In 15 September, Exhibition News hosted its first Question Time forum at our inaugural Race Day at Sandown Park. The aim of this interactive discussion format was to bring the industry together and debate one of the most crucial yet challenging components facing every exhibition organiser: Visitor attendance.
Attracting and retaining visitors to a show is no easy task, particularly as attendees are increasingly distracted by other events, media channels and messages at work and in the home. Reliance on the Internet for information and business interaction has taken its toll on how exhibitions are perceived and why people attend them, for example. More sophisticated, knowledgeable audiences and progressively more interactive entertainment choices are also raising the bar on what each of us expects to find in an exhibition hall.
According to The Facts 2011 report from Vivid Interface, visitor numbers across UK exhibitions fell at an average of four per cent per annum between 1999 and 2010.
Between 2009 and 2010, the report claims a decline in spend and attendance just short of 10 per cent, with trade show visitor numbers dropping 8.2 per cent and consumer events 2.9 per cent. The research is based on 500 events and exhibitions in the UK – 100 less than those held in 2008.
While the figures look alarming, there are plenty of shows in the trade and consumer fields growing their visitor numbers at a rapid rate. So what are the successful players doing to keep people attending their shows? Is it something to do with the specific sector they serve, or are there other factors involved? What influences are there on attracting and retaining an audience in today’s digital world? Is it just a matter of navigating the increasingly complicated marketing minefield better or improving your visitor data? Or are exhibitions simply not ‘the thing’ anymore?
Below are some of the findings from the Question Time forum. Our panelists were Paul Byrom, MD of Upper Street Events; Rob Nathan, marketing director of Media 10; Mark Moloney, MD of Trades Exhibitions; and Andy Center, MD of CloserStill Media. Fashionability
To kick off the debate, EN asked our panelists: Are exhibitions still fashionable? Nathan believed the organiser’s shows certainly are because they continue to exceed expectations and record better gate revenue. Ultimately, fashionability comes down to what you put in front of your chosen audience, he claimed.
“Visitor numbers are declining because poor shows are going by the wayside; good shows that invest heavily in good people, marketing and content will continue to prosper,” he claimed. “Competition is arguably getting tougher and there is a proliferation of other factors affecting people’s leisure and business time. This means we have to work harder to attract people to an event.”
Retail centres such as the new Westfield Centre in Stratford are additional competitors to exhibition organisers, Nathan explained. “Westfield has fantastic facilities – restaurants, shops, parking, Wi-Fi – and we have to get people to not go there and come to an exhibition instead,” he continued.
“So are we still fashionable? We’re fashionable if we keep on evolving.
“In a recession, people still want a day out. If you can offer something that’s good, cheap and that gets them talking, they’ll come back and they’ll tell their friends.”
For Byrom, content is absolutely critical to ensuring exhibitions continue to appeal to the person on the street or the businessman in the tower. He pointed out plenty of shows are seeing increasingly larger visitor numbers today even in the face of economic hardship.
“We work with TV and magazines and are performing better than both those media, which is an important factor for us as exhibition organisers to consider,” Byrom said. “Exhibition organisers are starting to evolve in greater levels and certainly our investment into content is significantly different to five years ago. We are spending a lot more on creating theatre content, classrooms and things we think fit the market. If you do that, people come back and will have a great experience at shows.”
For trade show organisers however, the reality is a little different, Center argued. He claimed many business-to-business (B2B) exhibitions looked much as they did 25 years ago and as result, were liable to lose their audience.
“Those that have got it right in B2B have seen dramatic increases in attendance; those that haven’t changed anything really, have not,” he claimed. “One of the big issues for me is the quality of the marketing people. It’s almost impossible to find marketing people with exhibition industry experience who understand the difference between marketing and communications, or producing pieces of paper versus marketing as spend.
“Well, spend on content is the spend on marketing. Our medium is the message.
“Exhibitions are boring on the whole and there are very few I would go to. At CloserStill, we take this position as our starting point when devising our trade shows. People have 220 or 230 working days a year and getting a dentist, vet or c-level executive out of their office is a big-ticket item. Putting some fancy typeface on your invites, offering a VIP club or giving someone a cup of coffee won’t cut it.”
Moloney agreed shows had to change with the markets they served. He pointed out many historic exhibitions ended not because the organisers were bad at their jobs, but because they ran their natural course based on their industry’s needs.
“You can’t buck certain trends – we have to face that – but where you can really gain from that personal, face-to-face interaction then we need to communicate that message far better,” he said. Digital preferences
What makes for appealing show content, and the way you market your show, have been irrevocably changed by the rise of the Internet. What is undeniable is that finding information on a particular product or company is easier than it’s ever been.
“If you want to make a straight purchase or get a specific piece of information, then exhibitions in those fields will suffer no matter how good the organiser is,” Moloney claimed. “But there are other ways of doing business, such as in the professional beauty industry sector where you are buying the person and the brand. You feel it, touch it and smell it. Therefore online can be a benefit to us as a communication medium that contributes to our face-to-face offering.”
Nathan also believed the Internet can be complementary to exhibitions, although he agreed the easiest thing in the world is to sit online at home, browse and be entertained that way.
“Any exhibition marketed correctly should be a pilgrimage to those people,” he continued. “They can download video clips and go into all the social networking they want, but if you offer something compelling enough consumers will want to turn that into something physical in the end. If they’re into cookery, they can download the content and recipes but isn’t it great they can also go along to a show and see the people they aspire to and experience, touch and taste things?
“We need to be using digital as a complementary tool and exhibitions as a pilgrimage for people’s social habits.”
Byrom also saw a strong opportunity to build and extend a show brand’s community via digital methods. He pointed out many organisers would traditionally have only had a dialogue with potential visitors two months before a show and for the few days at an event.
“The digital world allows us to have ongoing dialogue if you do it right with compelling content throughout the year,” Byrom said. “I don’t think our industry is skilled enough at it, but online ought to be something we embrace heavily.”
Where there is still a lot to learn is getting the balance right between digital and other types of communication in an exhibition’s marketing campaign, Center said.
“The Internet is a fantastic tool, although I think email is worn out now and open rates are in a dramatic decline,” he claimed. “We have to be careful not to be lazy with our online and marketing strategies. People are bored with receiving even opt-in email marketing now, but social media offers a depth and authenticity that could transform what we are doing and it applies everywhere now.”
Sufficient marketing budget
In a survey of EN’s Question Time audience, most admitted to spending less on their marketing budgets today than a couple of years ago. Although the AEO recommends members spend at least 10 per cent of their revenue on marketing, Moloney said Trades Exhibitions often outlays 30 per cent of revenue on getting its message across.
“No wonder the industry is not getting more visitors if we don’t communicate the message,” he said. Center meanwhile, criticised exhibition organisers for using the Internet as an opportunity to simply slash their marketing budgets. As a tactical observation, he pointed out the return of direct mail over email as a successful marketing tool.
“You send a piece of well-crafted direct mail to someone and it’s one of the few things that arrives on their desks that day,” Center claimed. “The responses we have been getting are astonishing. “I think we have reached the bottom now and hopefully we might see the resurgence in old-fashioned media. Don’t ignore pieces of paper, because they stand out.”
Given the sheer amount of on and offline, push and pull marketing options now available to marketers, EN’s four panelists said organisers needed to look at a balanced, multifaceted marketing campaign that took into consideration their specific sector’s interests and preferences.
“Social media for example suits some of our shows and we have a significant following and can drive ticket sales through that channel,” Byrom explained. “I also agree a beautifully-crafted letter can have impact in some sectors too. You can’t do everything – what does your audience respond to? How well do you know them? What messages are you going to give them? Marketing isn’t a ‘can I do everything?’ it’s about making sure you know who you want to talk to and choosing the appropriate vehicle so they hear it.
“I slightly disagree with Mark in that we have maintained rather than increased our investment levels on marketing, but we have started talking about shows as brands. We spend a huge amount of money on our Gadget Show Theatre for example, but that is part of the brand and the content. You need a much more holistic approach to building the brand.”
Nathan had also witnessed the decline in email open rates and is investigating other marketing methods. As it gets harder to gain people’s time, more heavyweight options such as TV may be necessary, he claimed.
“You can’t be formulaic with marketing. You have to look at each show on its own merits, the price of various marketing communications and how to attract people each time,” Nathan said. “We invest as much as we need to in order to keep getting gate revenue, but on Ideal Home Show, marketing spend has certainly been less than previous owners.”Visitor variables
What the panel agreed on was the inadequacy of quantifiable visitor research. Organisers might be “ok” at talking to visitors, Moloney said, but our industry has a long way to go if it really expects to know what visitors are attending shows for and how to keep them coming every year.
“Our industry is shocking at visitor research,” Center continued. “It’s short-term thinking and it’s wrong. If people can’t justify in their own minds spending money to tell their customers the truth about their attendance, then God help us all as businesses.
“As the quality of the research around our industry is so poor, we now use a company we formerly used for due diligence when we’re about to make an acquisition. They are phenomenally expensive, but have paid for themselves every time we’ve done the visitor research on an existing product – even if it tells you what not to do.”
Nathan believed it was up to managers and owners to analyse the research and emphasise its importance.
“We don’t know best – the audience knows best and if you listen to what they’re saying, you’ll find the way to long-term growth for your show,” he advised. For the same reasons, he argued the whole industry should also get behind show audits.
As Center pointed out, experiential and creative agencies may be reluctant to promote exhibitions to their clientele because of the lack of verifiable data on visitors.
“Why will massive integrated agencies promote any other medium except exhibitions? Rob [Nathan] has given us the answer – you go to a serious media partner with made-up numbers and you’re asking for trouble,” he claimed.
“If we are not attracting big-enough brands to our shows, then there’s not enough attraction to spread the word of mouth and visitors won’t come back again,” Nathan added. “We’re on an ever-decreasing circle if we don’t act professionally.”
While EN’s panelists are comfortable in the knowledge that exhibitions have a future, is it clear visitors need to be given a much bigger say. Better research on the market and a more holistic approach to your show brand are key to moving forward.
Who knows? In some cases, this may even result in your company launching a new event style bringing together the best of exhibitions with a more intimate environment.Any comments? Email firstname.lastname@example.org