Valuable Asset

To combat the difficulty in measuring the effectiveness of exhibitions, the AEO has developed a benchmark initiative to create 32 objectives marketers should aim to achieve.

Field Marshall “Monty” Montgomery claimed reconnaissance is rarely a waste of effort, yet, according to the Association of Exhibition Organisers (AEO), most exhibitors use only the most rudimentary measures to assess the effectiveness of their investment; some none at all.

The AEO says only 68 per cent of companies claim to evaluate their exhibition spend – the usual measure being the number of sales leads generated at the event.

Austin Hawkins, deputy director of the AEO and the driving force behind its benchmarking initiative, is philosophical: “Although I had some idea of what we would find, I was shocked by the results. Often companies go to exhibitions for reasons other than sales leads, but they just don’t measure them,” he says.

Hawkins believes the case for exhibiting can be proven, but only by giving sceptics the tools to measure a return on investment. His solution was a &£250,000 campaign, starting with a working party to identify all potential effectiveness measures and how they can be evaluated. As a result, the AEO has identified 32 distinct, and measurable, marketing objectives that any company could reasonably expect to achieve through exhibiting. In addition to sales leads, they include relationship-building, market research, building awareness, networking and achieving media coverage. Hawkins acknowledges these may not be primary reasons for exhibiting, but says they are often strong supporting factors.

But is there a danger the AEO is telling people what they already know? After all, even the most junior brand manager could probably cite factors such as the number of contacts made or quantity of samples distributed. Hawkins disagrees: “We all know what we should be doing, but we get tied up in day-to-day activities. It’s about reminding and reinforcing.”

Sylvia Warman, who as sales and marketing manager at Xtol uses exhibitions as her primary communications channel, agrees: “Some exhibitions are hard to measure in practice, but having measurement devices in place is great because they constantly remind you of the many good reasons for doing this kind of work.

“I can show them to my accountant, who is always questioning the value of exhibitions, and they give me something more meaningful to talk about.”

Interestingly, research by event marketing specialist McMenemy Hill supports the AEO’s findings. McMenemy Hill joint managing director Chris Hill comments: “For many years, people have been talking about measuring events more effectively. Yet exhibitions remain the poor relation in marketing. They are not taken seriously enough at the planning stage, and are therefore not given the same rigorous discipline as other marketing activities.”

Hill believes that, even when they try to be more accountable, many companies evaluate the wrong things: “People measure what is easy to measure. That often means they focus more on hygiene factors, such as stand location or the cost of their display material, rather than changes in the quality of the relationship with their target audience.”

But the AEO faces a far greater challenge because these measures are only half the story; meaningful targets are also required. In other words, suggesting that an exhibitor track response rates (its share of the potential visitor audience) is of little value if it has no idea what a reasonable target is. Some exhibition organisers try to help newcomers by making suggestions, but every event, sector and company is different. Most companies simply refer to what they have achieved in the past.

Warman highlights the need for sensible time-frames: “In our business, the lead-time can be anything from six months to two years, so it’s hard to know over what period to measure the effectiveness of what you are doing.”

She also points out that knowing what you want to measure and having a sensible target are not enough in themselves; you need the ability to carry out measurements. This can be difficult for a small company that has neither the research budget nor the staff to make an evaluation. “Our strategy is to raise awareness, and I see exhibitions as the best way to achieve this. But how do I know I’ve raised awareness? I have to rely on my judgment and feeling,” Warman says.

Best person for the event

The danger is that there are too many variables. Having the right event, location, stand size and display material is worthless if you pick the wrong people for the stand. “The key feature of an event is that it is a face-to-face activity,” says Hill. “You can put the best event together, but it’s of no value if your representation isn’t spot-on.”

Surprisingly, only 36 per cent of companies interviewed by the AEO saw face-to-face meetings as the main benefit of exhibitions. This questions exhibitors commitment to designating the best people for the event.

The AEO is aware that addressing these issues may take time, so the new measures will be tested with a number of exhibitors before a full launch. The AEO will also work with members to offer guidance on implementation.

Hawkins acknowledges the metrics are only the first step: “We have to be careful not to switch people off. It’s about managing their expectations.”

So what do exhibition organisers think?

Ian Allchild, an Incentive World 2000 organiser and managing director of Avenue Exhibitions, welcomes the AEO initiative but questions whether the approach is too sophisticated. “This can only help to strengthen the position of exhibitions in the marketing mix but, actually, most exhibitors don’t worry too much as long as they get the right volume of people and not too many time-wasters,” he says.

“Maybe we should be getting the basics right first, and, at the end of the day, that’s down to the organisers. If the main buyers aren’t there, it’s a waste of time for everyone,” he adds.

Allchild points out how important it is for exhibitors to make the right preparations: “Organisers can give you details of past visitors and lists of pre-registered ones so that you can do your own marketing. But it’s not enough simply to write to prospects and tell them you are there; you have to give them a much stronger reason to attend by enthusing and ensuring them they will not be wasting their time.”

Helping hand for first-timers

In addition to providing visitor lists, Avenue holds help days for exhibitors, where they are briefed on a wide range of topics, from putting a press pack together and reading the manual to stand design, manning a stand and attracting people to it. Its past two events were each attended by over 300 people – many of them existing exhibitors.

Warman believes help days are valuable but that organisers could still do more to assist exhibitors. “When you are starting out, it is all very new, and it’s hard to know where to go and how much space to take. You often end up making a decision based on what it will cost rather than what you will get out of it,” she says.

Warman also thinks organisers focus too heavily on selling the space and too little on helping exhibitors understand the value of stand size and location. “There is definitely room for them to do some research,” she says, “particularly to help small organisations and first-timers.”

Both sides recognise there is little substitute for experience and judgment; quantifying the benefits is extremely challenging. Hawkins is one of the first to admit companies have to work hard to demonstrate the value of exhibiting: “Even the best at measurement keep on refining and reworking the process over a long period.”

Spend more money

The AEO’s mission is simple: to persuade exhibitors to spend more money, convert waverers who are tempted to reduce their spend and bring first-time exhibitors into the fold. Measurement is the key to this, yet US research shows that, even where companies measure the number of sales leads they generate, 40 per cent fail to follow them up. While the AEO is heading in the right direction, it may have a long way to go.

International confex 2000

More than 1,300 companies will be represented at International Confex 2000 – to be held at the Earls Court Exhibition Centre in London from February 29 to March 2.

For this year’s event, the Event Support Services sector has changed its name to Exhibition & Conference Support Services, which is designed to more accurately reflect the exhibitors in this sector.

New initiatives for the 2000 event include the launch of a “Global buyers programme” to attract top buyers in the worldwide meetings and events industry. The programme will offer them an exclusive discount travel package and various benefits.

Conference Centres of Excellence is to announce the winner of its “Venue of the year” award 1999/2000 at the show.

Last year’s International Confex, organised by Miller Freeman, attracted 8,863 visitors – a ten per cent increase on 1998.

An Audit Bureau of Circulations report showed that 75 per cent of visitors had either direct purchasing or specifying responsibilities, more than 14 per cent had budgets of over &£500,000, 64 per cent were manager level or above, and 41 per cent declared event management their core job function.

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