Making Your Trade Shows and Events More Relevant

By Hank Berkowitz • November 5, 2012

Hank Berkowitz

Today’s attendee arrives better informed and more time-pressed than ever before.

“In times like these, networking is invaluable for show attendees,” said Nancy Lawler, CMP, Vice President of Conventions & Meetings for the National Asphalt Pavement Association (NAPA) in Lanham, Md. Registrations may be down a little, she said, “but we’re seeing different people than we’d normally see. There have been lots of first-time attendees. They’re networking aggressively and looking for answers.”

Phil Russo, CAE, executive director of Princeton, N.J.-based NAFA Fleet Management Association just returned from his organization’s annual conference, the 2010 NAFA Institute & Expo. The show was held in Detroit rather than a traditional resort city for the first time in more than 20 years. It’s been a tough go for the auto industry in general, and it’s been particularly hard on the major auto makers and the city of Detroit. How did NAFA fare?

“Actually, attendance was up nicely and we saw an 11 percent increase in exhibit floor space sold – without last-minute discounting, I might add,” said Russo. “A difficult economy almost forces you to have the courage to make changes. Whether you’re a large or small organization, you’ve got to be nimble. You’ve got to try everything. That not only goes for your staff, but your board, your vendors and partners as well.”

Not only did NAFA move its annual conference to the industry’s epicenter, but it offered bonus admittance to registrants who brought along a colleague and who stayed at the official show hotel. While many event planners would be reluctant to give away complimentary admissions at a time when every dollar counts, Russo said the decision paid off handsomely. It provided valuable learning and networking opportunities for many individuals whose organizations otherwise couldn’t have afforded to let them attend. And it provided exhibitors with lots of extra foot traffic.

  • Always put yourself in the shoes of your attendees and exhibitors first.
  • An economic downturn can be an ideal time to make important changes to your show strategy and branding.
  • Organizations of all sizes can be nimble.
  • Listen carefully to what your attendees and exhibitors are telling you (and not telling you). Have the courage to ask questions that yield answers you may not want to hear.
  • Attendees come to shows better armed with information than ever before
  • Don’t drop the ball on post-show follow up.
  • Maintain an ongoing dialogue with attendees and exhibitors. Don’t just reach out when you need a registration commitment or exhibit contract signed.

The Society of Government Meeting Professionals (SGMP) had the second-highest attendance ever at its recent National Education Conference, according to executive director and CEO Charles Sadler. He attributed the increase to the organization’s rebranding efforts that started during the economic downturn (see related story in today’s issue), a 17 percent increase in membership and “our own selling efforts with renewed focus on selling the brand.”

Taking a slightly different tack, the Silver Spring, Md.-based National Ready Mixed Concrete Association (NRMCA) gives viral marketing incentives to its supplier members. For instance, exhibitors earn a discount on booth space or can bring an additional attendee for free if NRMCA determines that five or more registrations came from the supplier member’s outreach efforts according to vice president for membership and communications Kathleen Carr.

“Surveys tell us that networking is now the No. 1 reason that attendees are coming to our shows,” related NAPA’s Lawler. “It used to be education. Now that’s No. 2 and we’re adjusting our programming accordingly. We’re having fewer breakout sessions, but each one is more focused.”

For event planners, 2010 is looking a little more promising than the past two years (see related story in today’s issue) according to Mike Thimmesch, a 20-year veteran of the exhibition industry and author of the blog

“In more and more industries, people are saying to themselves: ‘I want to get out and see people. I need to feel the energy and make new connections.’ We’re also noticing that even if attendance is down a little, organizations are sending high-ranking decision-makers, and the quality of the conversations between members and suppliers is higher than in a normal year.”

Show marketing and information gathering tips

“Always put yourself in the attendees’ shoes,” advised NRMCA’s Carr. “Most people will tell you what you want to know. Just ask. Even if you’re afraid of what the answer might be.”

NAPA’s Lawler concurred. “Do your research beforehand. In surveys, don’t ask questions you want to hear. Ask the questions you need to hear. At the show site, walk around and talk to attendees and exhibitors every chance you get. Ask lots of questions. Most attendees and vendors aren’t shy about telling you what they think.”

You’ve really got to know who your audience is, related Camille Stern, vice president of operations for NaylorCMG, Nayor’s convention management group. “Don’t keep sending out the same old surveys. Have the courage to ask if your education programs are really drawing the kind of attendees to the show – the key decisionmakers who exhibitors want to see. On the attendee side, make sure you’re asking who they really want to connect with at the show. What kinds of products and service providers are they looking for to do their jobs better? What kinds of experts do they hope to get answers from in the educational sessions, networking sessions and exhibit hall?”

“Both attendees and exhibitors are further along in the purchase cycle than they used to be at a show,” said Timmesch. “Thanks to the Web and social networking, attendees are better armed with information pre-show than ever before. They’re already familiar with many of the vendors and suppliers they want to see. They know exactly what they’re looking for and may be closer to a purchase decision (or non-decision) than they used to be. That has huge implications for your staff, and they better be ready.”

“We try to keep our finger on the pulse of what committees are telling us about the industry,” said Lawler. “State organizations also help us with topics, and we look to related professional societies for guidance as well. For instance, our director of regulatory affairs learned a great deal about sustainability from the Civil Engineers Society, and now we’re having our first Sustainability Conference in Denver later this year.”

Convincing attendees and exhibitors to attend

Product specials that are available for attendees only during the two days of Western Retail Lumber Association (WRLA) shows are a big incentive for coming, according to Gary Hamilton, WRLA’s executive director. “This is very closely monitored.”

“We put a lot of emphasis on the learning and professional certification opportunities at our shows,” said NRMCA’s Carr. “Professional certification is not required in our industry per se, but many of the governments and state departments of transportation require contractors to have certain certifications if the want to get the bids. That’s a big draw.”

“Don’t forget that exhibit sales and attendee promotion go hand in hand,” said Stern. “Very often associations forget that your most important members are also your biggest potential exhibitors.”

“Never assume that members and suppliers have heard about your show even though you’re living and breathing it every day,” said Carr. “Even with a massive co-located show like ConAgra (2.2 million square feet and 150,000 attendees) which is held only once every three years, you’ve got to find ways to stay on prospective attendees’ radar all the time. You can’t just touch base once every three years and expect them to make the commitment to come.”

“We’ve found it helps to switch the psychology around from ‘please come’ to ‘can you afford not to be here?'” said Lawler. “We stress that we are the organization that’s working on all the key topics that affect your business. For example: ‘The success of your company depends on what’s happening at this meeting.'”

WRLA’s Hamilton agreed: “We have a wait list each year so key players are the first to renew their space as they do not want to miss the show.”

On-site tips

“Make sure you have a real game plan in place before you unpack and start setting up,” said Thimmesch. “Make sure everyone on your team knows the goals and objectives and that you have knowledgeable staffers there to answer questions from prospective customers, not just to collect their business cards.”

According to Carr, “For mammoth shows like ConAgra, it takes three full weeks to move in, and you can feel the energy build as we get closer and closer to opening day. Although our members are not techies, we do have some Twitterers on the show floor and it’s exciting to see the giant earth movers and other heavy equipment move into positon in our demonstration and showcase areas. There’s a lot of how-to emphasis, and we try to build a lot of buzz around the live demos and showcase areas. We actually build concrete walls and construct things out of porous concrete right at the show.”

“It’s all about creating traffic density,” said NaylorCMG’s Stern. “It’s not how many hours of exhibit time you allot vendors, it’s about the quality and focus of the traffic that’s walking the floor. The most successful event planners are careful to schedule time for the show floor that’s not competing with important educational events, breakout sessions and social events.”

“We’re very serious about making each and every one of our 2,000-plus exhibitors happy,” said Carr. “I visit with every one of them and try to take their pulse about the show and how they’re feeling about the industry. They do me the service of bringing in people. You have to listen carefully. Never assume that they’re satisfied even if they don’t raise a complaint with you directly.”

Post show tips

“After the show, it’s pretty simple: thank people for attending and do so right away,” said Carr. “When they get back to their desks, they should have a postcard waiting for them that thanks them for coming and provides reservation data for the next year. Sometimes we attach the postcard to something memorable that they won’t throw away. For instance, we’ve sent messages attached to porous concrete. They’ll remember things like that.”

Exhibitors get a personal e-mail thank you note from NAFA’s Russo three to five days after attending a NAFA show. They’re also informed to be on the lookout for a forthcoming evaluation survey from Naylor the following week.

“Make sure you have people who know how to work a show lead,” said Thimmesch. “It’s amazing how many organizations do a great job before and during the show, then fall down on the last leg of the journey – post-show follow up. Whether it’s for product sales or new member recruitment, you have to follow up on leads when your organization is fresh in people’s minds.”

“NAPA gets about 10 percent of attendees to respond to its post-show surveys and we really like to explore the verbatim comments,” said Lawler, who advises against multiple-choice-only surveys. “The open-ended comments can be very telling. They’re fascinating to read.”

NAFA stresses the importance of ongoing year-round relationship with members, suppliers and committees, said Russo. NAFA holds segmented quarterly exhibitor advisory councils for large, medium and small vendors to determine what went well, what didn’t go well and what they’d like to see for next year.

“The minute the show closes we start on next year,” said Carr. “Immediately after the show, all the show partners sit in a big room, and we start sifting through the program evaluations. We get tens of thousands of them, but we go through all of them one by one. We’re constantly shuffling the deck to make sure we have all the hot topics covered leading up to the next show and that we’re striking the right balance between management versus industry-specific topics.”

Closing thoughts

“When times are tough, the worst thing you can do is go dormant,” said NaylorCMG’s Stern. “Most industries are smaller communities, and they’ll remember that you were absent from important shows and other industry gatherings. A down cycle is actually the best time to be exhibiting and advertising.” There’s less clutter for your message, and you will be perceived as a strong, thriving member of the industry, she said.

Lawler agreed: “So it’s a bad economy? That’s all the more reason to come to your association gatherings. Stay in touch with your industry. Find out what you should you be doing when things are tough. Learn how to stay ahead of the curve.”

“Effective communication isn’t just reaching out to members when you want something from them like a dues renewal or an exhibit contract,” said Russo. “It’s about maintaining an ongoing dialogue throughout the year.”

The key in any economic climate is getting key decision makers to show up, said Carr. “Let’s face it, you go to a show to make sales.”

Is there any other advice to help Association Adviser eNews readers make the most out of their trade shows experiences?

“Yes,” said Carr. “Bring good shows.”

Hank Berkowitz is the Moderator-in-Chief of Association Adviser eNews.


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