing a minimum number of members at each event caused us to increase our marketing, and to make our promotional materials more professional. We increased our email invitation list by incorporating the chapter member list available at ACFE.com, and we went through old attendee sign-up sheets to find emails of past attendees. These efforts resulted in expanding our list of contacts threefold. We also began marketing the events on a three-time per month set schedule instead of the more sporadic emails we had done in the past. We began relying more on direct promotion, and less on the idea that members will "just know" to show up once a month.
There has been a lot of work involved in changing to the new, nicer venue. There were a few arguments among the board members, we learned a few tough lessons about event fees and event contracts and the amount of work and organization involved in promoting the events increased initially. But, the leap of faith that the membership would respond and attend these events even if we had to raise the prices has paid off.