Over the last few years, as exhibition and sponsorship budgets have slowly recovered from the depths of the Great Recession, the rules have changed when it comes to delivering what participants who are paying heftier prices for their involvement want. Today, the suppliers and vendors that support major association trade shows look for more from their investments than ever before. That means that increasing event revenue and retaining exhibitors and sponsors over the long haul also have become more challenging than ever before.
However, both the underlying cause of the increasingly intense competition for exhibitors and sponsors and the easiest way to ensure ongoing success share a surprisingly simple common denominator.
“The most important element in an exhibitor-sponsor retention strategy can be defined by a single word. And that word is relevance.” — David Poulos
“The most important element in an exhibitor-sponsor retention strategy can be defined by a single word,” says David Poulos, principal at Sparks, Maryland-based Granite Partners, which consults with associations on how to attract and retain exhibitors and sponsors for their major shows. “And that word is relevance. If you’re not able to attract attendees that are actual buyers for your exhibitors, they will go away in droves. That’s because exhibitors are no longer interested in fluff or in just being at a show to be there. They’re interested in closing sales. It means you have to act more like a business and less like a membership club.”
Poulos, who also has experience as an association show organizer, counsels his clients to do extensive research on who attends their events. “We start every engagement with primary member research. If you don’t know who attends your show and why they’re there, you’re never going to be able to serve your exhibitors and sponsors properly. So you have to make sure you have good primary research in place and that data is properly analyzed — before you move forward with any kind of marketing approach or plan.”
The most fundamental reality today, Poulos says, is that “You have to give exhibitors and sponsors a reason why being involved with your show is going to help their business. And it’s no longer enough to say, ‘Your competitors are going to be there.’ You have to be able to show real reasons why your show will generate ROI for the companies that participate.”
The mistake that many associations make is that they do not dig deep enough into their analysis of attendees, Poulos says. “The other thing I see often is that they do not segment their analysis enough. The power of the computer today and the software that allows you to sift through data and make analyses allow you to be very, very specific about your marketing approach, as opposed to just fishing for attendees to come to your show. And the thing that too many associations still do not understand is that the attendees you target to come to your show are the flip side of the right kind of exhibitors you should be attracting. And no matter how much booth space or sponsorships you sell, if you attract people with the wrong job titles, you’ve missed the boat. And if you attract a lot of people, but they can’t make buying decisions, you’re going to have an awful hard time getting those exhibitors and sponsors to come back next year.”
Janet McEwen, director of corporate relations at the American Society of Radiologic Technologists (ASRT) in Albuquerque, New Mexico, agrees wholeheartedly with Poulos’ assessment. Although competition is fiercer than ever for exhibitors and sponsors, ASRT has done very well since the recession. “For our annual meeting, we have been able to exceed our budgets for the last two years,” McEwen says.
She attributes that success to the fact they “have been smarter about collecting information from our attendees as far as their ability to make decisions,” she says. “As a result of that, we’ve been able to do a better job of describing exactly who attends our meeting and what their roles are in their organizations. And that means we’re better able to say, ‘It might be a small meeting, but of the people there, three-quarters of them are thought leaders within their organizations in key areas. The ability to articulate the value to the exhibitor or sponsor of who our members are and what they do is what has really made the difference for us.”
Warren Plank, director of sales and marketing at Turnersville, New Jersey-based A. Fassano & Company, which consults with the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) for its major spring and fall meetings, notes that in order to be truly useful, attendee research must be very specific and should be collected as part of the registration process.
“The more information you get, and the more specific it is, the better,” Plank says. “Exhibitors now want as much information as they can possibly get. And by slicing and dicing the data you collect, you can give exhibitors a very clear and detailed picture of who will be attending your show.”
Such increasingly granular attendee information is now more critical than ever before, Plank says, because participation by exhibitors and sponsors in shows is primarily driven by the tangible promise of a demonstrable return on investment. “If you can’t prove a value proposition and if your exhibitors and sponsors don’t believe they got a good ROI from being on your trade show floor, they will not be back. That means that retaining exhibitors and sponsors requires a lot of extra work these days.”
After making sure that your event is attracting the right kinds of attendees, the next most important consideration is finding new and creative ways to lure sponsors who pay a premium for a higher profile in order to reach those attendees.
Innovative ways to engage sponsors in the presentation of content are a sure-fire way to generate enthusiasm, McEwen says. “We’ve done a really good job recently to allow companies to sponsor individual educational tracks,” she says. “And when they do that, someone from the company gets to introduce the speakers. And that means they get to introduce themselves and let people know they have a booth in the exhibit hall. For the first time ever, we also worked not long ago with a specific company to have them sponsor a continuing education course on a topic of their choice. Our only requirement was that it be CE-worthy. And we worked closely with them to make sure it was CE-worthy, but then we touted it as ‘the Varian hour’ because Varian, an equipment manufacturer, was the company that sponsored it. And we promoted it in places like our conference newspaper and other advertising.”
Beth Hecquet, CMP, CMM, director of meetings and events at the National Association of Sports Commissions in Cincinnati, Ohio, has come up with a fresh idea that replaces traditional session sponsorships with room sponsorships. That means that all attendees who attend a session in a particular meeting room are exposed to the sponsor’s messaging over the entire duration of the meeting. “It gives the sponsor a better chance of reaching many more of all the attendees at the meeting,” Hecquet says, “rather than a much smaller fraction from just one session.”
McEwen uses a mobile app developed by Cvent’s CrowdCompass to do “push” promotions on behalf of exhibitors and sponsors. “For example, we’ll push out a message that says, ‘Make sure you visit XYZ sponsor in their booth during our next break,’” she says. “Since the recession, we’ve also used contests to build booth traffic.” There is no cost to exhibitors, except the cost of whatever prizes they give away.
“Those kinds of ideas came out of the realization that we had to do more to attract attendees into the exhibit hall,” she says. “And all of that thinking really started during the recession, when we were all struggling to retain our exhibitors and sponsors.”
McEwen also sends tweets, with photos, from exhibitor booths. “I show photos when the booth is busy so that other people get the impression they have something interesting,” she says. “And I also give those photos to the exhibitors so they know we are doing everything we can to create traffic for them.”
The end of a major meeting or exposition is a critically important time for assessing the experiences of exhibitors and sponsors and pushing for their continued participation in the future.
Hecquet leads sponsor surveys to see how the process can be improved. “We ask them for the good, the bad and the ugly,” she says. “And we really take that feedback to heart and do our best to make improvements in the way our sponsorships work.”
ASAE conducts an even more aggressive exercise in post-show intelligence gathering, says Director of Expositions and Registration Allison Wachter. Immediately after the exhibit hall closes on the final day of the meeting, Wachter and her colleagues — including ASAE President and CEO John H. Graham IV, FASAE, CAE — host an Exhibitor Talkback session in the convention center.
“We give them all the final attendance numbers and days, then open the floor to allow them to share the good, the bad and the ugly about their experience at the show,” Wachter says. “And that’s important, not only because a lot of exhibitors are simply not going to take the time to fill out a post-show survey, but also because their perceptions and reactions are fresh in their minds right after the show closes. And for us, that session has become a very good source of immediate feedback. We do everything we can to use that feedback to make improvements in the show from one year to the next. And the really good thing about the feedback session is that we can act to change things immediately. So if someone comes up with a good idea that will make the show better for exhibitors, I can just say ‘Done.’ ”
At the end of her annual meeting, Hecquet sends out a detailed sponsor recap report. “And those reports are customized for each sponsor,” she says. “They remind the sponsors of all the exposure they had. We also have a wonderful photographer that we use, and we include images that are related to what they did as a sponsor, such as hosting a luncheon with their logo in the background or people eating cookies with their logo on them. But we also make sure to outline, in detail, the overall promotional value they received as sponsors. And that includes statistics on attendance, as well as who the attendees were.”
After the show, the obvious follow-up is to see whether exhibitors and sponsors met their own expectations. “And you need to ask specific questions,” Poulos says. “Asking ‘Did the show work for you?’ is a good start, but you also have to ask, ‘Did you get the 30 leads you wanted?’ or ‘Did you get the 20 new customers you were hoping for?’ or ‘Did you launch your new product successfully?’ Those are the more granular kinds of questions you need to be asking. And if the answers are not good, you’re going to have a hard time getting that exhibitor or sponsor back next year.”
And it’s best to have that conversation face-to-face at the end of the meeting, rather than on the phone later, Poulos says.
Hecquet stresses that meeting planners and show organizers should think in terms of relationship-building and not just booth sales. “Our goal is to have an ongoing relationship with our exhibitors and sponsors, so we always try to go above and beyond what is expected of us,” she says. “And that means that we do a lot of hand-holding — before, during and after the meeting. But we also ask for input and feedback. We don’t just tell them, ‘Here’s what we’re doing.’ We ask them to get involved in the process, even though we do, of course, make it clear that we are the ones actually organizing the show. But we also want to engage them at every step of that process, and I definitely think that is one of the things that has helped us maintain our healthy retention rates.”
Plank advises a sincere commitment to ongoing communication. “My best advice is to talk early and often,” he says. “Most communication today is done by e-mail. Real engagement of an exhibitor or sponsor on the phone, in a conversation, has become more and more rare. Not only do you need to be doing that, but you also have to provide them with all of the information they need to make the decision to continue to be involved with your show. And you also need to be very clear about all the things you’ve done to keep your promises. It’s about building a genuine relationship. And you can’t do that just by sending e-mails. You have to talk with people — early and often. That’s the real key to long-term success.”
Poulos agrees. “Part of your retention strategy actually has to start before the show. When you’ve approached somebody to sell them a booth to begin with, you should have made very serious inquiries into what their specific goals are for their participation in a show. You not only have to know exactly what they want to get out of a show, but also why they’re choosing to be a part of your show. Right from the beginning, you have to understand why they’re going to be there, what their goals are, and how they will measure success.”
Poulos adds one essential factor to the equation: the time-honored proposition that in all things, honesty is the best policy. “If you know your show doesn’t actually attract the kinds of attendees — by title or decision-making responsibility — the prospective exhibitor or sponsor says he or she wants, then it’s better to be frank and admit, ‘This probably isn’t the show for you,’ ” he says.
How many associations have the courage and good sense to actually practice that?
“It’s probably down in the single digits,” Poulos says. “Very few associations turn people away, even when they know they’re not right for the show. The thing more associations have to understand is the difference between selling somebody a booth or a sponsorship and actually helping them to do more business.” AC&F