Failing to deliver?

Trade exhibitions have often been labelled a waste of money, but if they embrace modern technology and learn from their mistakes, they will remain a valuable marketing tool, says Helen Donald

Lord Leverhulme might have believed that only half of his advertising budget was wasted, but there are some senior marketers who are convinced that a trade exhibition’s entire budget is wasted.

Organisers have tried a number of new ways to lure exhibitors and visitors, such as seminar programmes, online virtual exhibitions, improved hospitality and more marketing support, but they have failed to convince everyone that exhibitions are likely to generate a positive return on investment.

Dominic Keogh is sales and marketing director of Fuel, a company that markets e-learning programmes. His target market is tightly defined and, with just four specialised events in his sector every year, exhibitions looked to be the ideal way of displaying in front of potential clients.

Worth the investment?

However, after committing a year to exhibitions, Keogh was left bitterly disappointed. “It’s all about cost benefit,” he says. “Exhibitions are a big investment when you take into account the stand and the cost of taking your sales staff away from their normal jobs. The paltry number of business leads you generate just don’t justify this expense.”

Versha Carter, event director of Incentive World and National Incentive Show, thinks that it’s exhibitors rather than the medium that are at fault when companies fail to generate a return on investment. She accepts the criticism that some organisers have failed to move with the times and keep their events competitive, but insists that the majority are innovating hard and offering exhibitors more than ever.

“It’s in our interests to make sure that exhibitors get as much as they can from a show, but unfortunately there are still too many who fail to make the most of the opportunities that they are given and think that it’s enough just to turn up,” she says. In Carter’s view some of the worst offenders are big companies, which tend to stick to tried-and-tested formulae and resist trying anything new. “Small companies are often the most successful because they put their hearts and souls into the event,” she says. But Keogh disagrees that exhibitors have only themselves to blame if they don’t get much out of an event. “We were completely committed to exhibiting,” he says. “We did it by the book, taking the best sites, designing and building our own heavily branded stand, winning the best stand prize twice, as well as taking up all the help with marketing that we were offered.” The fundamental problem, Keogh believes, is the visitor profile.

“Organisers will quote figures at you to prove how many decision-makers are attending, but experience on the ground proves that the majority of staff are junior people with no budget responsibility,” he claims. Fuel has now abandoned exhibitions altogether in favour of other activities such as hosted buyer forums, which Keogh finds far more effective because “the right people are guaranteed to be there.”

No shows make it a no go

Carter admits there is a problem with attracting visitors. About 11,000 people register for Incentive World, but only about 4,000 of these actually turn up. The numbers are boosted by a further 2,000 who turn up on the day, but it makes it very hard for organisers to give exhibitors any rock-solid guarantees of who will be attending, much less how much money they will have in their marketing pockets.

One solution being tried for the first time this year is letting visitors know in advance who else has registered. Carter believes that exhibitions offer unparalleled face-to-face networking opportunities. Knowing who else is going to be at the show gives people a chance to arrange meetings with old friends and colleagues beforehand. Carter believes that this will encourage more visitors to register and actually turn up on the day.

Another new feature this year is a personal trainer, free of charge for a day, to help companies to prepare for the show. Reed, parent company of Incentive World, has already tested these new features on trade exhibitions in other sectors. Carter believes that the issues facing the exhibitions industry are similar across all business sectors, so being part of a large organisation such as Reed is a major advantage. In addition, Carter can pull in staff from other shows within the Reed group to be on hand to help exhibitors with any problems during the show.

Striking a balance

But she insists that adding new features is only part of the story; communicating them to exhibitors and visitors is just as important. “There’s a fine balance between keeping people up to date with all the new things that we are doing and turning them off,” she says. The information that people put on their registration forms is vital, enabling Incentive World to target mailings where possible.

It’s not just organisers who are trying to keep the industry alive through innovation. Exhibition and conference centre managers are also looking hard at what they can do with the environment to make the experience better for visitors and exhibitors alike.

Wembley has introduced wireless technology so that people can access their e-mails from the show. Peter Tudor, director of sales and marketing at Wembley Conference & Exhibition Centre, is enthusiastic: “Both visitors and exhibitors are more pressed for time than ever, and are therefore a lot more discerning about how much time they are prepared to spend out of the office. This technology is ideal because it enables them to keep in touch with the office at all times and frees exhibitors from their stands so that they can also be mobile at the event.”

Wembley was one of the first to offer this technology and Tudor believes that it will shortly be a standard feature of all leading shows.

But Foodex chief executive Steve Bax thinks exhibitions still face a tough challenge in keeping up with the times and that new technology is only one of the answers. “Face to face is becoming less important to a whole generation of young people raised on a culture of text messaging and e-mail,” he says. “Their ways of researching information are very different to those being used 20 years ago, so we need to find new ways to keep exhibitions alive.”

Even better than the real thing?

One solution being launched this year is a virtual exhibition that will run alongside the terrestrial event. Virtual exhibitions have been around for a few years, but Bax thinks that their day has at last come, thanks to cheaper technology that is easy to use and quick to download. “It’s a great complement to the show itself because it creates a buzz about what is coming, gets people ready to visit and also enables them to follow up thoroughly afterwards,” he says.

Bax admits that he still faces an uphill struggle in persuading many people of the benefits of exhibiting. He is particularly frustrated that the training young people receive places so little importance on the role of trade exhibitions within the marketing mix. He has worked as a lecturer on both the CIM and CAM courses and is convinced that students graduate with little understanding of the benefits of exhibitions, particularly in business-to-business marketing. “Exhibitions are still an extremely powerful medium that is completely measurable. We need to get that message across,” he insists.

Foodex is unusual in that it is a non-profit organisation run by – and on behalf of – its members in the food services industry. And Bax himself is a poacher-turned-gamekeeper. As head of a company that regularly exhibited at events including Foodex, Bax saw how exhibitions enhanced potential clients’ perceptions of his company to the point where research showed that it was believed to be the largest in its sector, even though it scraped in at only fifth place in the rankings.

Dedication’s what you need

Bax has therefore thrown himself into his role at Foodex with a dedication that few other organisers could rival. He commissions detailed market audits to identify new features that will benefit exhibitors and, every year, quantitative research explores how much business the show has generated. Feedback from visitors is cross-referenced with data from exhibitors to ensure that the figures are reliable.

However, Bax thinks that measurability is only part of the story and that exhibitors who expect to see a clear return on investment may be aiming too high. “It’s perfectly reasonable to set objectives that aren’t just sales-based,” he insists.

Peter Denhard, sales and marketing manager, 3M UK Post-it direct response and promotional products, agrees: “We don’t break it down to the last common denominator because it would be too easy to talk yourself out of most marketing activity on that basis,” he says. “The methodologies can never account for all the soft intangibles of exhibiting.”

3M commits a sizeable chunk of its marketing budget to trade exhibitions and has no plans to change that strategy. “The calibre of people we meet on the stand is spot on,” says Denhard, “and sometimes we’re almost overwhelmed by the number of enquiries we receive. It’s a vital part of our profile-building.”

It’s not an excuse for exhibition organisers to rest on their laurels but, with big players like 3M continuing to back them, it seems there’s life in the old industry yet.

International Confex 2004

International Confex will take place from February 24 to February 26 at Earls Court in London, with over 1,200 exhibitors from more than 70 countries.

The Confex is split into four industry sectors:

UK venues and destinations

Overseas venues, destinations and incentive travel

Corporate hospitality, parties and events

Exhibition and conference support services

Exhibitors include national tourist offices, hotels, venues, special event organisers, display specialists, catering firms and convention bureaux.

There is a programme of seminar sessions throughout the three days of the show, covering everything from the latest news and advances in the events industry to marketing ideas on how to promote your next event.

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