by Michael J. Shapiro | November 01, 2017
Why is Marian Bossard, executive vice president of global market events for the Toy Association, worried about doomsday scenarios? After all, the association's North American International Toy Fair has been around for 114 years, and its February 2017 show, in New York's Javits Center, was the biggest ever -- covering more than 444,000 net square feet with exhibits from more than 1,100 companies and welcoming more than 28,500 attendees through the convention center doors. Why worry?

"I think that my entire show, as big and important as it is, is always built on sand," she told high-level trade-show execs at the Transform USA conference in July. "Half of my exhibitors are there for the media, and half are there for retail. Face-to-face isn't going away, but will the exhibitors need to continue to pay $1 million to come to the show every year?"

Similar questions are on the minds of association show execs the world over. The forward-thinking among them, like Bossard, are parlaying current successes into investments for the future -- investments that aren't aimed, necessarily, at paying immediate dividends or even growing the shows themselves. 

"An association's mission is to work on behalf of its members," Bossard says, "and so you never lose sight of what you need to do. You listen to your members, your customers, and you watch how their businesses are evolving and have different needs. At some point, it may be that the trade show itself is not sufficient for any brand to grow their business."

Think outside the floor
"I define my team's mission as helping more members sell more products in more markets, more often," says Bossard. The Toy Association holds two sprawling B-to-B events every year: Toy Fair, which lasts four days in the early part of the year, followed by the three-day Fall Toy Preview. "We can't be everything our members need in seven days," Bossard notes. So, four years ago, she and her team began talking about creating virtual showrooms, online and accessible 24/7/365.

"Sometimes you have to start thinking about what you're doing as broader than a trade show," says Bossard. "If you're looking at what you're doing as a marketplace, it's a much bigger opportunity."

The Toy Association partnered with technology supplier Balluun to create, an online marketplace that facilitates B-to-B commerce not only among the association's members, but among any professionals in the toy and retail businesses that register to participate. Balluun specializes in creating platforms that mirror the look of consumer websites but tailor them to the needs of the business communities they serve -- to allow the business of the trade show to truly continue to flourish outside the convention halls.

This year, Bossard says, use of the site skyrocketed. Between January and August, 16,000 unique buyers were on the platform -- 168 percent more than the same period in 2016. The number of showrooms on the site increased from 6,700 to 11,000 year-over-year, and profile views tripled, from 10,000 to 30,000.

"It feels like finally, we're hitting our stride," Bossard says. "The conversation  we started four years ago is suddenly being heard -- and my members are now coming forward and saying, 'wait a minute - we can do what? When? All year?' "

The trade shows remain, by far, the association's principal revenue generators, but ventures like this year-round marketplace, Bossard notes, have to put exhibitor and member value above that.

"You can't always put what's going to generate revenue first," insists Bossard. "I always say that if you create the right product and the right value, the money will follow."

Transform the floor
Megan Tanel, CEM, wholly embraces that same value-before-revenue philosophy -- so much so that she actually took 75,000 net square feet of sellable space at her show and used it to create an unsold, unsponsored experience.

Tanel is senior vice president of exhibitions and events for the Association of Equipment Manufacturers, whose members are the primary exhibitors. The organization's principal event, CONEXPO-CON/AGG, is held every three years and is one of the biggest exhibitions on the planet. The latest event, held this past March in Las Vegas, covered a massive 2.6 million square feet, attracted 2,350 exhibitors and drew nearly 128,000 attendees.

Still, Tanel and team are focused on ensuring those 2,350 exhibitors continue to see the value in the event. "Success is typically measured on how big a show is," says Tanel, "how many people come. I call BS on that. I don't think that's what creates value. Value is wrapped around the quality of the exhibitors and attendees, the quality of the experience." 

Because attendee and member research has consistently shown that seeing the latest technology up close is a key factor in bringing people to the event and the exhibits, Tanel's group wanted to focus on that in a central on-site location. They created the Tech Experience, where attendees could see and experience the future of the industry. 

But exhibitors were not exactly jumping at the opportunity to participate. "When things are new and different, that fear factor comes into play a bit," Tanel says. "When we first went into this, we thought we were going to get some of our existing members who wanted to be in this space, and they were going to pay for and have sponsors for this," she recalls. "But our show tends to be one of the biggest line items in the marketing budgets for our members. It's every three years -- some of them look at it like they can't screw this up, so their ability to take risks is greatly diminished."

Like Bossard at the Toy Association, Tanel and her team decided the investment in member value was ultimately more important. AEM's Tech Experience was designed among several pavilions to showcase the future of the industry -- tomorrow's workforce, tomorrow's materials and the like -- and, featured many exhibitors who otherwise would not have considered coming to the show. 

"We brought in a number of companies who hadn't thought about how relevant their technology could be for the construction and agricultural industries," says Tanel. "In the end, it made sense for us. It was a win. We developed this really successful add-on. Instead of just talking about the future, we were showing it."

Let them know you care
Cutting-edge tech and innovative opportunities will be meaningless to exhibitor ROI if the exhibitors don't take advantage of new opportunities. "Our goal is to provide value to our exhibitors," says Tanel, "and make sure they know what's available to them. But it feels like we have to push them along sometimes."

Show organizers often fail to help exhibitors realize the value of their trade-show investments, Tanel believes. AEM recently launched a new entity focused on that goal. Created from existing staff, the Exhibitor Engagement Department works to support and educate exhibitors. The four-person team ensures that every exhibitor knows about the assets available to them, whether part of the marketing kit or other tools and technologies, both free and paid.

"They're a face, a name and a voice available to the exhibitors should they have questions," notes Tanel, "and they're also reaching out to make sure exhibitors take advantage of the opportunities available to them." The department does everything from reminding exhibitors about approaching deadlines to reviewing their show objectives.

The guidance is more important now than ever, suggests Tanel, given the technology and potentially overwhelming volume of data available to exhibitors. "We take the top exhibitors, and we meet with them after the show, walking through all of the data that we had," she says. "We show them specifically what we saw coming from their brand, and the impact they had with different sales or sponsorship opportunities." 

While her team isn't big enough to do such an extensive review with every exhibitor, adds Tanel, they do attempt to help them all make sense of the data, providing reports about their impact and how they compared with their competitive set. "We really try to give them a road map for their next event," Tanel says -- to help best realize the value of that exhibition investment.