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Tradeshow on life support? Pull the plug.

I have a lot of great ideas about running an association...

Dues? It's a decaying model that needs to be rethought.

Member retention? Forget about it. Work on engaging the people who want to be involved and don't worry about member numbers.

Tradeshows? Well, that's the topic of the day for me. Recently on ASAE & The Center's Meetings and Expositions listserver, someone asked how to enliven a tradeshow so attendees will visit booths.

There really is only one good answer to the query: make sure the exibitors have products, services, or information that the attendees want to talk with them about. Anything else is a cheap gimmick that won't do any long-term good.

Don't get me wrong, there are some things to do. I don't want to call them "best practices" because they're really more like "don't-be-stupid" practices. Don't schedule education over top of tradeshow time. Put food in the hall to draw people there. Things like that.

But raffles and bingos and prizes and scavenger hunts—all just gimmicks. If you put people in a hall together and they don't talk to each other, that's a tradeshow on life support. You need to go through the steps to find out why people aren't talking to each other and maybe even try a few different, nongimmicky approaches to try to jumpstart conversations, but be prepared for them to fail... and pull the plug.

You don't have to be a particularly astute observer to notice that I'm ripping apart some pretty fundamental and significant revenue streams for associations. Perhaps you also have noticed that I'm not king... or even an executive director (...or even, as Kevin Holland is so nice to point out in a comment, senior staff). I don't have the financial solution to these questions. But I know this—if you are constantly fighting member attrition or (gulp) decline, then it's time to at least consider how your organization stays relevant (and solvent) anyway. And if your exhibitors are complaining because no one is talking to them, it's time now to be thinking about how that revenue stream is going to be replaced or otherwise accounted for.



(Jeez, don't take it personally, Scott.)

I believe the basic point you're making is one that association executives -- whether senior staff or not :) -- should have tattooed on their foreheads:

Everything has a shelf life. That means everything.

Associations have a market, not a product. Products come and go. We should never think we are in the "tradeshow business" or "the magazine business" or even "the advocacy business" or whatever else it is a particular association might "do." We're in the business of helping our members succeed. How we help them succeed -- the "things" we do -- should be changing on a regular basis. If something stops working, then be smart enough to know when it can be fixed and when it should be jettisoned.

I have a somewhat different perspective. Exhibitors want to attract sales and sales leads. That's the only reason they spend a portion of their annual advertising and sales budget with associations (or anyone else)for exhibits.

The mismatch comes when associations schedule events that attract attendees who do not have purchasing budgets or authority. Example: students and faculty. Example: juniors starting out on their career ladder. We can all think of other examples. Even if these folks can somehow be lured into the exhibition area, a brief chat with an exibitor will result in an exhibitor who knows that a sale is unlikely and the exhibitor is in the wrong event (and not likely to return again).

What's the solution? Understanding and matching appropriate market segments together at events where all attendees (registrants and exhibitors) add some value to one another.

Said differently, students and faculty have little interest in exhibitors and vice versa. Exhibitors have great interest in industry and governmental (and association) folks with middle to executive level (purchasing authority) responsibilities (and usually vice versa).

Why wouldn't we just segment our association markets and match compatible audiences together for successful programs? Use the successful programs that generate a net revenue margin to subsidize those programs, that are as important to the association mission, but have limited revenue opportunities. What a thought!

And I thought it was all about booth babes and tchotchkes ;>

It comes down to something we like to moan about when it comes to associations, but still find hard to deal with: Letting go of what no longer works. And it's not just on the association's side.

For example, Virgil makes some great points, but while there are lots of exhibitors who "get" that the quality of the audience counts more than the quantity, there are still plenty who just want a high head count. Cutting out the students and faculty would make for a smaller, less-crowded floor. So even if the quality of the leads is higher, exhibitors with this mindset won't be happy. And they likely won't come back. Sad but true. So the exhibitor pool shrinks, and attendees with that same mindset think the quality of the show is declining along with the number of booths and don't come back. And so on.

And Kevin's right, we should know to jettison what doesn't work. But what if it still works, just not as well as it used to? I think that's the case with a lot of trade shows. Which is why exhibitors are always looking for ways to get more folks to their booths, and association planners are always looking for ways to help them do just that. The gimmicks are band-aid solutions at best, but they do hold it together for the moment, at least.

And Scott's right, too. If an exhibitor has the right stuff, they'll get traffic and quality leads even if their booth is set up in a barn down the road. But are you going to turn down an exhibitor who you think won't be compelling to your members? I'd like to think so, but from what I've seen on the exhibit floor, it doesn't actually happen very much. Not to sound cynical, but so what if they don't come back? At least you got their money this time around, which you wouldn't if you truly vetted all your exhibitors.

So we continue to be caught between the ideal and the real, and no one seems to be willing/able to either cut the string or revolutionize the experience in some way that will make the "how do we get them to our booth" problem irrelevant.

If you have any ideas, particularly on the latter, I'm all ears.

Having read all of the posts on this particular topic, what do you all think are some of the most valuable conferences for meeting planners? Who has the best reputation for truly being informative and enabling networking (of course it's all relative, right?)? HSMAI -- what about their Affordable Meetings? American Lodging -- what makes them better than anyone else?

Just curious to see what other people think.

Long story short, know your audience, give them what they want. Our show is a one stop shop. You have everything there (education, booths, meetings) and you choose what you want. Some people want us to tack on an extra day because they can't get through it all.

I personally hate that ASAE Annual has specific floor time with no education. I don't have a need to visit CVBs. I can walk the floor in 2 hours total. Which means I could be using that time more wisely if there were sessions then. Instead, I have to choose 1 session out of 20 later in the day, even though many look interesting.

On the flip side, right now I want to go to the Tech Conference specifically for the floor. However, I am annoyed that I have to pay the full conference rate just to walk the floor. I bet exhibitors would love it if ASAE allowed them to give away floor only passes.

There is that freemium model again. Don't charge people to get on the floor. Just charge them for education and extras.

I believe conference attendees won't like the increase in registration fees that could result from eliminating trade shows. Some sponsors want the face time of exhibits, not just putting company name on a screen or napkins.

I use "gimmicks" (also known as "incentives") too because they work in drawing attendees to exhibits - food, drink tickets, prize drawings, games - and big one not mentioned - celebrity or sports figure signing autographs. Sometimes attendees don't know what they're missing - and incentives can lead them to find there's something they really did want but didn't yet know.

Example: past president couldn't understand how anyone would buy at a trade show. At national conference he went to enter a drawing - bought a watch, a ladder and drove a car off the trade show floor (color not available in Maine).

Ultimately exhibitors make the call on if valuable to them or not - by their own criteria.

Also, incentives not just limited to trade shows.

Concur with all your points and can support them with one example: PCBC-the west coast building show. Given the state of home building in the state of California, you would think that this trade show would be on life support. But it's not. PCBC has a cult following of people who identify with it, who are attached in ways most associations could only dream of for membership retention, much less show attendance. There are bigger shows, more specialized shows, but both the quality and quantity metrics remain strong and their influence continues to expand. 2008 is yet another year of economic siege, but so far, so good.


Full disclosure--I have been a fan and supporter of the folks who produce PCBC for years and they just returned the favor by retaining me.

I appreciate the many, insightful comments. One important note, I think, is that I'm not advocating the death of all tradeshows. It's only the ones that perhaps one time had a real purpose -- usually bringing a company with products or services together with the users or purchasers of those products -- but no longer serve that purpose. Could be the product or service has changed, or the responsibilities of the attendees have changed, or the weeding out that used to be done by bringing hundreds of vendors together in one place is now done online.

I'm also not advising that it be done like a Band-Aid--right off! I think you need to recognize the signs of a dying show. One of those signs, in my opinion, is having to dream up schemes to get attendees and exhibitors to talk to each other. And plan on the continued erosion of that revenue stream, and planning what the organization needs to do about it.

And as Kevin said, it's not just tradeshows, the same is true of any product or service. One association I was with, it was the bookstore--a cash cow before online bookstores, a much different animal after Amazon.

There are some people who underestimate the usefulness of trade shows.Many have given up on them. In fact, more and more business owners are pulling out of trade shows. This is a wrong strategy. Instead of pulling out, they should think of various ways of improving their trade show displays and their booths. This way, they would have better shot at attracting
potential customers...

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