It may not be as dramatic as man’s evolution from apes, but event exhibitors have been developing, slowly but surely, over the years. From simply renting a space on which to hang their logo, and fishing for passing business with the crudest of tools, the more successful have transformed themselves into sophisticated marketing predators with a voracious appetite for concrete leads in order to justify the hole they are making in their company’s marketing budget. That’s not to say there aren’t any chimps still around – you’ll find them reading newspapers on their stand or spending most of their time at the bar. But thankfully they are a dying breed.
Visitors, too, have evolved. These days, only a few behave like they’re on day-release from the zoo. They are far more likely to plan their visit in order to maximise their contacts in the shortest time. And, having probably attended the event the previous year, they’ll need – as Andrew Evans, commercial director of event organiser Brintex, acknowledges – “a damn good reason to come back”.
For organisers, this means the days of the quick-fix campaign are over. Big:pr director Lucy Clifton, who has several exhibition organisers in her client portfolio as well as leading UK venue ExCeL, says: “Too many organisers believe the shorter the lead-up, the smaller the budget and that budgets are of over-riding importance. Our experience shows that if enough time is given to planning, defining and setting objectives, the project will come in on budget and achieve far better results.”
It’s getting through
Luckily for the exhibition industry, in recent years many organisers have woken up to the vital role played not only by pre-show marketing, but also by post-show marketing, in attracting and maintaining the loyalty of both exhibitors and visitors. In fact, many now embrace the idea to such an extent that the communication process continues throughout the year.
The whole thrust of pre-event communications is aimed at attracting the right kind of visitors and then proving to exhibitors that they are doing so. This means getting as many potential attendees as possible to pre-register for the show. To do this, exhibition organisers must know whom to target. Evans, whose company runs the annual London International Wine and Spirit Fair, says: “You have to get under the skin of your exhibitors’ industry and you need to get a feel for your exhibitors’ place within it. Between events, we sponsor research and organise trade briefings to reveal our findings to the industry. Through this, we’re giving something back, creating an interaction point and developing our relationship with exhibitors. By making ourselves a credible information source, we build exhibitor confidence.”
As well as getting to know the market, this activity also helps to identify key topics for seminars and other activities, which are vital in attracting visitors. This is nowhere more apparent than in the IT industry. “Things change very quickly in IT. If you miss a trend, you will lose visitors,” says Daniel Thurlow, sales manager for EMAP Retail, which runs the Retails Solutions event at the NEC in Birmingham. “Our pre-event marketing starts the day after the show finishes. We organise a ‘Retail Solutions Advisory Group’, comprising retailers and IT suppliers, to canvass opinion on the show and reconvene six months later to spot trends and themes as they develop.”
Streamlining the process
Of course, exhibitors play a large part in attracting visitors – they want their clients and potential clients to attend the show. Exhibition organisers can streamline this process, by providing exhibitors with details of how visitors can pre-register – a website is an increasingly common registration route – and by supplying exhibitors with focused marketing information about the show and its events, so they can pass it on. Many organisers send out marketing and PR guides, and hold pre-show seminars for exhibitors on how best to market themselves in the run-up to and during the show.
Caroline Chan, marketing manager for International Confex – an annual event for conference organisers held at Earls Court in London – explains: “It is important to communicate with and to support our exhibitors all year round. We produce a newsletter three times a year to keep them informed on show developments and offer PR and operations advice. Our sales team is in regular contact with them, too. About four months before the show, we hold free open days where exhibitors can meet the team, hear presentations about operations marketing and PR, ask questions and learn how to exhibit from a ‘professional’ exhibitor.”
Chan says that International Confex also sends out a comprehensive marketing and PR guide, produced with a PR agency, which provides everything exhibitors need to plan preand post-show marketing and PR. It also offers exhibitors the chance to mail pre-registered visitors, to insert marketing material into the badge mailing and to sponsor many other areas of the show, from carrier bags to location boards.
She continues: “We also advise on other things like stand management, explain why pre-event and daily meetings are essential and go through the issues that need to be considered on site. We give them stand sales and support tips and encourage them to make sure they follow up leads after the show.”
When the market has been researched, the visitors targeted and the exhibitors coached on how best to attract and service them, much work still remains. Stephan Israel, divisional marketing director at event organiser CMP Europe, explains: “Improved pre-event communications and the growth of websites have increased pre-registration numbers, but you need to work hard to convert these into actual visitors.”
With this in mind, part of CMP’s pre-show strategy aims to address the reasons why people don’t attend shows. Israel continues: “Many people fear going onto stands because they think they will instantly be sold to, so we use the data we hold to set up one-to-one meetings on specific subjects matching visitors with exhibitors.”
Another factor keeping people away is lack of time. And, like many organisers, CMP tailors its show websites to provide full details of exhibitors, seminars and other events, enabling attendees to plan their visit to gain maximum benefit.
The right preparation brings together all the ingredients for a successful exhibition – high-quality visitors and receptive, well-organised exhibitors. However, to justify the budget for an event, which for some small companies can account for the majority of the annual marketing spend, this success needs to be measured. Therefore, despite the huge amount of work that has to be put in before a show, post-show activity is arguably more important for pulling exhibitors back the next year.
Many exhibition organisers know that, without concrete leads, marketing and finance directors will not be happy to repeat the experience. They also know that they need to take the initiative yet again – Association of Exhibition Organisers figures show that about 70 per cent of exhibitors do not follow up on show leads. As a result, on-site visitor monitoring is widespread, using light pens and swipe machines to scan badges and to map the movement of visitors through a show. This data is then made available for exhibitors to use after the event for direct marketing and other promotional opportunities.
Israel says: “We have detailed profiles on each visitor and we know which stands they have visited. Our lead-generation and management service matches data on exhibitors to those on visitors and identifies relevant people who attended the show, but may have been missed by certain exhibitors, so we can supply them with the necessary details. We also offer a telemarketing service to help identify the hottest prospects for our exhibitors. It all adds up to a flexible package from which exhibitors can choose the marketing approach that suits them.”
The appliance of science
More sophisticated approaches and technologies are being used by exhibition organisers to enhance the post-show experience. Mission Business Systems’ Registration Master, for instance, collects data on visitors and the stands they visit throughout the show – without the use of light pens or scanning devices – with smart technology that recognises when a visitor passes through specific points around the show. This reduces the number of monitoring staff required, it is less hampering for visitors and it produces more accurate data to be presented after the show.
Page Media creates virtual shows, to be launched on the Internet after the real event, in order to attract those visitors who couldn’t attend and to allow those who did to visit again. This technology can also be used before the show as a user-friendly registration aid to help people plan their time at the show and give a real flavour of the event.
From getting to know the market to delivering leads, preand post-event communications are vital. They provide the tools that allow exhibition organisers to identify and deal with problems when they arise and keep confidence high by maintaining an active role in the industries they serve. Using more refined sales techniques and embracing sophisticated marketing concepts t
o add value to their products, exhibition organisers are creating a better show experience to the benefit of the whole exhibition business and the industries it supports.