Four years ago, the only people who liked David Serino’s Social Media Tourism Symposium Facebook page were his friends. Today it has 35,000 fans from around the world and continues to grow exponentially.
The SoMeT conference recently completed its fourth U.S. iteration and its first in Australia. The inaugural European SoMeT conference will be held in April in Rovaniemi, Finland, a location determined by attendees’ votes.
And therein lies the key to SoMeT’s success: Serino asks attendees to give input on all major conference elements, from host cities to speakers. Dedicated to providing education for destination marketers, SoMeT is a perpetual case study on how to leverage social media to engage communities. This is best illustrated by how underdog communities like Huntsville, Ala.; Tunica, Miss.; and El Paso, Texas, continue to win the event from better-known cities like Milwaukee and Cleveland. In European voting, major cities like Zurich and Belfast were eliminated early on. The two finalists? A small French village and the eventual winner, a frosty outpost in Lapland.
Involve attendees through ownership
The planning process is transparent. The call for proposals, speaker submission forms, finalists’ RFPs, session announcements, event recaps and blog posts are distributed through the SoMeT Facebook page. Engagement and new-page likes tend to peak during destination voting, which follows a NCAA basketball-inspired tournament format.
Over the years, attendees have taken even more ownership of the community. After the first SoMeT conference, they created a Facebook group called Tourism Geeks, and they stay in touch on Twitter year-round. The conference hashtag, which Serino tracks using Tweetreach, gets heavy traffic almost every day.
“In a sense, we don’t really own the event, the community owns it; we just provide the opportunity for them to meet once a year,” says William Bakker of Think! Social Media, which produces the event. “And literally, that’s how this whole thing came about,” Serino says. “We knew so many people online, we wanted to bring them offline to connect.”
Involve your host community
Another reason Serino wanted to launch the conference was because in 2010, the meetings industry was taking a beating, due to post-AIG scandal backlash. “There was a series of goals that we put together when we first started, and one of them [was] to show that this is a legitimate industry, that we can come and support communities,” he says.
Although Serino hasn’t fastidiously tracked the economic impact of SoMeT, the conference regularly brings more than 400 room nights to town during a shoulder season, and employs local DJs, caterers, A/V teams and other service providers. Thanks to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, he knows that conference attendees bought at least 35 pairs of cowboy boots while at 2012’s conference in El Paso, Texas. Online, social media chatter about the Huntsville event reached as many as 2 million people during the three-day conference, generating 13 million impressions on Twitter alone — much of that comprising pictures and stories about the destination.
“The coolest thing for us about being in these smaller towns is that people really care we’re here,” Serino says. “We’re a big fish in a small pond. The economic impact may be small, but it means much more.”
Two years ago, Bakker and Serino decided it should be mandatory for prospective hosts to have attended SoMeT prior to submitting bids. “They get it when they’ve been here,” Bakker explains. “When they host they [know] what these people are like.” The host can use their SoMeT experience as a guide for constructing an environment that matches or tops what was done the year before.
“I think that’s why Huntsville was so successful,” Serino says. The CVB lead was in El Paso and knew how to articulate the SoMeT value proposition to everyone in her community. As a result, CVB-led street teams and personal requests from the mayor generated the thousands of votes needed to win the conference. Additionally, she knew what kind of off-site venues and meeting facilities would make the best impression on the “300 social media gurus” scheduled to descend on Huntsville/Madison County, Ala.
Keep attendees connected
One of the biggest headaches Bakker and Serino faced in the past was connectivity. “It’s not like we’re moving a lot of bandwidth, but we have a lot of connections,” Serino says. “So every time we tell people we’re going to have about 200 people, they think: ‘Only 100 or fewer will be connected to the Wi-Fi.’ But we’ve got 600 connections.”
After four years, Serino says, they’ve solved it. The Huntsville meeting was based at the Westin, so they connected the on-site tech team there to the one at the Westin La Paloma in Tucson, which handles many tech-heavy events. The Arizona-based team taught the Alabama team how to install repeaters.
“This year we can have up to 2,000 connections on the Internet here,” Serino says. “That was a big deal for us.
Create a community of raving fans
Don’t create your content based on who’s sponsoring your events, Serino says. Build it from the bottom up by letting attendees suggest topics.
Have too much content? Ask the community to vote for their favorites. This way, you give attendees ownership of the event. That creates a feeling of community. When they feel part of the community, Bakker says, they’re more likely to attend and come back the year after.
Next, get strategic about event design and flow. When you have people together on-site, don’t give them the opportunity to go back to their rooms and get lost on email. “[SoMeT] events are always off-site, so people have to get on a bus, which means they’re together for a period of time,” Bakker says. “That fosters better networking, better building of relationships.”
Despite SoMeT’s global expansion, the on-site conference community still feels tight-knit. Bakker and Serino have debated whether they will have to let the events sell out or if they can maintain the feeling of community as the events grow in size. But there’s one thing they’re adamant about: SoMeT may have virtual roots, but there won’t be any virtual attendees at future conferences.
“The whole value of SoMeT is people being together,” Bakker says. “If people are virtual, you might as well be doing a webinar.”