Righting the guest list

All the effort in the world can go into a show, but if the top decision-makers don’t attend, what’s the point? All parties must take responsibility for attracting them, says Paul Gander

The stand is built, the team briefed, the products and materials ready. Depending on who you talk to, what happens next is the responsibility of the exhibition organiser, the exhibitor, the visitor – or just luck.

Ensuring you meet the right people at an event in the right numbers is never going to be an exact science. But companies which use business-to-business shows, and those that organise them, are continually refining the ways in which return on exhibitor investment can be maximised.

Clearly, the first and most important decision for a potential exhibitor is which show to attend. Many industries are blessed with an abundance of regional, national and international events. At the same time, marketing and event budgets are often stretched to breaking point, while directors increasingly demand more tangible bottom-line benefits.

But visitor statistics remain something of a minefield for prospective exhibitors, with organisers frequently flaunting impressive figures while choosing not to reveal the source. According to International Confex event director Jessica Blue, the Association of Exhibition Organisers (aeo) stipulates that any member-organised event with more than 2,000 visitors must be audited by the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC).

While this is a step in the right direction, says Blue, it leaves a number of problems unresolved. The aeo demands only the standard audit, rather than the full version which analyses visitor quality (in terms of budget and areas of interest) as well as quantity. Crucially, the standard audit will also include exhibitors passing the entrance to the hall.

“The difficulty for us,” says Blue, “is that when exhibitors are comparing a standard-audited show with a fully audited one, they are still faced with one big number which includes exhibitor personnel.” She adds: “We’re fully transparent with our figures, and it would be great if everyone else was as well.”

One benefit of a finely analysed and audited visitor profile is that it can be of real value to exhibitors. As Blue explains, the Spanish Tourist Board was able to use the Confex organisers’ pre-registration data to target specific groups of visitors (those planning a set number of events every year outside the UK) before the venue even opened its doors.

Before and after

Event experts typically talk about the three-month period either side of a show as being as important to an exhibitor as the event itself. Segmented visitor data can certainly help exhibitors after – as well as before – an event. Some shows organised by Montgomery Exhibitions, for instance, will sell exhibitors sections of their visitor database. But this is not always the case. As Montgomery marketing manager Declan Gane explains: “No organiser would sell its entire database, and some organisers won’t even sell segments of it.”

For Gane, the type of preparation required for a show – and the degree of co-operation between organiser and exhibitor – will depend on the size and nature of the event. The Speciality and Fine Food Fair, run by Montgomery joint venture company Fresh RM, features about 300 stands. The finite number of buyers in this niche sector are likely to be known to organisers and exhibitors alike, he says, and most would be able to see the majority of their current and potential suppliers in a single visit.

But for the much larger Interbuild show, which might attract more than 40,000 visitors from the very different fields of construction and architecture, exhibitors have to be more active. Gane explains: “We say to people that we’re confident we can deliver an audience. But beyond that, I would probably put the onus back very heavily on the exhibitors to encourage the right people to come along to their stand. Clearly, exhibitors have to let people know they are going to be there, and have to provide incentives and activities to get visitors to the stand on the day.”

So assuming an exhibitor has picked the right show, just how can the biggest fish be persuaded to swim into its net? Many of the prize catches who register will discover that they have more pressing business on the day, and others lured by more specific bait may hand their tickets to juniors with no real power.

Despite his emphasis on offering incentives to visitors, Gane is sceptical about the effect of individual exhibitors’ hospitality and launch events. “For the highest-calibre people, the whole thing revolves around the question: ‘What’s in it for me and my business?’ Anything that’s really gimmicky isn’t going to work with these people,” he says.

Art of persuasion

Blue is less dismissive than Gane, however, suggesting that even the hard-nosed decision-makers can be coaxed through the turnstiles.

She cites two promotions that worked well at the February show: one in which the organiser teamed up with Disney to give away trips to Disney World, and another in which visitors were offered the chance to participate in a two-day familiarisation trip to Denmark. “Different people respond in different ways to different stimuli,” she points out. “The Disney offer was aimed at a certain type of visitor, the Danish trip at another.”

The exhibition organiser’s arsenal of eye-catching showtime weaponry has continued to grow. There are innovation zones, practical demonstration areas and awards as far as the eye can see, while highly rated prospects are courted with VIP lounges, exclusive previews and even chauffeur-driven cars. And, of course, every show must have its conference and seminar programme.

Here, Gane does not mince his words: “A lot of organisers’ conference programmes are exhibitor-led, with presentations directly or indirectly trying to sell their services. What really does work, though, is where visitors who are a success in their field share their experience with other visitors.”

But in the end, thefactor most likely to prise potential visitors from behind their desks is still the pulling power of individual exhibitors. Having worked for exhibition companies himself, and exhibited with businesses of various kinds and sizes, Hugh Bessant, managing director of direct marketing company Prospect Swetenhams, has forthright views about the share of responsibility. “It’s tough for organisers to find new ways of getting people out of their offices,” he says. “The exhibitors really have to play their part.”

Bessant recently had a stand at the Direct Marketing Fair. His team made sure that anyone who counted knew that the company – and more specifically its directors – were going to be there. The stand position and design were carefully chosen, and during the event itself, Prospect Swetenhams sponsored a Direct Marketing Association cocktail party.

But he sees evidence of inertia among UK exhibitors. He says: “A lot of people seem to think that putting up a big, flash stand is enough. But they don’t make shows central to their marketing plans.” This contrasts with attitudes in the US and Germany, he believes, where shows are frequently bigger and take a far more central role.

Gane, though, comes to the defence of British exhibitors, claiming there is no evidence that show participants on this side of the Channel are any less effective than their European colleagues. A large foreign exhibitor is likely to make a bigger splash at a British show, he explains, just as a UK exporter might in mainland Europe.

But when there is no one else to blame for a failure to meet lead quotas, there is always the poor visitor. The myth that “you never see the Germans” could in fact have some truth in it, says Gane. This may have something to do with the degree of pre-show planning that the average German visitor puts in. “They will come to a show with a list of exhibitors taken from the website, including some specific appointments,” he says. At the end of this organised itinerary, there is often little free time left for speculative stand visits.

The elusive executives

Of course, it may simply be that the highest-powered members of your target audience are not going to be enticed into a major trade show by any amount of razzmatazz, VIP suites or chauffeurs. Nonie Hyde, marketing strategist at events specialist GPJ, says: “Board-level players prefer to be in the same room as their peers.” There are certain exceptions, she explains, but these are rare, and tightly targeted proprietary, rather than third-party, events will often work best in attracting the top brass.

To assess the need for such an alternative, says Hyde, a company has to look carefully at its existing event portfolio. Depending on the type of business, and its objectives, a client may opt to channel perhaps 45 per cent of its budget into some form of roadshow, with a similar proportion going to third-party and other broader-based events. “But I may decide that ten per cent of my portfolio needs to be used in enabling me to talk more intimately to people at the highest levels,” she suggests.

She notes that the use of media partners can also provide strong co-branding to pull in top-flight attendees. Hyde cites the example of international software companies holding a one-day forum with The Economist. Researching possible partners is vital, however. Co-branding involves finding a balance, so that a company can be confident its business is linked to a name that enhances, rather than eclipses it.

Getting the right message to the people who matter at a conference demands as much preparation and focus as any other marketing endeavour. If luck does play a part, then it’s the type of luck that president Thomas Jefferson famously described when he said: “I find that the harder I work, the more luck I seem to have.”

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