Making contact

Hosted-buyer conferences allow sellers to meet clients in efficacious circumstances. But does the expense of these programmes off-set the potential benefits they offer? asks Catherine Chetwynd

Hosted-buyer programmes may be expensive for exhibition organisers, but they can guarantee the quality of visitors. The buyers also benefit, they get to attend the show for free – travel, accommodation, meals included – in return for which, they have to commit to meetings with exhibitors or participants.

Funding for conferences is provided through either the marketing and/or promotion budget, or by programme sponsors, who then – inevitably – have their own agendas to which buyers become tied.

Incentive World has run a hosted-buyer programme since it was set up six years ago, and this year hosted 250 visitors from 11 countries. The European Federation of Sales Promotion sources buyers for the show to ensure a quality mix. The success of the programme was demonstrated this year by the attendance of blue-chip buyers such as Coca-Cola, pharmaceutical companies and motor manufacturers.

Incentive World managing director Ian Allchild says: “Incentive World uses a good ground handler who meets delegates on arrival, takes them to the show and handles their luggage.”

He adds that although hosted-buyer programmes are expensive, costing roughly one-third of the promotion budget, they are worth it to “ensure the quality of the show”. He says: “If this money wasn’t spent, exhibitors would not get to see buyers on such a personal level.”

The Business Travel Show (BTS), which this year moved from the Islington Business Design Centre to Olympia, is now using a hosted-buyer programme to attract more European visitors. BTS event director Paul Robbin says: “Without a hosted programme, only 12 per cent of BTS’s visitors would be international. The decision to host buyers is not to be taken lightly but it moves the show to a different level.”

He adds: “BTS has sounded out exhibitors about being potential sponsors and one of the large travel management companies (TMS) is looking to support this move. BTS would put the hosted-buyer programme in place for 2002.”

There are already signs of wider European interest in BTS and Robbin wants to capitalise on this. He says: “More European and global deals are being done at the show. BTS had some senior travel buyers from IBM and Deutsche Bank this year, invited by a TMS.”

Robbin believes that the draw to events should be the seminars and complementary programmes, not the travel deals that, because of the nature of the business, are already available to most of the show’s visitors.

Arguably the founding father of the hosted-buyer programme is EIBTM, the European Incentives Travel Business Meetings, acquired by Reed Exhibitions last year. The event brings together like-minded professionals under one roof. The buyer plan is the linchpin of the quality of the show, which is vociferously supported by exhibitors and buyers alike. This year Reed plans to apply stricter criteria for qualifying buyers, based on research undertaken at last year’s show.

But Reed exhibition director Debbie Jackson is emphatic that this is not a budget-cutting exercise. She says: “Reed has refined the programme, but new intermediaries, who invite their clients, plus increased direct mail and advertising, will attract more visitors.”

No-show fee

Reed will also revise the manner in which buyers are assigned to scheduled appointments. Jackson says: “Last year Reed did not match buyer and exhibitor appointments as carefully as it should have done, so that is its focus this year.”

As a result, buyers will be committed to a certain number of individual meetings with exhibitors, according to their length of stay, plus group appointments on destination stands.

The complexities of matching buyers and sellers have been made easier for hosts by the use of interactive websites. They allow buyers to choose who they want to meet, make appointments with exhibitors, as well as book places in conference seminars.

Reed is also introducing a no-show fee and hosted visitors are being asked for credit card details up front. Jackson says: “Anyone can cancel right up until the show, but if they don’t turn up there will a &£250 fee.” Last year some 30 per cent of pre-booked delegates did not show up.

Not everyone is in favour of this fee. The French government tourist office, Maison de la France, hosts a party of clients at EIBTM each year. Maison’s head of conference and incentive Rachel Sobel says that the introduction of the fee has not deterred delegates, but she says potential guests have questioned it. She says: “I hope they will drop it next year.”

As an exhibitor, the Portuguese National Tourist Office also taps into the hosted-buyer programme. UK director Mario Ferreira says: “The quality of buyers at the show is good but I am worried that Reed is changing something that is a proven successful formula – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

FDI World Dental Federation (FDI) congress manager Paul Wilson has visited EIBTM as a hosted buyer four times. The FDI’s annual congress and exhibition, with delegates numbering between 15,000 and 20,000, is held at a different location each year. Wilson says: “The FDI is going to Malaysia this year and Australia in 2003, so at the EIBTM I will be able to meet the people I am doing business with. I can set up contracts with hotels and convention centres. It is superb for me.”

A different dimension

A hosted-buyer programme can also add another dimension to a show. Arab Travel Market (ATM) in Dubai is using a hosted-buyer plan to broaden appeal and target conference and incentive organisers. ATM marketing manager Lindsey Kavanagh says: “ATM is running two hosted-buyer programmes, one aimed at Saudi Arabian buyers, and the other at the conference and incentive sector.”

She adds: “Although the Emirates is recognised as a good destination for the incentive market, ATM has not targeted it before. This year, it will aim for conference and exhibition organisers within large corporations.”

The ATM programme is not fully hosted, although accommodation is free. Flights to the show are provided at a 50 per cent discount.

Tailor-made itineraries

Richmond Events organises a series of conferences based on the principle of hosted buyers with a programme tailored to their needs. All the events take place on board the luxury P&O-owned cruise ship Oriana. Richmond project manager Katy Parkinson says: “The formula for all of Richmond’s events are the same. It invites named delegates to come on board, having established their credentials to ensure they have the right spend and levels of responsibility. They do not pay anything but they sign a contract guaranteeing they will participate in the meetings programme.”

There are one-to-one arranged meetings between suppliers and buyers through an appointment system that is set up in the eight weeks before the event. Suppliers, who are in effect funding the programme, select 30 buyers that they would like to see, ranked in order of preference, and from those suppliers, delegates choose who they would like to see. Delegates get to meet with their direct choices individually, and suppliers get to meet their priority delegates over breakfast, lunch or dinner.

Richmond sales manager Patrick Hodson says: “This system is ideal for allowing meetings to take place that would not have happened in other circumstances. The programme is delegate-led. Suppliers know that everyone they sit with has expressed an interest in seeing them.”

The hosted-buyer principle does appear to work for many organisers. But the high percentage of no-shows at last year’s EIBTM proves that no matter who is paying, attending an event does get pushed down the list of priorities if something else crops up. Making show attendance a priority is the real challenge for event organisers.

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