Making Trade Shows BetterApril 1, 2017

Trends and Tactics to Boost Traffic and Build New Business By
April 1, 2017

Making Trade Shows Better

Trends and Tactics to Boost Traffic and Build New Business
The 2016 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association Expo in Las Vegas. Credits: Specialty Graphic Imaging Association

The 2016 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association Expo in Las Vegas. Credit: Specialty Graphic Imaging Association

What does the future hold for trade shows? According to these experts, some pretty exciting things. From new technology that allows for better data collection, to more opportunities for consumers and vendors to have meaningful interactions, trade show managers have many new tools and ideas for making shows even better.

Trade show growth is trending solidly upward, meaning they’re still a good investment for many associations. “I’m seeing an increase in the number of people who are exhibiting,” says Julie Butler, CMP, DES, director of conference programs and exhibits for the International City/County Management Association. “For us it’s gone up dramatically since 2009, when the economy tanked. We increase the price every year, and we’ve been able to do that and grow substantially. Last year we had several more large booths. We typically just have 10-by-10 feet with a couple 20-by-20 feet. This last year there were six or seven large booths, which is unusual.”

If you’re looking for more ways to attract new business to your shows, consider these ideas.


Beacons stand to revolutionize the trade show experience in many ways. These small, wireless transmitting devices allow planners to track each individual’s movement through a show, learn about their interests and share this information with an approved group of people.

This data has numerous applications before, during and after the show. It can help associations increase booth sales to new exhibitors by providing qualitative information about the volume of traffic they can expect to receive.

“Increasingly, we’re seeing the lines between educational offerings and the trade show floor blur. This happens informally as exhibitors are realizing their expanding roles as not just vendors, but as business consultants.” 
— Doug Poindexter

It also can help upsell existing vendors. “We assume the corner booth will get more traffic, but now we can demonstrate it does,” says Phelps Hope, CMP, senior vice president of meetings and exhibitions at Kellen, an association management company. With data about how much traffic exhibitors can expect in certain locations or at certain times, it’s easier to sell them on why they should participate.

Some beacons have the ability to “push” notifications to attendees on their event app. When people visit certain types of exhibitors or attend workshops on certain subject areas, the app can suggest booths that person might want to visit. Associations also can program the software to make these suggestions based on the information attendees have provided on their registration forms.

This practice allows shows to be more personalized to an individual’s needs than ever before — another prominent industry trend. “We have to become the business manager on behalf of the attendees and the exhibitors more than we ever have,” says Hope. “Through the registration process, we have to get people to share more about why they’re there and what’s important to them. We have to understand the individual buyer that a person wants and what’s important to them. That helps them walk away with leads or business that increases the value of the show, and if everyone feels they’re getting more from the show, you can charge more for the show. There’s a ripple effect.”

Beacons will be increasingly important to how shows are managed. “They’re going to come to the point where you can get a report overnight,” says Tom Corcoran, president of Corcoran Expositions, an exhibit management firm. “Let’s say I get a report and the upper left side of my floor plan looks light (in foot traffic). I can make a few changes to my food and beverage stands and solve it. As beacons move toward providing real-time data, they’ll be an even better tool.”

The technology also can help associations plan better for future shows. “If you have shows that repeat in the same facility, you can see where traffic was and, even more important, where traffic was not,” says Corcoran. “Then you can re-engineer the floor plan to better optimize it.”

Beacons do present a few challenges. One is understanding what types of data are most valuable to exhibitors and other stakeholders. “One of the reasons we haven’t deployed beacons so far is that if we make that investment, we want to make sure we’re collecting the data we can use and exhibitors want,” says Lexy Olisko, CMP, CEM, director of conferences for the Specialty Graphic Imaging Association (SGIA). Without a good understanding of what you need, it’s easy to invest a lot of money in a worthwhile technology then stop using it because you don’t see the return on investment.

SGIA is looking into setting up an exhibitor task force to examine, among other things, the most effective ways to gather data and use technology to serve exhibitor needs at future events. “We want to know what sort of information they’re looking for or what networking opportunities we can help them with,” Olisko says. “It could be something very simple that we aren’t currently providing that we could do without too much cost. It’s just a matter of having that conversation. If you view it more as a partnership, then it ends up working out a lot better.”

Determining how to use the sheer volume of data collected by beacons can be another challenge. “The tough part for our industry is the analytics part,” says Dave Weil, CAE, vice president of event services for SmithBucklin, an association management company. “It’s easy to gather a bunch of data, but it’s harder to say what does this mean and how do we use it? It requires different skill sets.” He predicts that people with good critical thinking skills, technology knowledge and methods for analyzing data will be in hot demand in coming years.

The Demise of the Show Program

Another area where technology is having a big impact is the printed trade show program. “Many shows are using event apps now,” says Corcoran. “The thing I like about event apps is as things change, they can get those changes to you.”

Olisko confirms this. “Even though we’re a printing show, we’ve noticed a decline in the printed exhibitors directory,” she says. “We’re driving more people to our online app. They just aren’t as interested in the printed piece.”


“We’re seeing the dawn of the personalization of the experience,” Weil says. “It’s going to impact our shows in a lot of different ways.”

On the consumer side, Weil is seeing more trade shows offer VIP experiences or other customized packages. At a recent event, his client gave attendees the chance to purchase special passes that gave them reserved seats at highly anticipated talks, entrance to a special cocktail hour with influencers and a chance to hang out backstage with the keynote speaker. The package sold out quickly.

“It doesn’t have to be that everyone has the same experience,” he says. “You can create a show within a show that gives people more access, or more of a feeling of exclusivity.”

For exhibitors, Weil sees an end to the practice of having the same price for all square footage. “There are more opportunities to price and do things strategically,” he says. “With the technology we have, we can measure traffic flow and create dynamic pricing.” Booths in busy parts of an expo hall can cost more, while the same sized booth in a quieter portion may be more affordable.

Weil sees more trade shows curating exhibitors to provide the best possible experience to their attendees. “We’re seeing a shift to this more targeted approach,” he reports. “Associations are targeting certain companies and making sure they provide what they need rather than selling a booth to anyone.”

Experiential Booths and Exhibits

Similar to the trend of providing a more personalized experience for attendees is providing more interactive opportunities for them.

“Companies are trying to be unique in their efforts to draw people into the booths,” says Butler. “They’re trying to make it more of an experience and give people something to do. They might hire a massage therapist, or they might have an espresso machine. Prizes have been around for a long time, but they’re getting pretty good.”

“Overall, the experience has to be more engaging,” says Hope. “Trade shows have always been the carnival where the hawker is there and pulling you into the tent. We’re resisting that stuff now. The approach to sales is different.”

To understand why, it’s important to understand modern buyer behavior, he says. “People know a lot more now because of smartphones and the internet. You’re not taking an informed person who’s starting from square one and educating them.” You might be educating them about a specific product or service, but chances are they already know something about what you’re selling. That means they need a higher level of information. They may want to feel more of a personal connection to the person they’re talking to, rather than feeling like they’re being sold to.

“Increasingly, we’re seeing the lines between educational offerings and the trade show floor blur,” says Doug Poindexter, president of the World Pet Association. “This happens informally as exhibitors are realizing their expanding roles as not just vendors, but as business consultants. They are working with attendees to give them merchandising ideas, to share brand stories and generally to help them realize how to strategically plan a merchandising mix that aligns with the direction of consumer trends. It’s also happening formally in terms of on-floor education, planned coordination between conference content and expo content, and even docent-led educational tours of the exhibit hall.”

“The people on the floor are demanding more,” Hope says. “They want to engage more. They want to touch things. They don’t want to talk to the sales guy, they want to talk to their peers.” To encourage these informal gatherings, planners are advised to create comfortable seating areas in the expo hall, preferably with good food and beverage. These stations will keep people in the hall longer and provide them a space for swapping information with other attendees.

In addition to buying a trade show booth, many exhibitors also host offsite gatherings so they have more of an opportunity to interact with customers. Olisko says SGIA is looking for ways to merge those two types of events.

“We’re working with exhibitors to provide more information about who attends the show and more opportunities to interact with attendees,” she says. This provides a better deal for companies, but it also can be a better deal for associations. Offsite events and trade show booths often are funded from the same pot, she points out. By keeping everything within the trade show walls, associations stand to sell bigger booths and earn more sponsorship dollars.

Alternative Layouts

“Show floor plans are changing a lot,” Corcoran says. “Your floor plans are based on your buildings. Pretty much all shows are in rooms that are rectangles or squares. Instead of doing squares, we’re doing Y or X patterns or making the floor plan more interesting. That’s been well-received.”

The biggest challenge when moving away from the traditional show layout is ensuring all of the booths have access to power and data lines. “Most of these floors were set up on a grid and the electrical is all in the ground,” Corcoran says. “You have to have a veteran eye when you’re laying it out. You don’t want bumps in the carpet from the power strips and cords.”

Based on feedback from attendees and exhibitors, the World Pet Association recently reconfigured their show layout so the aisles are shorter and easier for attendees to navigate. “This will also add roughly 100 additional 10-by-10-foot booth locations,” Poindexter says.

If there’s a theme you want to highlight at a show — maybe high-tech startups or firms with exciting products that are still under development — Weil recommends grouping them together. Call it something like a “startup alley” and put them in an area likely to draw plenty of traffic.

Hope has a word of caution about mixing up the floor plan. “Just changing the design of a show isn’t going to help the ROI,” he says. “If you do some of those logistic changes without a purpose behind them, you confuse people. You can’t just do the physical part of it, you have to have the business part of it.”

One thing hasn’t changed for show layouts. “The No. 1 draw for any floor is good food and beverage,” says Corcoran. Place break stations wisely to move guests in the directions you want them to go.

Shorter Shows/Different Operating Hours

“The duration of shows is changing a lot,” says Corcoran. “There was a time where there were a lot of four-day shows. Then it became three-day shows.

“Shows a lot of time are defined by the number of hours you’re open,” he adds. “There’s a movement away from that. Instead of having a show that’s open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. with some dead times, there’s a movement that says, ‘If you can deliver a large percent of the audience, we’re open. When it’s not busy, close the exhibition.’ ”

Many trade show vendors are also small business owners, Corcoran notes. They need to time to work on other parts of their businesses and serve clients. In addition, when a trade show happens in conjunction with a conference, many exhibitors want to attend the educational sessions. “The trend now is, instead of being about the number of hours you’re open, it’s about the number of hours you’re able to keep the aisles filled,” he says. AC&F 

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