by Michael C. Lowe | November 01, 2013
The second quarter of this year tossed a pail of cold water on a trend that had trade show exhibitor numbers growing consistently since 2011, according to the Center for Exhibition Industry Research. The period from April to June showed an 0.5 percent dip. While various reasons can be cited, including the still-struggling U.S. economy, many trade show organizers need smarter strategies to fill booth space -- and to keep those suppliers coming back year after year.

"If you put a little bit of energy into keeping your exhibitors happy, you won't have to work as hard to refill your show the next year," notes Christine Hilgert, vice president at Atlanta-based association management company Meeting Expectations. "Remember: It's easier to keep exhibitors than it is to bring in new ones."

And building loyalty requires an ongoing effort, above and beyond the sale of a booth. "A lot of times exhibitors feel like once they've signed up for a space, that's the last they'll ever hear from an organizer," says Marlys Arnold, who runs exhibitor training sessions and helps coordinate related education programming. "The idea is to show that trade show management isn't there just to take their money. It makes them feel more appreciated and more cared for." The following tactics can help prove that point.

Offer training
"Salespeople are not necessarily the best booth staff," says Arnold. "Being able to work a show floor really involves a different set of skills. Exhibitors who have been put through booth-skills training or education will be more successful on the show floor, which translates into increased exhibitor satisfaction."

Hold a pre-event session. Tom Carbott, senior vice president of exhibitions at the Charlotte, N.C.-based Material Handling Institute, has held one- or two-day exhibitor training programs at the meeting site up to six months prior to the event. In addition to providing valuable hands-on advice, this allows exhibitors to network with peers and familiarize themselves with the venue. Carbott provides attendees with breakfast, lunch and dinner, in addition to an evening networking event and a "very discounted hotel rate."

The training not only is free to registered exhibitors, but, to encourage participation, Carbott offers discounts on show sponsorship opportunities or advertising packages. "We are confident that a better educated exhibitor will be more successful," he says. And successful exhibitors are more likely to return for the next show.

Conduct webinars. Carbott also is a staunch advocate of online training. "These days, everyone's strapped for time, so we like to make our education in a format and delivery system that is accessible to our exhibitors at their convenience," he says.

Last month, Carbott and his team launched a four-part series of webcasts called ShowPro for MHI's MODEX, an expo for manufacturing and supply-chain industries that will be held March 17-20, 2014, at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta. The modules cover how to set objectives, pre-show marketing and booth skills, all at no cost to registered exhibitors. As noted on the MHI website, "The sequential modules prepare you, the exhibit manager, and your team to increase your results through effective planning."

Christine Hilgert, who runs the Oracle Applications Users Group's annual Collaborate show (the next of which takes place April 7-11, 2014, in Las Vegas), hosts a webcast two to three weeks before the event to prepare her exhibitors. "We'll run data off the attendance and let them know how many people are coming, what kind of decision makers we might have or how many international attendees there might be," she says. "They need to know what they're walking into so they can make the most of their time during the show."

Other major show partners, like the general contractor or the mobile app developer, are invited to take part in the webcast so exhibitors have a chance to ask logistical questions.