High Mileage

Exhibitions are all too often one of those items that appear on the marketing budget year in year out without question. You’ve always done them, your competitors do them, so they must be a good thing.

But, in these days of marketing accountability, that’s no longer an adequate rationale. Participation at exhibitions has to be evaluated with the same rigour that we apply to advertising and direct marketing. That means quantifiable objectives and an integrated approach that ensures all communications correspond with all other marketing activities.

Until 1997, Air Miles had never exhibited. We had a business that was growing rapidly and we were exceeding our targets comfortably. Most importantly, as a young company (Air Miles was founded in 1988) we had not inherited any rules about how we should market ourselves.

However, in early 1997, we reviewed our sales strategy and concluded that there was a major opportunity to develop the use of Air Miles as both a business-to-business incentive programme and an employee motivation tool.

Our marketing goals were to build awareness of how companies could use Air Miles awards for more than just consumer loyalty programmes, and to develop quality sales leads that could be followed up by our sales force.

Key to this change in strategy was the need to reach a new audience: decision-makers purchasing incentive and motivation programmes, who we defined as senior sales and marketing staff and human resources directors.

We reviewed all elements of our marketing mix and concluded that, in addition to advertising and PR in the relevant trade titles, we would also benefit from exhibitions. Our forecasts suggested that exhibiting at the right shows would be a cost-effective way of launching Air Miles in these new markets and would allow us to rapidly introduce the Air Miles proposition to prospects and the press.

We knew we were starting with an advantage. Awareness of Air Miles among consumers was 82 per cent. We were confident that the majority of people we wanted to reach would have positive perceptions of us already, and with more than four million collectors in the UK, many would also be collectors themselves.

What we needed to do was build on that awareness and show how a successful consumer programme could also work as a business tool. Exhibitions were a sensible option because they, firstly, would put us in front of decision makers and, secondly, would allow us to explain the proposition in some detail in an environment where we could also learn more about the customers we wanted to sell to.

The next step was to choose the best exhibitions. We selected Incentive 97, Sales Promotion Incentive North (SPIN) – a new show which aimed to reach buyers who were reluctant to travel to London – the Institute of Personnel Development (IPD) Conference in Harrogate and the off-shore HR and Marketing Forums, both of which we had visited in previous years.

The first of these was Incentive 97. It is the biggest event of its kind and attracts more visitors than any similar show. For us this was to be no half-hearted launch. We heavily publicised our presence before and at the show and, as a first-time exhibitor, were delighted to receive considerable editorial coverage. In addition, we gave away 10,000 miles at the stand to encourage visitors – enough for more than 20 return flights to Paris, five hot air balloon flights or 250 UCI cinema tickets.

We needn’t have bothered. We were overwhelmed. We recorded more than 1,500 leads in three days. People manning the stand were exhausted but elated and, as a team-building exercise, we couldn’t have asked for more.

However, it quickly became apparent that although we had generated an extraordinary interest in Air Miles programmes, we were hitting people at the wrong point in the buying cycle, and it was going to take some time to convert many of them. We have since learned that the majority of our prospects review their plans in the autumn and that this is the best time to approach them.

With this in mind, we decided to support the new contender in the exhibitions market, SPIN in Manchester. Our experience couldn’t have been more different.

In spite of the best efforts of the organisers who had put together a thoroughly professional and well-publicised show, the visitors just didn’t come. Of course, we were able to spend a lot of time with those people who did come to the stand but, for the most part, we were left to commiserate with fellow exhibitors about what a waste of time it was proving.

The organisers remain confident that there is sufficient market in the north to merit a regional show and, with hindsight, there may have been a Diana factor at play, as the exhibition date fell between her death and the funeral.

In the autumn, we also exhibited at the IPD conference in Harrogate. Would another foray into the North be fruitful, we wondered? We quickly established that selling to people in human resources and personnel is very different compared to sales and marketing. For a start, they rarely have budgets available immediately and, secondly, the programmes they buy are much longer term. As a result, the lead to conversion time is significantly longer than with sales incentive schemes and so we are not yet in a position to complete our evaluation of the effectiveness of IPD.

Our greatest successes of all, however, proved to be the HR and Marketing Forum. In particular, the Marketing Forum falls at a good time of the buying year and both are a very targeted way of reaching key decision-makers and screening out all of the ubiquitous leaflet-collectors who waste everybody’s time (and valuable brochures) at open events. At both, we held 60 meetings in just two days and were able to establish some excellent contacts for follow-up while also learning a great deal more about the dynamics of the markets we were aiming to enter.

Although it is expensive to send people to the events, we achieved a comfortable return on investment and picked up some very sizeable contracts from the contacts we made.

However, we achieved our best conversion rate from the informal meetings. It may simply be a result of having rather more time to discuss the prospect’s needs and the range of solutions than the pressured 30 minutes we were allotted on the formal schedule. But either way, we will attend both events this year.

The big question is, with a year’s experience under our belts, have exhibitions proved their value to us? Our conclusion is yes.

While some doubt remains over individual events, awareness of our proposition is dramatically higher than it was a year ago. Our sales team is finding it easier to get meetings with key prospects and we have seen substantial business growth.

In 1997, we tripled our business from employee motivation programmes and in 1998 we plan to double that again. Exhibitions will be a major part of our strategy for securing that business.

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