When businesses make buying decisions regarding where to exhibit their wares, audited attendance figures have an important part to play in the process. Exhibition auditing tools may have only been in widespread use for a few years, but the major organisers can’t remember how they got along without them.

Trevor Foley, director of the Association of Exhibition Organisers, says that exhibition auditing has been commonplace for the past five years and is part of the trade body’s code of conduct.

“We will consider other schemes, but at the moment most audits are conducted by the Audit Bureau of Circulations. One or two are using chartered accountants, but ABC standards are put together by exhibition organisers and users, so they are very much a consensus set of rules and guidelines.”

Mina Booth, an event organiser at Miller Freeman, is a firm advocate of the moves to widen auditing measures to cover every event: “All our trade shows are audited. We believe that providing our exhibitors with accurate, independently audited data is the only way forward.”

Hasmita Mistry is marketing manager for Wembley Conference & Exhibition Centre and, although all Wembley exhibitions are audited, she points out that general Wembley attendance figures published in the media are not always the product of fully audited calculations.

“Post-event, our event managers have a debriefing meeting with the organisers, where they request any visitor surveys and auditing figures that they have on attendees. It is the organiser’s responsibility to pass that information to us. When we quote attendance figures at Wembley Conference & Exhibition Centre, they’re more to do with an approximate rather than a definite figure.”

Exhibitions can enhance their targeting techniques by using auditing tools which the AEO’s Foley feels is something too few direct marketers have taken on board.

“The direct marketing associations for direct mail lists and databases are almost actively against that kind of check on members’ data, I think due to fear among some list owners that their databases aren’t quite up to it.”

Clearly, one company’s audit may be another company’s casual survey. To avoid disappointment, exhibitors shopping for venues need to ask what exactly is being measured in an audit. Foley outlines the two main ABC schemes.

“One is just an attendance audit, counting numbers, and the second is a demographic audit. Most people use the demographic option, which takes the attendance at the gate and breaks it down into job title, geographic location and company activity. That is an absolute minimum, but organisers can go further than that if they wish.”

The decision regarding what level of audit to commission depends on what you want to do with the figures, says Foley.

“It’s not there as something to slap people across the wrists with, it exists as a sales and marketing tool. Its purpose is to attract exhibitors to exhibitions and give them the information they need before making a buying decision.

“Exhibitions have got some work to do to make sure that agencies are aware of the data available and, moreover, that exhibitors pay attention to it. It is important to distinguish good events from bad. The recording systems are all there, it’s just getting people to do the audits.”

Austin Hawkins, head of sales and marketing at the ABC, is naturally convinced that the ABC is the industry standard for auditing exhibitions.

“We audit about 160 exhibitions a year and as far as I’m aware, there are maybe two other organisations which carry out audits.”

With the ABC, trade exhibition organisers can choose between a standard certificate and a profile certificate.

“The standard certificate is just a verification of the attendance. The organiser supplies us with an attendance list and we pull out a sample of the attendees listed. We contact them and ask them to verify that they attended the show. Provided we get all the right answers, we then issue a certificate quoting the number of attendees at the show.”

The profile certificate is more valuable, says Hawkins, because it not only audits attendance at the show but also gives a demographic breakdown of those attendees. “The mandatory breakdown is geographical location, company activity or business interest, job title or job function.

“On the consumer exhibition side, it’s slightly different because they don’t provide lists of attendees. It’s a public attendance and a financial-based audit. Again we issue a certificate on the number of attendees, but it’s a fundamentally different audit because we use financial checks to verify the attendance.”

Audits tend to be organised by event organisers, but exhibitors have to be happy with the scheme for it to work, adds Hawkins.

But according to Foley, surprisingly few exhibitors demand site-specific audit information to establish whether the audited headcount reflects interest in their particular stalls. There is a continual struggle to make exhibitors aware of the benefits, he says.

“I think creating awareness among exhibitors is the key. It’s a battle to make them aware of it so that their buying decisions are made on sound foundations. The industry still has some way to go to persuade exhibitors to look at details. Agencies, likewise, don’t necessarily pay a lot of attention to exhibitions, whereas publishing is very ABC-driven. Publishers struggle to sell ad space that is not audited,” says Foley.

Booth warns that exhibitors need credible sources for attendance projections. “In order to have any real currency in the market, it is important that all exhibition organisers use recognised auditing companies which make their methodology completely transparent. Without this, it is impossible to draw real comparisons between the performance of competing exhibitions.”

The ABC plans to strengthen its dominant position in the exhibition auditing market with a concerted marketing drive over the next 12 months. This will involve more than just promotion of the exhibitions side, says Hawkins, and will include getting people to understand what ABC is and why they should be basing their buying decisions on what it has to offer.

“That’s pull marketing. On the other side, there’s push marketing to encourage organisers to promote it themselves, so that buyers will understand what ABC is and hopefully spend their marketing pounds with the organisers rather than other media. We’re here to give media owners a sales tool and media buyers an independent, accurate guide to the level of attendance or circulation,” says Hawkins.

The next stage for Wembley will be encouraging clients to use the new in-house box office system that can extract marketing information. Mistry explains: “It’s a service that we provide to event organisers. That information is provided to the client at a cost. They can get a profile of the type of people who booked, when they booked and where they heard about the event.”

Wembley also plans to step up the gathering of pre-show data.

“For our own events, such as the Family Extravaganza, we try to maximise the potential for pre-registering, so that we can build our visitor profiling information and increase the opportunities for data collection before and during the event. Our front of house team will also monitor the number of visitors to the exhibition, so that we can accurately rate the event’s success.”

Booth is concerned, however, that existing moves to encourage auditing do not go far enough.

“As the industry association, the AEO needs to insist on audits as part of its code of practice.

“The launch of the low price standard audit by the ABC should mean that the cost of the audit is no longer a stumbling block for the smaller organisers. However, the AEO must ultimately aim for all exhibition organisers to provide their customers, the exhibitors, with pro-filed data.”

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