by Steven Hacker | November 01, 2016

Asea change in the events industry is redefining conventions, trade shows and conferences and how organizers plan them. The makeover is being steered by rapidly advancing technologies, especially those that power the internet and mobile applications, but also titanic demographic shifts worldwide as younger generations lose patience with traditional models and methods. The key phrase now is “active participation.” Modern members and partner vendors want to be a part of events that increase their contact with major industry players. They want to determine when and how they learn or gather information—preferably in comfortable, creatively designed spaces. And, best of all, they are eager to offer input that can only improve your events (and perhaps generate a bit of positive press). Event planners who haven’t noticed all this by now will need to pedal hard to make up for a slow start and stay aligned with the expectations of new and diversified audiences.

Three concepts in particular will benefit association events today, and I encourage any group to consider adapting or integrating them into their programming.

Hosted Buyer Programs. This is not a new idea but had been utilized primarily at European or Asian events. I credit Ray Bloom with the creation of the concept, which he introduced in 1988 when he launched the European Incentive, Business Travel & Meetings (EIBTM) trade show in Geneva. (Now based in Barcelona, Spain, the show is run by Reed Exhibitions and was reflagged last year as simply IBTM.) Bloom launched another hosted buyer event, IMEX, in 2002 in Frankfurt, Germany, and then brought us IMEX America, first held in 2011 in Las Vegas and now featuring the largest hosted buyer program on the continent.

Fundamentally, a hosted buyer program identifies and draws key buyers, a relatively small cadre of industry professionals who possess substantial buying power and influence.

The presence of high-profile power buyers representing some of the industry’s leading brands gives any trade show tremendous importance and credibility, which is why event planners usually offer these key figures invitations that include free or subsidized housing, registration and, often, travel expenses. Recently, the International Association of Exhibitions & Events (IAEE) launched its own hosted buyer program with the goal of increasing trade-show attendance and, as a result, providing more value to both exhibitors and attendees. The group’s first step was to organize a task force of veteran exhibition organizers to identify elements that would define IAEE’s program. (Almost every hosted buyer program is unique in some way). The program now includes:

● Complimentary registration to the trade show—a value of $1,039 at its regular member rate

● Access to three days of education sessions, general sessions, the opening reception, annual luncheon, closing party and, of course, exhibits

● Up to $500 to assist with travel costs, paid only after the event, upon completion of on-site commitments and receipt submission

● Entry to the hosted buyer lounge, which offers free refreshments and Wi-Fi

● A customized hosted buyer show orientation immediately before the exhibition opens

● A free hosted buyer reception

There are three qualifications for the program:

1. Applicants must be a new IAEE member as of January 1, 2016, or a member who has not attended the event since 2012.

2. Only event or exhibition organizers are eligible.

3. Participants must be decision makers for their organizations’ events and/or exhibitions.

The benefits offered by hosted buyer programs can be powerful attendance incentives. Even if a hosted buyer is not actively considering purchasing at the show, a study by the Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR) revealed that the key reason business professionals attend trade shows is to learn about emerging industry trends and marketplace changes. Making that possible at little or no cost is a very tempting proposition. But how would such an event pay for the costs of hosted buyer program subsidies? There are several ways the mathematics might work.

If you haven’t offered a hosted buyer program before, begin modestly by setting a participation goal of a small number of key buyers. You can always grow the program incrementally over several years. Mega events routinely produce profit margins of 30 percent or more, often representing millions of dollars, so the cost of adding a hosted buyer program can be relatively nominal, especially if you begin modestly.

Most other shows will need to parcel out costs. Some show organizers add the cost of hosting key buyers to their exhibit-space rental rate as just another cost of doing business. While association trade show organizers are always reluctant to increase exhibit-space rental rates, it’s worth noting that most association trade shows continue to price their exhibit-space rental rate well below the industry average. Thus, increasing the current rate in order to increase value may not result in much pushback.

Others will offer some exhibitors the opportunity to host buyers and provide scheduled appointments. This essentially creates a two-tier pricing system—a higher charge for exhibitors opting to host key buyers and a lower rate for exhibitors that do not wish to participate in the hosted buyer program. You will find that many exhibitors will gladly spend several thousand dollars extra for guaranteed quality face time with a number of power buyers.

Flexible Meeting Space. The most common meeting-room configuration remains the traditional classroom-style setup. An emerging trend uses unconventional seating formats and spaces for small group meetings. This can also be applied to common areas, lobbies, terraces, even the outdoors. And instead of being presented information by a lecturer, today’s learners are just as open to the idea of self-selecting a facilitator.

In response to changing attendee preferences, many conference planners are now involving attendees in their design and presentation preparations. This recognizes the importance of peer-to-peer learning, which experts believe now constitutes 70 percent of how employees learn. Using this 70-20-10 model, only 20 percent of learning takes place by reading or internet research, while the remaining 10 percent is attributed to formal learning such as traditional training programs. Both planners and host venues should have heard of this model and understand its implications when it comes to meeting-space design, furnishings and the way learning sessions themselves are constructed.

The International Association of Conference Centers (IACC) recently surveyed 150 meeting planners worldwide to determine what they look for in exceptional venues. The consensus of respondents identified three key attributes:

1. Flexibility of meeting space. Planners want to be able to configure an event space in ways that make it more suitable for new types of meeting formats. A space’s physical and audiovisual capabilities are both considered.

2. Availability of interactive technology. Nearly eight out of 10 respondents said they require interactive technology that supports and facilitates audience collaboration. High-quality broadband internet access is considered vital.

3. Availability of networking spaces. Planners recognize that younger generations want spaces where attendees can organize their own ad hoc meetings, social activities and meals. From a design standpoint, think pods and lounges.

In response to these emerging trends, Steelcase recently introduced a mobile classroom chair called Node with an adjustable work surface and storage space located beneath the seat that moves with the chair. While the Steelcase chair is more expensive than traditional classroom chairs ($289), it requires no facility labor to set up learning environments that easily flow from discussions to various group collaborations.

Expect to begin to see convention center expansions and renovations that reflect a demand for flexible meeting spaces and furniture soon. Already many hotels are meeting these demands with newly designed spaces that double as both work and social environments.

New Ideas Summits. The National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA) not only produces exhibitions—it conducts 19 consumer boat shows and an annual industry trade show—but it has also long been considered an industry thought leader. The association recently hosted its first Ideas Summit in Chicago. For two days staff and volunteer leaders met with their network of partners and suppliers to discuss what is new, what is trending and what NMMA can do to increase value at its events as it plans for its 2017 shows. As is so often the case, the simplest ideas, like this one, yield the most valuable results. No matter how large or small your own events might be, why not consider conducting your own Ideas Summit and discover what your partners and suppliers are doing and what might specifically work well at your event to set it apart?