When it comes to growing a trade show, planners have critical questions to ask. Should the focus be on growing the number of attendees? What about the quality of attendees? Does growth come from adding new exhibitors? Increasing space? How does a show’s design, content and location impact growth?
In fact, all of these elements are important. We asked several high-level industry experts to weigh in on how best to drive trade show growth. Their answers were not always identical, but they were always enlightening and insightful.
In considering the most important elements to growing a successful trade show, Cathy Breden, CAE, CMP, CEO of the Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR), says each owner defines the critical components of a show.
“Some shows may not have the traffic density or number of qualified buyers attending, and growth needs to come from attendee acquisition,” she says. “Others might find additional niche markets within their event’s industry and might grow that way by attracting exhibitors and attendees from that niche group. Of course, everyone wants to increase revenue, and that is the desired outcome of the above decisions.”
Michelle Crowley, vice president, global growth & innovation at PCMA, says it depends on the organization’s goal for growth. “In most cases, this is going to be related to revenue growth, but that can’t be the only goal. Audience growth should be considered, as audience growth is associated with value.”
David Audrain, executive director of the Society of Independent Show Organizers (SISO) and CEO and partner of Exposition Development Company, Inc., points to growth on multiple fronts.
“For a show to have sustainable and continuous growth — the ultimate goal for all shows — you must have both attendee and exhibitor growth in relatively similar percentages, assuming that the balance between attendees and exhibitors was appropriate to start with. Revenue growth will come automatically along with exhibitor and attendee growth,” he says.
“Doing the same show year after-year, not rethinking it each year [can negatively affect growth]. Organizers must review and decide what was successful and needs to be repeated, what needs to be changed and what shouldn’t be done again.” — Cathy Breden, CAE, CMP
However, he adds, “The focus on growth is different for nonprofit association show owners compared to for-profit independent show-organizing businesses. Associations typically produce shows to bring their communities together, create visibility and value for the association and to generate funds for the association’s member service and government affairs activities. So for associations, the growth of a show will usually reflect the growth of the market, and revenue growth is typically not the primary objective. A for-profit show organizer will typically place growth as its No. 1 objective, along with maintaining an appropriate balance of attendees and exhibitors to ensure happy customers on both sides.”
Trina M. Jordan, CEM, manager, meetings & expositions at Kellen, an association management company, puts the emphasis squarely on attendees. If growth is the goal, she says, planners should focus on the needs of the attendee.
“Your main question to think about while planning is, ‘What is the original purpose of the annual event?’ Education and networking are often the top reasons for attending,” she notes. “If attendees are looking for new products and services, the exhibit hall is going to be their main focus. Be patient and don’t expect to have growth overnight. When trying to grow an event, it can take three to five years of planning and execution to see results. And, as the show grows, all components will grow — attendance, exhibitors and revenue.”
Naturally, there are also challenges. Breden says that “doing the same show year after year, not rethinking it each year,” can negatively affect growth. “Organizers must review and decide what was successful and needs to be repeated, what needs to be changed and what shouldn’t be done again.”
Audrain says lack of sufficient qualified attendees is the No. 1 issue, and acquiring them the No. 1 goal, for all show organizers.
For Jordan, “Cost and budgets are the biggest impediments.”
Experts note that keeping space adequately filled is crucial.
“If you don’t have sufficient attendance to keep the exhibitors busy during the show or to keep the aisle space relatively occupied, then the show can look ‘empty,’” says Audrain. “That impression alone can create a negative feeling among exhibitors and attendees, which could create a downward spiral going forward. Ensuring that you have sufficient exhibit hall space for the amount of growth you’re hoping for or expecting is ideal, but sometimes you may have to ‘sell out’ existing space and then move to a bigger hall in a future year. This is not the worst outcome, as a sold-out show can create positive impressions and a higher demand for the future.”
Jordan agrees. Ideally, she says, you want a space that’s adequate size. “If the exhibit hall is too large for your trade show, the show floor will always seem empty.” Moreover, she notes, it’s best to slowly grow the show floor. “Let the hall sell out and have a wait list. This will generate buzz within the industry.”
And, if you’re contracted to be in the same location or facility year after year and the space isn’t exactly right, Jordan advises getting creative. “Use pipe and drape to mask off unused parts of the hall. Add other functions to the exhibit hall, such as registration, publication booths, product theaters, speed session breakouts, etc. If, however, you’re in different locations each year, be sure your facility choice grows with the show, as well,” she says.
Breden says it’s a balancing act in terms of having the right amount of space for current needs and thinking ahead to the future.
“It’s important to set goals for growth. It might be 5 percent, 10 percent or some other percent growth goals, and over a certain period of time,” she notes. “Additionally, many shows contract with venues up to 10 or more years out. If it turns out there’s too much space, there are ways to fill in space, including adding learning theaters on the floor, creating lounge seating in areas and masking drape to create a smaller appearance.”
Planners are thinking differently about space today, notes Crowley.
“It’s not just about the square meters or feet in the immediate venue. Instead, planners seek to incorporate the host city and the local industries. Brands want to activate and differentiate themselves. They’re looking for ways to do this beyond the traditional show floor. Organizations should offer a menu of ways to be involved beyond a booth or risk exhibitors doing it on their own. That’s a missed opportunity and revenue stream,” she says.
Location is also key, though a destination that draws attendance for one group may not be right for another.
“Some destinations gain more attention than others, but that doesn’t mean it is the right place for every trade show,” Crowley says. “It all comes down to the purpose of the event and your audience. If you’re trying to attract a specific industry or sub-segment, then go to the destination where they are more densely populated, as long as that place doesn’t alienate the current audience. No matter where you are, engage with the local community. Destinations have universities, research organizations, think tanks, startups, consulting firms, etc., that should be engaged — it is the organization’s job to push the destination partners and local leaders to make those connections. This is how real influence and economic and social progress can be made.”
Although the very largest shows can get some attendees to travel around the world to participate, Audrain points out that all shows have a local factor.
“The reality is that every hour of additional travel time to get to the venue will reduce — often significantly — the percentage of a target market that’s willing or able to attend. So ease of travel is the first key element of location,” he says.
The second element, he continues, “is the attractiveness of a location, which depends somewhat on the nature of the audience. For example, if the target audience is made up primarily of family businesses, these attendees might bring their spouse or family to an event, and having a location that’s attractive as a destination can bring higher attendance. The third element is one of variety. In some cases, attendees are comfortable going back to the same venue and location year after year, but in others, they want a change of scenery. Or it may be that you need to move around the country or the world in order to allow attendees from different regions easier access to attend.”
Jordan also speaks to the makeup of the audience. “If your attendees are interested in activities outside of the event, then location will be important. But if you’re interested in keeping the attention of the attendees and want them to attend only events at the show, you can educate and entertain your attendees from 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., making location less important. Regardless, choose locations that are convenient for everyone to get to via airplanes, trains, even cars.”
Breden agrees that some cities are a larger draw for attendees than others. “It just depends on the audience and perhaps the industry it serves,” she says. “A state association in Florida, for example, may be restricted from holding its event outside the state. For national or international events, the industry sector they serve may dictate location. For instance, it makes sense for the Detroit Auto Show to be held in the Motor City, while an international fashion event might be held in Milan.”
Can a convention center’s loading facilities, infrastructure, union requirements and other specifics impact the success of a show? Absolutely. Some issues can mean extra costs for exhibitors, for example, and that can have a direct effect on a show’s success and growth.
“The loading dock must be well-functioning. If the loading dock isn’t functional, it will affect the exhibitors drayage (material handling) costs,” says Jordan. “Older exhibit halls tend to be darker and have more columns. This can be somewhat difficult when designing and laying out your exhibit hall. Union requirements can either benefit your exhibitors or not. Union rules are nothing new. Smaller exhibitors might have trouble understanding the union rules, which can create cost for exhibitors, so be sure this is not something that will make or break your exhibitors’ presence.”
Breden and Audrain agree. “If it’s a heavy equipment trade show and the venue only has five loading docks, for example, and there’s another show moving in or moving out the same time the current event is moving in, that can impact the overall experience of exhibitors,” Breden says. “If the Wi-Fi in the venue isn’t state-of-the-art, that can also impact the event — perhaps not the current year’s event, but future years’ attendance.”
Audrain notes, “Most venues have sufficient infrastructure to accommodate most shows’ needs to move in and out, but when a venue has restrictive union rules, or a shortage of loading docks, then it can cause a higher labor cost, which will increase the exhibitors’ costs.”
Breden believes that education typically is a valuable part of the experience for attendees. “Each event is different, and for associations, especially, understanding the learning needs of their attendees is important. It’s also important, as the information can be provided to the exhibitors. Exhibitors might want to offer education in their booths,” she says.
Jordan also sees conference content as significant. “Speakers and educational sessions are what drives attendance for most shows,” she says. “If sessions and speakers are well-known by attendees, it will draw a larger audience, which in turn, will bring more activity to the exhibit hall.”
As with other elements, the importance of education depends on the show and its purpose.
“Ultimately, the most important thing is providing value to various audiences,” Crowley says. “That may be in the form of education sessions, unique experiences, gaining consulting advice from someone you can’t normally reach, etc. Knowing who makes the decision on whether someone attends can help personalize the marketing. Focusing on the why, personalized by customer segment, and what outcome will be the result, is not simple to transition to, but it is right direction.”
Some shows don’t even offer education sessions. “They may not need them to drive attendance because equipment and products on display may well be the primary attraction for attendees,” Audrain says. “However, many, if not most, shows use educational content to help drive attendance, and offering speakers and topics that will help potential attendees justify their attendance either to their manager or themselves is often highly valuable.”
Planners should have the needs of multiple stakeholders in mind if they are to successfully increase show growth.
“You must know your prospective audience’s needs, you must know who they are, and you must communicate the appropriate information to them to answer their needs and show them they will get the ROI for their time and expense of attending,” Audrain says.
He also believes that if planners focus on quality attendees, the rest should follow. “If attendees are happy with a show and are the attendees that exhibitors want to see, then exhibitors will be happy,” he says. “And, if the attendees and exhibitors are happy, then the show organizer will usually be very happy, as well.”
Naturally, there are different ways to measure success. “Various stakeholders have different measurements and definitions of success, which is why building personas is important,” Crowley says. “Focus groups and advisory groups can help this. At the same time, it’s important to recognize the echo chamber most organizations are in when they seek feedback. It’s important to look beyond the core and understand how people measure value, and determine if, and how, you could support that.”
One way to keep attendees and exhibitors happy, Jordan says, is to continually survey them to make sure you’re meeting their needs. “Attendees come to conferences and trade shows with different agendas. For some, meetings and educational training sessions are important. To others, exhibit hall and networking events are key,” she says. “Either way you look at it, as a planner you have to be sure to have equal focus on all functions of your event. It’s best to survey your attendees, as well as your exhibitors.”
Breden sees four “top needs” as deserving of planners’ attention in terms of meeting all stakeholders’ needs: attendee acquisition, re-energizing a show, creating partnerships with exhibitors and others, and effective budgeting and strategic planning.
Asked to provide trade show planners three top strategies for driving successful trade show growth, our experts came up with a compelling list.
Breden advised, “Understand the needs and preferences of attendees and buyers, understand the environment of the market segment the show serves and have an innovative strategy.”
For Jordan, the top three strategies are, “Study your market and keep up on industry trends and topics, choose influencers as speakers to help draw attendees and keep in mind that you need ample, dedicated exhibit-hall hours.”
To facilitate that last one, she advises planners to add compelling functions in the hall that bring attendees face-to-face with exhibitors.
Audrain believes just one strategy will elicit the desired results. “Focus on the right quality attendees,” he says. “Everything else will come from successfully growing the right attendees.”
Crowley says planners must first evaluate the customer’s persona. “Is it still who you thought it was? How has it changed, and how will it change in the next five years? Next, focus on value and ease. Simplify your communication and process. Make a five-step process only two steps so customers can move faster. And, finally, lead with the why. Tell your audience why it’s important to attend instead of what they are going to experience or who they’ll meet. What is the action they can take because of it? What is the value to them?”
Whichever strategies seem right for you and the trade shows you organize, one thing is clear: Planners have to re-evaluate each show every year. In the world of creating highly successful trade shows, there’s no resting on laurels. AC&F