The real deal

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Many trade shows this year have quite simply not had enough of the right visitors in attendance, but what is equally unnerving, is that too many of the wrong visitors are attending. In addition, many organisers of trade shows and congresses are  quoting visitor registration figures and not the actual numbers of visitors who attend the exhibition. A pharmaceutical client of mine attended a congress at which the organisers promised 2,200 paying or sponsored delegates. The event took place at the QEII Conference Centre and on being questioned, the organisers acknowledged that there would be around a 20 per cent no-show rate. We also learnt from them that only 60 per cent of the attendees would be staying over the three days. Furthermore, the venue can only cater for around 700 delegates for food. All these factors combined meant that in our largest potential timeslot, lunch, most of the promised audience would not be available to visit our client’s stand. They’d left the venue to eat in the local pubs and restaurants. Exhibitors have to get to the bottom of the real numbers of the audience expected before committing to a show and organisers have to be accurate with this information. The AEO membership used to require  that organisers  audit their shows, but this is no longer the case. And this has led to a general relaxation in auditing statistics. Organisers don’t have a common means of presenting their statistics, which makes it difficult for exhibitors to understand the profile of visitors attending the show. As a minimum, exhibitors need to ask organisers how many visitors are attending, who they are, what rank they hold and what they are looking for at the show. But that’s only half the battle. During a recent survey at a well-known conference and exhibition we asked visitors who they were principally coming to see. More than 55 per cent of a representative sample admitted that they were actually attending to sell to the exhibitors and to network. "Over 40 per cent of visitors to a recent marketing show were there to sell." And, at a recent marketing show in Olympia, around 40 per cent of the visitors we polled admitted that selling was the main reason for attending. I’m a great believer in networking, but it doesn’t replace the need for serious investors in exhibition space to deliver a measurable result. This is not a new phenomenon, but owing to the challenging climate, there are more and more people attending exhibitions, desperate to sell and network like mad, but without taking a stand. It is becoming increasingly harder as the recession bites to interest exhibitors in investing in a show, especially first-time exhibitors, despite all the good reasons to do it; visibility in a down market pays serious dividends later. Equally, it is harder to justify visiting a show unless real value can be extracted and that’s not just about new products or services. So, by not delivering the right quality of audience, organisers are shooting themselves in the foot.  Cosmetic solutions to improving the visitor and exhibitor experience aren’t enough to ensure that the right visitors come in the first place. Fast tracking and a  VIP lounge where visitors can use their laptop and get a free cup of coffee, are all well and good, but they are not getting under the skin of the problem. They don’t address the key issue of prising the right visitors out of their offices and into the exhibition hall. The current times call for trickier treatments. There are basically two incentives to attract  high quality visitors. Organisers need to offer knowledge and money. I believe in charging visitors to attend a trade show, but at the same time delivering excellent value usually in the form of knowledge: seminars, workshops and masterclasses. Yes, many organisers do this already, but they need to do more of it and ask themselves what their visitors are really going to take away from the event. Once there is a visible take home value, which can materially improve the performance of the visitor’s organisation when they get back to the office, a monetary consideration can be applied. The second wrinkle to this approach is to work closely with exhibitors who could pick up some or all of the fees by sponsoring the visitors. This, of course, provided that the visitors spend a pre-arranged amount of time on their stand. Yes, you’ve guessed it, this is about sponsored attendance as has been happening at many of the medical congresses for years, and the matched meetings principle, so successfully operated by organisations like World Trade Group and Richmond.  "Networking doesn't replace the need for exhibitors to deliver a measurable result" When the above techniques are overlaid onto the existing promotional activity the event becomes more of a forum. And a forum is where trade shows started in the Greek and Roman times. First and foremost, the event was an opportunity to learn. There is a key element of knowledge that is still absent from our industry. I am referring to the lack of knowledge on behalf of organisers, designers and contractors of what exactly makes a successful exhibitor. Exhibition sales people, the people selling the show space, don’t generally understand what actually happens at exhibitions. For instance, they don’t know how to keep time-wasters off the stand or the need to spend less time with visitors so you can see more of them. There is of course an answer and, as with any industry, a process is required. In fairness, I work with many enlightened organisers who are passionate enough to ensure that their key exhibitors have a good show. I am frequently hired by organisers to coach exhibitors on a company by company basis  and also to provide master classes and workshops. We work through the exhibitors’ plans for the show, help them to set objectives and show them how to meet those objectives. And in nearly every case, the exhibitors can see they have had a good show and book again. But why are so many contractors afraid to challenge the client brief in the first place? Exhibitors need to nurture existing clients and attract new ones at an exhibition and the design of their stand should reflect these different experiences. The best example I can give you is when I universally hear that a client wants “more business” and I challenge them and ask; from where? Existing customers? New customers?  What else could they gain from the show? Contractors should challenge the client’s objectives in this way to give them the best chance of success during the show, but unfortunately they are so desperate for work, due to over-supply, that they don’t. Trade shows are a first class listening exercise and an entire year of market intelligence can be gained from carefully structured research at a show. Surveys can be conducted by the exhibitors and these, in turn, can lead to fresh statistically-based press releases, which can add to the value of a client’s brand profile with authority and integrity. The brand becomes the thought leader and knowledge provider within its sector. So my recommendations? Increase the provision of knowledge, research, insight and hence the value for visitors. Put a price on that value even if it ends up as hosted buyers, sponsored delegates or matched meetings. And, crucially, get to know the tried and tested process and tools meaningful visitor experience and a measurable return on investment and objectives for the exhibitor.John Blaskey is the founder of The Exhibiting Agency, a consultancy dedicated to ensuring exhibitors achieve outstanding results.
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