Effective events

With recession looming, competition for a slice of the falling market is hitting exhibition organisers hard. Helen Donald looks at what techniques organisers can use to get ahead of the game again

O rganisers are already having to work harder at attracting both exhibitors and visitors. Accountability is back at the top of the agenda and potential exhibitors are keen to ensure they are maximising the return on their investment in terms of audience reach and message delivery. Visitors also want to make sure that time at an exhibition is time well spent.

The key to marketing an event is therefore starting earlier. Janet Meacher, divisional marketing director of CMP Europe, formerly part of Miller Freeman, claims her company starts marketing 14 months before an event. “Before you go on site with the imminent show, you have to have a clear picture of the subsequent one, so two months before the exhibition, we are already planning our outline strategy for the next one,” she says.

This allows CMP to promote the following show to a captive and, hopefully, predisposed audience of exhibitors, who are offered substantial incentives for rebooking on site. Marketing to potential visitors also starts well in advance of the event, usually six months beforehand.

Effective money management

Meacher claims the current climate is forcing a rethink in the way that CMP markets events to visitors. “In some ways, it’s a very good discipline,” she says. “You should always be checking how effectively your money is being spent anyway and when times get tougher, you have to be more ruthless about marginal activities and prioritise those things that are driving response.”

CMP is a big advocate of electronic marketing and has recently tested text messaging on mobile phones with great success. “Of course, you have to be careful,” cautions Meacher. “Some people find it too personal and do not welcome unsolicited text messages. Our solution is multiple level opt-in in our database so that we know exactly what kind of campaign people want to receive and can segment our activity accordingly.”

Reed Exhibition Companies is also aware of the need to improve its visitor marketing and has recently created a position of marketing director. Mark Jenkins has been brought in from outside the industry because of his strong consumer background. He was previously head of CRM at Open, and before that he worked for Ogilvy One as a consultant working on projects for IBM, Eurotunnel and Deutsche Bank. Jenkins says, “There’s a lot of great experience in this business, but we want to be more customer as opposed to show-focused. My brief is to introduce a lot more consumer marketing-based skills such as database analysis and segmentation.”

Jenkins is also planning to invest more in research. “It’s vital that our shows offer a clear reason to exhibit or attend, so we will be doing more research into the basic product proposition, ensuring that we understand why both exhibitors and visitors are there, and what they need and want from an event.”

Jenkins is adamant Reed will develop exhibitions that stand on their own strengths and do not just rely on tie-ins with sister publications. “Most events sold solely on the back of a magazine subscription will be only moderately successful. People are becoming increasingly sensitive to the dangers of bleeding a database dry. It’s all about driving efficiencies through improved targeting,” he insists.

Demise of mass marketing

Rene Dee is managing director of the Royal Horticultural Halls & Conference Centre (RHHCC), and believes there is still more progress to be made through better targeting of exhibitions.

“The days of the big mass-market event are over. In the past 20 years, and especially in the past ten, there has been a huge increase in niche events,” he says. “As an exhibition organiser, you are also probably in a geographic, as well as a sector niche because there are more and more regional centres all competing with each other, so you could have a very narrow demographic.”

Auditing goes hand in hand with tighter targeting. CMP’s Meacher is a big advocate of exhibition auditing and has noticed that clients are becoming more aware of its importance, partly thanks to the Association of Exhibition Organisers’ (AEO) vigorous campaign. However, she is frustrated that, if not everyone does it, CMP is often giving away commercially valuable information to its competitors.

She also believes a lot of exhibitors are confused about what auditing actually involves. “A lot more education is still needed,”she says. “Not all audits are as rigorous as ABC’s [Audit Bureau of Circulations], which has a very thorough validation process. Other auditors just count heads without any validation and it can be very misleading for exhibitors.”

Jan Pitt, director of business to business at ABC, has noticed a large increase in demand for auditing. This year, ABC will audit 20 per cent more exhibitions than in 2000. This is mainly due to the AEO’s insistence that members audit their events, but Pitt points out that auditing has always been much more prevalent in the exhibitions industry than in publishing. For example, 41 per cent of trade exhibitions are audited by an external auditor compared with ten per cent of magazines which have their readership externally audited to obtain objective readership figures and demographic profiles of these readers.

Pitt also points out that many clients buy demographic profile information as well. “There is definitely a growing awareness of the value of this information, particularly in the current climate,” she claims. “Exhibitions are in competition with other media sectors and need to convince both prospective and past exhibitors of the value of the audience they can provide.”

A wealth of experience

Another resource that exhibition organisers could use to help market their events is the knowledge of the venue managers. Yet Stephen Norcliffe, commercial director of The Queen Elizabeth II Centre in Westminster, is disappointed by how few take advantage of it. Norcliffe’s own background includes exhibition organisation, and he has worked in marketing the city of Milton Keynes and the Channel Tunnel. Many of his staff also have sales and marketing experience in other industries.

But job titles often belie the wealth of people’s experience, he claims. “A client may perceive that venue account managers are just there to sell the space, but they almost certainly have a lot more to offer. Many an event could be much more successful if everyone worked together more closely and the organisers took advantage of the experience on the venue side,” he adds.

However, Norcliffe believes some organisers are nervous of developing close working relationships with venue managers in case of contractual disputes later. “They may feel they have to retain a certain professional distance and that it is inappropriate to get too close,” he suggests. Others in the industry think this is changing and that most exhibition organisers are keen to develop a close and collaborative relationship with the venue.

Dee believes this is particularly true for a smaller venue such as the Royal Horticultural Halls & Conference Centre.

“The larger, well-established companies really do know what they are doing and operate on very rigid guidelines and structures, but there are many small entrepreneurial companies which exhibit at venues like ours which welcome the advice we can give them. We can also help with publicising the event to the local community through our contacts with organisations such as residents associations,” he says. Dee is convinced he has won business because he can offer this sort of support to exhibition organisers.

Karen Wood, senior events team leader at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre (EICC), agrees: “Some clients will have the experience but others rely heavily on our support,” she says. The EICC puts together a client services team at the outset of each project which covers both operational areas such as security and catering as well as promotional assistance such as sales, marketing and PR.

Post-event feedback

“We work closely with clients and can provide a lot of marketing support,” says Wood. “Everything from hosting journalist lunches to giving advice on sponsorship opportunities. We know from post-event feedback questionnaires that this team approach is really valued by them.”

But even when the organisers and the venue get the marketing right, one potential problem still remains: the exhibitor. “It’s so frustrating,” says Meacher. “You make all this investment in promoting the event and ensuring that you have both the right number and profile of visitors, and then you see exhibitors not using the opportunity effectively.

“Too many think that their effort starts and ends with booking the space. Yet there are so many ways companies can maximise their presence if they use our databases before the event and resource the stand properly on the day, with the right people and the right messages.”

Exhibition organisers may be concerned about how they improve their marketing but helping exhibitors to help themselves could turn out to be the biggest challenge of all.

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