Meetings & Conventions - Growing Your Show - August
Growing Your Show
How to bolster attendance, satisfy exhibitors and improve
educational value... against all odds
By Bryant RousseauW
ith 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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
GOOD SHOWS, SMALL PACKAGES
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 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
VIRTUAL COMPETITIONDo net fares make
Rolfe Shellenberger, senior travel consultant for
Runzheimer International, a travel management consulting firm based
in Rochester, Wis., advises clients against them. Here's why.
Revenue 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
“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.
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