August 01, 2000
Meetings & Conventions - Growing Your Show - August 2000 Current Issue
August 2000

Growing Your Show

How to bolster attendance, satisfy exhibitors and improve educational value... against all odds

By Bryant Rousseau

With everything from corporate mergers to online education conspiring against them, many association meeting managers are struggling just to maintain, let alone grow, their current attendance and exhibitor figures. But for all the factors working against them, there are innumerable strategies planners faced with stagnating or even declining numbers can use to inject new life into their shows. Meetings & Conventions interviewed more than two dozen industry experts who offered advice on how to transform a moribund show into a sold-out showcase.

Market it, or forget it
The quality of the preshow marketing campaign can mean the difference between absolute success and abysmal failure. Some smart strategies:

Send targeted e-mail. E-mail has made it much easier and cheaper to communicate with a targeted audience. Paula Rigling, director, conference and meeting management for the 37,000-member Texas Medical Association, has some 11,000 e-mail addresses at her disposal. To promote the Austin-based association’s latest show, TexMed 2000, she sent a broadcast e-mail to all 11,000 e-mail-connected doctors. It didn’t cost a penny in postage.

More importantly, Rigling had her internal information services department sort the database of e-mail addresses in such a way that she was able to send highly personalized pitches. To younger physicians, she sent messages highlighting the availability of on-site child care. To her members with degrees from international medical schools, she sent an alert about a speaker likely to interest them.

Make the most of the Web. The Internet is an excellent way to get information about a show in front of people who aren’t on an association’s mailing list. Also, the ease of online registration and housing capabilities might encourage attendance.

Reach beyond borders. The Web is ideal for luring international attendees. And with domestic attendance figures flat at many shows, a growing number of planners are actively looking abroad for growth. Planners looking to draw an international audience also should seek promotional help from U.S. commerce officials and work to establish relationships with international tour operators.

Have a sale. To up the attendee count, consider offering substantial discounts for group registrations (if a company sends four people, the fifth registration is free, for instance). Early-bird discounts also encourage a commitment. However, planners should never drop the price of registration once it is announced, sources agree. This diminishes the value of the meeting in the eyes of those who have not registered and creates havoc among those who have paid the higher price even leading to lower registration numbers in the future.

Play piggyback. Small shows might benefit from co-locating with a related association’s event, sharing a combined attendance and educational program, and defraying the cost of going it alone. An edge in education The slickest marketing campaign in the world doesn’t do much good, of course, if the education offered is subpar or irrelevant to attendee needs. Too often, planners say, meetings can get stuck in repetitive ruts, offering the same sessions year after year.

Provide quality content. Planners must push themselves, and their boards, every year to step back and ask the big questions: What are the key, cutting-edge trends facing the membership, and what are the best ways to offer the tools they need to solve these new problems?

“You’ve got to keep program content current with the emerging issues that are relevant to your attendees,” says Sherrill Sujai, exhibits manager for the American Society for Microbiology, based in Washington, D.C. “Accepting the status quo instead of aggressively seeking new and innovative ways to present information” is almost always one of the culprits behind a struggling show, Sujai says.

Remember the veterans. Experienced members often find meetings fail to provide any valuable education. Offer an “expert” seminar track, and be sure it lives up to its promises. “To attract more senior people, we have held special sessions that dealt with issues facing the profession as a whole, rather than specific problems within a single discipline,” says Maribeth Kraus, director of convention programs for the Modern Language Association, based in New York City.

Play to fear. While the economic times are good, many professionals are decidedly nervous about their careers, with the ever-accelerating pace of technology causing many to worry their skills are in danger of becoming outdated. Planners can play on this fear in promotional efforts, with warnings along the lines of: “Attend the meeting this year, or you may be out of the profession by the next.”

Ask members for input. “Evaluate, evaluate, evaluate,” says Anna Lee Chabot, manager, meetings and events for the Royal College of Physicians Surgeons in Ottawa. That is, planners must constantly survey attendees on the quality of the current program and ask for detailed suggestions on future topics of interest. Brief e-mail surveys with three to five questions can generate high response rates and plenty of data on the types of programming attendees want.

Spend money. Planners generally get what they pay for on the education front. While effective speakers and large computer labs are expensive, they also attract attendees initially and keep them coming back. What’s more, the costs associated with high-ticket items often can be defrayed with sponsorships.

Stress networking. As vital as education is, it’s not the only element that draws attendees. A recent study of association meetings by Meeting Professionals International found that the chance to network with peers is a primary motivation to attend a show.

Simply scheduling time for social get-togethers might not be enough to satisfy this need. Consider ways to make it easier for new and shy attendees to interact, such as using mentors or group facilitators, and set up tables or rooms for special interest groups so like-minded attendees can easily find each other.

Exhibitor satisfaction
As important as attendees are to a show’s success, revenue from exhibitors is usually what makes or breaks a meeting and, by extension, the association itself. Finding ways to keep current exhibitors satisfied and to draw new ones to the show is of paramount importance.

And this isn’t an easy task. Mergers in many industries, like health care and energy, are cutting down on the number of exhibiting companies. Some companies have begun to embrace the concept of organizing their own shows, offering their own educational sessions and exhibits centered on their own products. Local and regional events also are cutting into attendance at national events.

Reward loyalty. With costs for acquiring new clients much higher in comparison to retaining existing ones, the first focus of every planner should be on maximizing the show experience for loyal, repeat booth buyers. Guarantee exhibit-only hours. The golden rule: Don’t schedule any other activity to overlap with the time the show floor is open, says Dick Bray, director of expositions for the American Society of Association Executives.

Give out food and gifts. Serving lunch on the floor is a can’t-miss way to create traffic, as are prize giveaways that require a winner to be present on the floor to claim the prize. ASAE, for example, gave away $1,000 every hour at its show last year. To ensure attendees visit every corner of the floor, some planners issue “passports” that must have stamps from the various sections of the floor if a person is to be eligible for prizes.

Don’t give them reasons to leave. “Design of the floor is very important so that you have easy flow and access to rest rooms and concessions,” says Deborah Richardt, director of meeting services for the American Thoracic Society. Richardt also offers the inducement of Internet access on the show floor.

Play to specialties. Setting up special pavilions also can push attendees to targeted exhibitors. These “show-within-the-show” areas group together related exhibitors and often feature targeted educational events right on the show floor. Paula Rigling of TexMed is building a large pavilion next year demonstrating the “medical office of the future.” Booths in the pavilion will be sold at a higher price.

“It’s going over really well,” says Rigling. Exhibitors not only are willing to pay the premium price, but are offering to outfit the pavilion with their products and to underwrite the cost with sponsorships.

Serve up lists. More standard exhibitor value-addeds include access (for free or for a fee) to preregistration lists for preshow mailing, final (annotated) registration lists for follow-ups and access to such tools as electronic lead retrieval systems.

Let them bring others. Increase traffic and please exhibitors by giving them a few passes to the show floor that they can offer clients or potential clients.

Offer exhibitor education. Providing preshow or on-site training to exhibitors gives them one more reason to be there. Sessions might coach exhibitors on how to maximize their time at the show and follow up on leads, suggests Kristin Krueger, CMP, director of education and marketing services for the State Medical Society of Wisconsin in Madison.

Stir up the competitive spirit. If the event has a Web site, keep a current list of exhibitors online. Those on the fence will see which of their competitors will be at the show, talking to their customers.

Say thank you. Ask board members to make a sweep of the show floor, personally thanking individual exhibitors for their support.

Going for growth
Beyond keeping current exhibitors and attendees happy, many planners are looking to up their numbers significantly. Consider these tactics.

Push bigger booths. Attracting new exhibitors is not the only way to expand; existing clients can be encouraged to buy bigger booths. Says James Trombino, director of conferences and professional development for the Metal Powder Industries Foundation in Princeton, N.J., “One very successful booth-builder was an experiment we tried four years ago when we offered existing exhibitors the chance to expand their booth size at half price for one year only. Single booths would pay half the fee for a second booth; quads would pay half the cost of two additional booths, etc.”

The promotion increased the show’s size by 25 percent, and, most importantly, says Trombino, “No company that expanded reverted to the smaller size in future years. Companies want to stay the same size or grow it’s an image thing.”

Sell virtual space. To generate additional revenue, sell spots in a “virtual” trade show set up by the association on the Web. Most planners report strong interest from exhibitors in buying space online as long as the price is relatively low, since the return on investment of this new approach is still uncertain.

The online add-on may be as simple as a link from the association site to the exhibitor’s, or as elaborate as allowing companies to upload pages of information and photos about their products and creating sites that facilitate pre- and post-show communication between buyers and sellers (letting attendees set up appointments, ask follow-up questions, etc.).

If planners encounter exhibitors who are reluctant to go online, the pitch should focus on how buying a virtual presence is an inexpensive way to get into the minds of attendees months before a show and stay there months afterward.

Ask who’s missing. Generally, when planners think show growth, they think new clients on the “actual” show floor. An excellent way to collect leads of potential clients is to survey attendees about the exhibitors they expected or wanted to see, but didn’t.

Court the dot-coms. In essentially every industry, new online companies with big marketing budgets are eager to get their names before a prospective audience. As with many shows, ASAE’s has seen a huge bump in business from companies that didn’t exist five years ago: In 1998, about 10 percent of ASAE’s vendors were tech-related; now, it’s 30 percent, according to Dick Bray.


It’s important to remember, say planners, that bigger is not necessarily better. A show whose size is kept intimate can be a draw in itself.

Exhibitors often are less interested in the number of attendees than they are in the quality of the people they see on the exhibit floor. “Our board and our members want to keep things small, since this is what makes our association different from all the other huge engineering associations,” according to Erika Deutsch-Layne, the meetings and membership manager for the American Society for Precision Engineering in Raleigh, N.C.

Joan EisenstodtJoan Eisenstodt, president of Eisenstodt & Associates in Washington, D.C., recently helped an association conduct a complete review of its meeting philosophy. The group’s leadership decided that rather than trying to increase attendance just for the sake of a bigger number, the focus would be on attracting the highest-quality attendee.

“The goal became getting more responsive attendees, ones who would infuse a new energy into the show,” says Eisenstodt. “I think exhibitors would rather get five quality leads than 3,000 business cards from people who will never buy anything.”


Do net fares make sense? Rolfe Shellenberger, senior travel consultant for Runzheimer International, a travel management consulting firm based in Rochester, Wis., advises clients against them. Here's why.

Richard GrimesRevenue from meetings and trade shows, which cumulatively measures in the billions of dollars, is the economic lifeblood of most associations. But with so much money up for grabs, it is no surprise dot-coms are looking to move in on this lucrative market.

Online competition will be especially fierce for those associations that serve a membership for whom continuing education is mandatory doctors, lawyers, engineers and others. “We’re putting a lot of money into online education; that is the future,” says Richard Grimes, senior vice president of Anthony J. Jannetti, an association management company in Pitman, N.J. “As people’s schedules get busier and busier, they’re going to expect to be able to go online at a time that’s convenient to them to get professional training.”

“The threat from these sites. is real, and associations have to figure out a way to join forces with them or go head-to-head against them,” adds David DuBois, president and CEO of the Professional Convention Management Association. “But to compete against these very well-capitalized sites will require the sort of financial resources that most associations just can’t commit,” says DuBois.

Both sides have compelling reasons to partner: The dot-coms get to leverage the content expertise and good name of the association; the associations are saved having to invest millions in creating highly advanced online delivery systems.


Back to Current Issue index
M&C Home Page
Current Issue | Events Calendar | Newsline | Incentive News | Meetings Market Report
Editorial Libraries | CVB Links | Reader Survey | Hot Dates | Contact M&C