by Steven Hacker | August 01, 2016

Seasoned sailors know the signs. The barometer is falling, winds are shifting and storm clouds are building. The only question in doubt is: How severe is the storm ahead? Trade-show organizers would be smart to batten down their hatches because storms are brewing for those who aren’t prepared to address problems confronting events and exhibitors. Let’s look at a few.

New Inroads for Big Businesses. One of the indicators being watched by experts is that of the marquee exhibitor. These market leaders attract smaller exhibitors to an event. “These large, well-funded exhibitors are changing rapidly, often in very unpredictable ways,” said exhibition-industry guru Francis Friedman, president of the New York City–based consulting firm Time & Place Strategies and author of the forthcoming book, “The Modern Digital Tradeshow.”

Smart show organizers are trying to determine just how their marquee exhibitors are changing in an effort to navigate the unknown waters that lie ahead, Friedman said. And that involves getting to know them better. “It’s all about building rapport, listening to them and doing lots of market research.”

Large corporations are contemplating the importance of playing a part in trade shows, and some have decided there are better alternatives. Friedman believes that while small and mid-sized enterprises will continue to depend upon trade shows to gain market access, larger companies continue to explore alternatives. “These companies are likely to spend more time and money on their warehouses building customer loyalty than on a trade-show floor. They may even host customer events in the warehouse,” Friedman said. If Friedman is correct, the difficulty many trade shows will face is having to compete not with other trade shows or marketing channels but against a totally new and different concept.

Bringing Millennials Up to Speed. Another potential rogue wave is changing demographics. A shocking number of exhibit personnel at events these days seem totally uninformed about exhibition marketing practices and etiquette. Friedman believes this is symptomatic of the growing role that millennials play in business. “Many are unprepared to conduct business in traditional ways,” he said. “And a growing number of employers are trying to adapt their own practices and procedures to align better with millennials.”

Andrea Bahr, vice-president of exposition and events at the Texas Restaurant Association, has suggested that an effective solution to the challenges that millennial exhibit personnel bring to the trade-show floor may be delivering concierge services to exhibitors, providing them with unlimited and superlative personal assistance and support across the broadest range of issues. “We are now selling a total-exhibition experience, and that requires a lot of hand-holding,” Bahr said.

Bahr launched such a support program earlier this year to ensure that all 500 of the companies exhibiting at her association’s trade show, the TRA Marketplace, would enjoy the very best experience possible. The strategy is designed to minimize annual exhibitor turnover, which averages about 20 percent for U.S. trade shows, and it recognizes that many exhibiting companies do a fairly poor job of preparing their show staff for the rigors of exhibitions, to which Bahr can testify. “So many of our exhibiting personnel have never participated in a trade show before,” she said. “They don’t know what to do or what to expect, so we will do for them whatever becomes necessary.”

It is probably not coincidental that the Trade Show News Network, an exhibition industry authority, named the TRA Marketplace as one of the top 25 fastest-growing trade shows in America recently. The TRA Marketplace is typical of many trade shows because its exhibitors are a blend of small and mid-sized companies, many mom and pop businesses, along with a sampling of Fortune 1000 companies. One would assume that the larger corporate exhibitor booths are staffed by personnel well-trained on the principles of trade-show selling, but that is not the case.

“We no longer make any assumptions about the competence of any exhibitors,” Bahr said, citing a snippet of conversation she had recently with a staffer responsible for a Fortune 1000 company’s trade-show booth who asked, “What do you mean by a 20-by-20 booth?” Bahr plans to provide formal exhibitor training in the future when her budget allows for it; however, for now, the staff is filling in.

Show-floor 101. Like Bahr, many trade-show organizers are coming to the realization that there’s a vast divide separating two important groups affiliated with trade-show exhibitor business: the marketing executives who make decisions about which trade shows to participate in, and the personnel who are ultimately assigned booth duty. While senior marketing executives might be savvy about exhibition marketing (the key word is might), the on-site exhibiting staff is generally composed of recent hires with no tenure and/or employees who haven’t yet earned the option of turning down booth duty.

Many booth staff know little, if anything, about the differences between field sales and trade-show selling. They also are generally unaware of the importance of proper booth etiquette, which might include booth staff focused on their smartphones, chatting up their colleagues or munching on a sandwich instead of trying to make eye contact with attendees, all of which is bad for business. Moreover, they are apt to send a negative message back, declaring to superiors, “The trade show was dead. No one came to our booth.”

These are some of the faults that Bahr and her team address. The new exhibitor support program begins with pre-show outreach to ensure that booth staff have ordered all of the materials and furnishings they will need and that they are engaging in pre-show promotion to ensure that attendees come by their booths. A member of the TRA Marketplace management team provides a welcome kit to each exhibitor that contains vital show information. Frequent calls enhance communications throughout the experience. All of this “hand-holding,” as Bahr phrases it, puts an enormous additional burden on the already-busy show team, but Bahr believes the effort pays off.

Making Good (Business) on Promises. It would be difficult to find a more competitive environment for exhibitions than those in the wedding market—there are hundreds of consumer shows that cater to the wedding industry. And yet, like any big industry, it still has its problems, in this case changing demographics, declining and delayed marriage patterns, and an income disparity that hobbles many middle-class families.

“Formerly we were really order-takers,” said Marc McIntosh, a veteran exhibition organizer who produces 11 Wedding Experience bridal shows annually and serves on the board of directors for the National Association of Consumer Shows. “Exhibitors would line up to buy space. But these days we have a sales team that actively sells space. We haven’t lost momentum, but it’s become very challenging to grow events.”

It has also become tougher to identify soon-to-be brides and grooms. “Typical 20- to 30-somethings do a really good job of isolating themselves from traditional media. We have to use many different channels to locate them,” he said.

McIntosh employs a three-pronged strategy that he adopted about five years ago to move his business forward. The first and most radical of the elements is the guarantee his company offers to exhibitors: “Take the five steps that we require and we will guarantee your sales success at our event or your money back.” That’s an extreme departure from traditional exhibition-industry principles. Nevertheless, McIntosh is a big believer in guarantees, calling them “a very formidable and powerful sales resource.” After five years of making the offer to about 7,500 exhibitors, only three claims have been made and paid.

McIntosh’s second strategy commits his company to supporting exhibitors who may provide very fine products and services but are unable to market themselves effectively. The Wedding Experience team will provide marketing materials to exhibitors such as pop-up displays, banners, videos and graphics. Additionally, show management steps in to make sure that exhibitors possess at least rudimentary marketing resources.

Finally, the Wedding Experience also keeps a photographic record of every exhibit booth. If show management observes some sort of deficiency, such as personnel eating in their booths, it is diplomatically brought to the attention of the exhibitor. Likewise, good behaviors will be noted with a congratulatory note.

Mapping Out the Horizon. Do yourself a favor and start thinking about some of the factors that can hinder your trade show. Talk to your exhibitors. Find out what they want and what they expect you to do for them. Most likely they’re navigating industry waters as much as you are—with information. Being prepared in advance will help everyone get through the choppy times as best as possible and, hopefully, return quickly to smooth sailing.