From the viewpoint of organizers and exhibitors, one of a trade show’s greatest signs of success is “the right people walking down the aisles,” as Dave Weil, vice president, event services for SmithBucklin, puts it. Those individuals would be key buyers and industry leaders, and their attendance implies many things: an effective marketing strategy for the event, a solid reputation based on show history, highly relevant educational content as well as the presence of top exhibitors. “At the end of the day, the participation of those leaders helps encourage others to attend the show as well,” Weil says.
One long-running strategy to secure those desirable attendees is the hosted-buyer model developed in 1986 by Ray Bloom, chairman of the United Kingdom-based IMEX Group. Since then, Bloom has continued to optimize the approach, bringing thousands of hosted buyers to each IMEX Frankfurt show over the years, and recreating that drawing power with IMEX America, which debuted in 2011 and brought in about 2,000 hosted buyers. According to Carina Bauer, CEO of IMEX Group, “In our second year, IMEX America 2012, we actually grew by about 30 percent in terms of both exhibitor numbers and floor space. So it was important for us to increase the number of hosted buyers coming, and we managed to increase that figure to 2,400.” That’s in addition to about 900 nonhosted buyers, meaning that IMEX is a “very business-driven show because we’re highly qualifying the buyers, and then they’re obligated to make business appointments when they’re there.”
IMEX’s hosted-buyer program itself is very buyer-driven, which is one of its most distinctive features. While buyers must commit to making a certain number of appointments, they choose which exhibitors to see based on the show website’s directory, and communicate with them via an integrated messaging service. “Buyers have a lot of control,” Bauer says. “They do their research, and through our system they can send RFPs and messages to the exhibitors that they have appointments with prior to coming onsite, which makes the meeting onsite far more time-effective. As a result of that, we do get people signing specific proposals or even signing contracts on the show floor.” Post event, IMEX surveys its hosted buyers on their experience, and among the various questions “we ask them to estimate the amount of business that they expect to place in the next 12 months with the exhibitors,” Bauer explains. “So from that data we calculate that (IMEX America) hosted buyers placed approximately just over $2.5 billion worth of business with the exhibitors.”
Paying for key buyers to attend, while a clearly powerful model, is not the only way to further valuable connections for exhibitors. Some organizations still get good ROI from a simple “matchmaking” service designed to foster business connections. One such organization is the New York, NY-based Specialty Food Association, which utilizes an online matchmaking tool provided by a2z Inc. “The day before the show, the buyers put in the type of products, attributes and any sort of demographics they’re looking for, and the system matches the attributes of the exhibitors with (those criteria), and puts buyers and exhibitors together in 10-minute one-on-one sessions. It’s like a speed-dating service,” explains Bill Lynch, chief membership director. “The amount of participation in the program has doubled every year for the past three or four years. It’s been tremendously successful.”
The overarching priority is to promote exhibitor leads and connections. In fact, a recently released study “Scenarios for the Future: Convention Exhibits and Trade shows of 2016” identifies “Find Creative Ways to Deliver Leads” as a key takeaway. Leads will remain a critical metric for exhibitors, according to the year-long study commissioned by ASAE Foundation, Center for Exhibition Industry Research Foundation, Freeman, Gaylord Entertainment and PCMA Education Foundation. Furthermore, event management is advised to “do everything possible” to help exhibitors generate leads, including matchmaking, setting appointments and creating targeted social functions.
Lynch observes, “A lot more business is taking place off the show floor than in years past. We absolutely promote connections, even informal connections over lunch. For example, we try to strategically place seating in a way that will encourage conversation.”
Mobile technology is certainly facilitating those exhibitor/buyer connections with 3G (third generation) and the significantly faster 4G wireless service. Francis J. Friedman, president of New York, NY-based Time & Place Strategies, a consulting company to the trade show meeting and event industry, cites one convenient function: “If you are setting appointments with people and they have a picture of themselves when they register, the picture will also transmit (to your device) along with the appointment. When you get to the booth or somebody gets to you, they know what you look like.”
Mobile communications are a perfect fit for the dynamic nature of the trade show environment, adds Friedman, who was a contributor to Scenarios for the Future. “With a mobile app you can change your appointment, your location and all kinds of things on the fly.” As can the show management. “If we have a schedule change, a session change or a meeting room change, we can communicate that directly (to attendees’ mobile devices),” Weil says. “We can send updates to our floor plan to exhibitors; we no longer have to print addendums. We can highlight show specials or promotions. It is revolutionary in the sense that for the first time everyone has a device that we can talk to at the same time; we don’t have to hope that they see that sign in the lobby. In those days you crossed your fingers and you hoped that a little more than half of the participants got the information.” Electronic signage hasn’t become obsolete, of course; rather, it is now often integrated with mobile technology. “If you have signage on the show floor or signage out in the halls, you can change that signage immediately wirelessly, so you don’t have to string wire all over the place,” Friedman says.
Apps aren’t just about communicating schedule and session info. They can also serve an engagement purpose. For example, IMEX TV, which broadcasts show floor interviews, footage and live “roundups” of each day, is accessible via the IMEX App, as well as YouTube, the event website and hotel room TVs. “We also have onsite at both our shows social media teams who roam the show floor to get a bird’s eye view from people who are not the show organizers,” Bauer says. “So you get different perspectives, and they Tweet, post photos and support exhibitors if they need any help on social media. It’s a fun addition to the show that’s been very well received.”
Yet another plus to mobile technology — or any electronic communications for that matter — is its eco-friendly aspect. Weil cites the onset of the “virtual tote bag” that includes electronic versions of all those brochures and booklets that used to be distributed in hard copy. As a result, “we are printing less material, and we are shipping less material,” he says.
As a premier meeting industry trade show, IMEX certainly sets a good example when it comes to green practices and social responsibility. “We work with Clean the World, which collects all the soaps and half-used bottles of shampoo from our delegates’ hotel rooms, repurposes them and sends them to an organization in Las Vegas called the Shade Tree, which is a shelter for abused women and children,” Bauer explains. In addition, “at the end of the show we ask attendees to drop their badges into a recycling bin: one of them is for an organization called Opportunity Village, which provides employment to mentally disabled, and the other is for Shade Tree. So depending on how many badges are in each bin, we give a donation of a few thousand dollars to each of those organizations. Of course we have an impact on Las Vegas, which we hope is generally positive, but it’s also about giving back to that destination. And we do that in Frankfurt as well.”
Granted, some shows have an easier time reducing their “ecological footprint” than others. Food shows in particular are major producers of landfill waste. “Our sustainability program is a big effort for us, but in the past few years it has become more important,” Lynch says. Specialty food attendees are “a passionate community that cares about its impact on the environment. So we’ve really made a strong effort to trade awareness about the situation and educate the attendees about putting waste products into different bins.”
Kent Allaway, vice president, meetings and trade shows, for the Newark, DE-based Produce Marketing Association (PMA), describes a similar effort: “Sustainability is very difficult for us because of the amount of trash. We basically move in and out everyday. Although the physical booths are the same from day to day, the exhibitors are moving in fresh product every morning. So we take the leftover product to the food banks every day, and then do a full trash dump at the end. We have about 50 reefer trailers running every day onsite at the show, and then we donate over a quarter million pounds of fresh product to the food banks every year through Feeding America. We’ve done this for at least 15 years, and the amount of the donation has steadily increased through the years as we get more exhibitors on board with the program.”
Another gradual development in Fresh Summit, the PMA’s trade show, is more exhibitors wanting to set up in the central aisles, Allaway notes. “Eighteen years ago everybody needed to be by one of the entrances; it’s taken us many years to get people to migrate more to the ‘Broadway’ area,” Allaway observes. “They realized that as the doors open people go past their booths in the initial wake of people spilling into the show floor to get to a central clear point. So we’ve seen a migration in some of the bellwethers to that central area.” Once familiar with such traffic patterns, show management can create attractions to bring buyers to the less-trodden pathways. “We want to make sure there’s always an even traffic flow throughout the floor so we put some different chef demos in feature areas,” Lynch says. “We also have an area called New Brands on the Shelf, and we try to put it in an area that will drive traffic. The buyers know that their first stop is going to be that new product area.”
The goal of show floor attractions is not only to spread out traffic flow, but also to keep attendees on the floor as long as possible. “We are trying to create more of a hub of activities within the show floor, putting some of the special areas such as food stations, the association’s booth, education and so on, in a central location to give people more reasons to stay on the show floor,” Weil comments.
The IMEX show is a case study in this kind of approach. “We have short seminars in a little theater running throughout the day, but also what we call Campfires, which are 10–15 people sitting in a circle with an expert on a subject and having a 20–30 minute conversation; it’s very popular,” says Bauer. “We also have Lightning Learning Labs, which are 15-minute presentations. And then we have an App Bar that is hugely popular, with education running throughout the day on the use of mobile technology specifically for events.” The idea is to give attendees some of the education they want, while keeping the show floor busy. “It’s our ethos that we don’t take buyers off the show floor in the middle of the day. We’ve never allowed any (formal) education to take place during the core business hours, say 10-4. So for us (these on-floor activities) are the only way to provide some educational content during those hours, and we found it’s what people wanted.”
Monitoring floor traffic via RFID scanners — specifically how many attendees have entered a certain area over a certain time period — has become more affordable, Weil points out. But he stresses that RFID, like any investment, needs to be justified. “The big question is, if you are going to purchase that tool, how are you going to use the information you are gathering? How can it change your future planning? It might not be necessarily that interesting that a bunch of attendees are gathered in this particular spot. It could be helpful if you are pricing it as real estate: You say to exhibitors, ‘We have statistics that show that 70 percent of our attendees go to the right wing of the hall every year.’ So, know what you are trying to accomplish, and then figure out what technology to use, rather than just implementing it because other shows are.”
Just as show management needs to invest wisely in the features of their event, so do exhibitors themselves when it comes to the features of their booths. More of them seem to be learning from the approach that pharmaceutical show exhibitors have taken under the stricter PhRMA code, which has greatly limited the giveaway practice. “I think what we’re starting to see is a carry-over of how medical exhibitors are continuing to find value working within the law,” Allaway says. “Big corporate is now learning from medical that instead of spending money on pens and other tchotchkes, they can get more ROI from booth design, sponsorship” and other elements of the exhibit. Though giveaways will likely never go away, there’s certainly value in learning how to rely less on them and still draw the “right” people. AC&F