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by Michael C. Lowe | November 01, 2012
When it comes to trade shows, getting people to sign on is just one challenge — and probably not the toughest. Attendance at a wide range of shows is up this year by anywhere from 3 to 13 percent over 2011, according to the Trade Show News Network. But getting attendees to spend quality time on the trade show floor is something else entirely.

To draw them in and keep them there, show organizers are devising new exhibit floor layouts and incorporating cutting-edge ideas about foot traffic, education, networking and more, all in an effort to create buzz and foster greater attendee involvement. The key, says Dave Weil, vice president of event services for association management company SmithBucklin, is to “offer a mix of different activities to bring more traffic to the exhibitor hall and add value to the trade show.”

What follows is a closer look at some of the ways organizers are doing just that.

Show-floor “meetups” BIO International eventWith a 20,000-member attendee base, the Washington, D.C.-based Biotechnology Industry Organization sought a way to help attendees network better at the 2012 BIO International Convention, held in Boston in June. “When you have that many people at a meeting, they need to feel a sense of community and connection,” says Margaret Core, BIO’s former managing director of sales and marketing and currently assistant vice president of strategic sales initiatives with the National Apartment Association in Arlington, Va.

Core found that a free online social gathering tool called Meetup.com was perfect for the task. “It’s an easy way to channel niche groups,” she notes. In advance of the show, she collected ideas for themed “meetups” (e.g., women in biotechnology) from various special-interest groups, suppliers and sponsors, a pool from which official hosts would be selected. Using Meetup.com’s online interface, Core was able create and post the various events for attendees to see, and members could then sign up, find out who else was planning to attend, post messages on an event board and directly contact each other, creating additional buzz and buy-in.

At the convention, show organizers gave meetup hosts tips on how to throw a successful gathering, but otherwise let them operate independently in dedicated areas on the show floor. Hosts supplied their own coffee or catering for the meetups, and because industry players drove the events, rather than show organizers, “the gatherings had a more informal and organic feel,” says Core.

Silent auctions For many years, in conjunction with its trade show, the Arlington, Va.-based National Community Pharmacists Association ran a silent auction during a party held before the show floor opened. At this year’s show, which took place last month in San Diego, organizers used it as a tool to drive traffic to the floor during exhibit hours.

The planners first enlisted the help of exhibitors, who donated items to be auctioned. (All funds went to the NCPA’s foundation, and exhibitors were able to write off their donations.) Auctioning something particularly enticing, like an iPad, stirred lots of interest. Participating suppliers kept the items in their booths, where attendees could write down their bids. The auction was held over two days, which meant serious bidders were compelled to frequently return to the floor and see if their offer had been one-upped, generating recurring traffic throughout the hall.