The little question of size

A big, headline-grabbing show is all very well, but some audiences demand a more personal approach. And smaller events, done properly, can generate sizeable sales. By Pete Roythorne

Ask any events professional whether size matters and you’ll get a mixed response. The truth is that there is no simple answer to whether you should go big or go small. Different sizes of events will all serve different purposes, depending on whether the idea is to firm up working relationships; close a deal; bring a new product to market; increase brand awareness; or gain new customers. Ultimately, these objectives and little else should dictate the size of your event.

“The perceived wisdom is that it’s horses for courses: for instance, you can’t create a sense of being part of a small and highly valued group of clients if there are hundreds of delegates in the room,” says Suzy Howes, head of events for business communication specialist Omobono. “As a general rule, the smaller the event the more valued the people attending will feel.”

But planning should also take account of what clients expect. The end product should always be consistent with the image of the brand. Richard McHardy, head of business development at live branding specialist PCI Fitch, cites Bentley as a prime example of this. “A core value of Bentley’s branding is exclusivity, so to have a vast, brash stand at one of the motor shows would be incompatible with the company’s image. This is why Bentley’s stands have intimate areas where clients can be made to feel valued.”

The premium marques within the motor industry are a prime example of where small can definitely count for more. Some of the more exclusive car brands achieve a much better sale conversion rate from more intimate events, such as test drives, than they do from larger events. Rolls-Royce regularly takes potential customers to test days at Warwickshire automotive testing facility MIRA. When a brand is about quality and exclusivity, clients want to have the feeling of being part of an elite group. This sort of marketing is often repaid with increased customer loyalty.

Sometimes small won’t do

Conversely, McHardy uses Microsoft’s first appearance at the World Telecom show as an example of where things have to be big. “This was an entirely new market for Microsoft at the time and so everything about its branding had to be big, to draw people’s attention to the company. This meant not just the on-stand branding but also the advertising around the venue. It would have been counter-productive for Microsoft to have taken a small approach at an event like this.”

Large events are all about numbers, explains Nicholas Watson, international sales and marketing consultant for full-service marketing agency Incito Design. “One of the main strengths of large events is that there will almost certainly be a large number of attendees. These events will bring higher-profile publicity, greater foot traffic, larger facilities for visitors and opportunities for large-scale presentations. This makes them prime targets for brands that want to drive new business. Large events are good for building awareness and for communicating key messages, as the entire target audience will be in one place.”

Of course, as Watson points out, the flip-side is that all the competition will also be there, so it is more difficult to command the undivided attention of prospective or existing clients. “In large shows, the scale of an event can mean that the prospective client will never reach you because there is too much to see,” he says. “Another danger is that such events can be impersonal.”

In general, large events are more suited to marketing objectives that require a large number of people to share information with; high impact; good networking opportunities; the acquisition of new leads; and the unveiling of new products or branding. A word of warning, though/ large events can have a very high up-front cost, covering stand design, printing and promotional materials as well as staffing and any hospitality.

So where does the cut-off come between large and small? George P Johnson Company director of European client services ⢠Malcolm Greig puts this succinctly: “The optimum size for a small event is 20 to 25 people – much bigger than that and it loses the closeness and the personal touch. Less than 20 and you’re approaching a sales pitch, which can become uncomfortable and exposing for clients.”

The select choice

Small events are perfect for VIPs and loyal customers, as they give a sense of exclusivity. They can be tightly focused and are ideal for giving clients personal attention without having to fight off the advances of the competition. They are flexible, offering intimacy, control and a far wider choice of venue. But they can also be expensive per head, as they are often all about creating the right image – so quality hospitality is high on the agenda.

Mark Taylor, head of event services at performance improvement company Grass Roots, says: “Small events offer the opportunity to target a hand-picked audience and focus on key message delivery, with the opportunity for one-to-one meetings as an integral part of the event. The downside is that they can be badly damaged if key people pull out or fail to attend. This makes the cost-to-risk ratio much higher for smaller events.”

Objectively, small events are better suited to highly targeted and focused audience. So, for targeting an audience that has limited time availability; blending generic business messages with a more individual approach; creating a more bespoke social element; building client relationships; focusing on more complex messages; closing a deal; or prompting clients to register an interest or commit to buy; a small event is probably the right choice. Such occasions have the added appeal of making clients feel valued individually.

The most important thing with any event is persuading the right people to attend, but with small events this becomes absolutely imperative. “Spending money and having over half the attendees not interested in your product is a waste,” says Watson. “Make sure you know your audience already, that they are clients and that there is a buying pattern; or profile the type of person that you want to invite and maybe use your sales force to identify suitable companies to attend the event. After the event make certain that it has delivered what you wanted. If it hasn’t, stop what you are doing and review the reason for having the event.”

Research and deploy

McHardy says preliminary research can prevent expensive mistakes: “It’s important to understand your target market, so that you know you’re doing the right event. We take every brief through our ‘4D’ process: discover, define, design and deliver. The first two stages enable us to pinpoint clients’ target audience and to focus closely on their objectives, defining the parameters for what they want their event to achieve. This helps us ensure we always deliver the right event for our clients’ needs, and allows us the opportunity to challenge any brief we are given, if necessary.”

Greig takes things a step further, recounting how his former employer, IBM, focused on database marketing to pinpoint its events audiences. “IBM kept records on all its leads and contacts. This meant we could track companies along the customer cycle and then target them with specific events along the way – these could be aimed at anything from strengthening the contact through to closing a deal. In this way, we knew not only who our customers were, and what their buying patterns were, but also who had attended events and was likely to do so in the future. It also enabled us to pick out subsets of customers and target them more closely for smaller activities.”

Greig continues: “In a large audience, some people will simply be in the awareness cycle, while others will be potential buyers. In an ideal world, you want to be able to identify the likely buyers, separate them from those simply in awareness mode and get them into smaller, more targeted events. These can even break out from the main event, and include breakfast or dinner -with presentations – or even a seminar at the event.”

In reality, success depends on seeing the complementary nature of large and small events, and how they blend together in a continuous portfolio of marketing activity, with events working together, feeding each other and reinforcing sales activity. After all, a successful event of any size is the next best thing to a sales call.

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