by Michael J. Shapiro | November 01, 2014
At the close of the fourth annual Americas Incentive, Business Travel and Meetings (AIBTM) show this past June, organizers announced a re-imagined format. Beginning in 2015, IBTM America, as it's now called, will eschew the traditional trade-show floor to focus more exclusively on the one-on-one meetings of the show's hosted-buyer program. A one-to-one ratio of exhibitors to buyers will be established, with only 250 of each invited. Meetings will occur in pods rather than booths, each featuring corporate branding but in a standard size and shape. Exhibitors will pay a set, all-inclusive package price to participate.

IBTM America's focus, in other words, will be on the meetings, not the display logistics and branding of big-booth shows.

In early September, Reed Travel Exhibitions, parent of IBTM America among a portfolio of seven shows worldwide, announced a similar change for its Gulf exhibition, GIBTM. The newly named IBTM Arabia, to be held February in Abu Dhabi, will likewise transition to a one-to-one hosted-buyer event, with up to 200 exhibitors. The same number of buyers will be invited and will represent a 50/50 mix of regional and international planners.

The changes, says IBTM Global Events Portfolio director Sallie Coventry, were based largely on feedback from suppliers and buyers in their respective markets. "At the end of the day, the show is a service for a particular industry, and we have to listen to what that industry says they need from us as trade-show organizers," she notes. "We adapt who we are to their requirements."

Customers in the U.S. and the Gulf are looking for "that high-quality interaction between buyers and suppliers that really facilitates doing business and building out their networks," Coventry says. One common frustration expressed, she notes, was that exhibitors were being distracted from their primary objectives. "In some cases, people were using the show floor as an opportunity to sell, when our exhibitors are looking to make sales themselves. So we wanted to kind of close the doors for the Arabian and American markets, eliminate some of those distractions." With the new focused format, she adds, "it's more like a conference than a trade show."

Of the seven events in IBTM's portfolio, four now take that approach: IBTM India and IBTM Africa are tabletop events but are driven by the same one-on-one philosophy behind their American and Arabian counterparts. The trade-show exhibit hall remains a significant part of EIBTM (in Barcelona, Spain), CIBTM (in Beijing) and the Asia-Pacific Incentive and Meetings Expo (AIME) in Melbourne, Australia.

No changes are on the horizon at this point for EIBTM, AIME or CIBTM, says Coventry. "I think there is still an absolute, essential place in the market for that sort of brand awareness," she says, in which exhibitors are free to make a splash on the show floor. "But do people want to do it time and time again, across multiple shows and multiple different geographies? Possibly not. We've listened to our customers and we see that they value that, but they don't necessarily need it across every show."

A Proven Model
The IBTM events are deeply entrenched in the history of the hosted-buyer approach. In fact, EIBTM founder Ray Bloom developed the format for his show in the late 1980s. Ten years later he sold the show to Reed before going on to found IMEX, another event that has helped to define hosted-buyer programs. To provide exhibiting companies with the best leads, the thinking went, why not find the most qualified buyers and bring them there, covering their travel expenses?

Today, the format appears to be more popular than ever before; in addition to the flagship IMEX (in Frankfurt), IMEX America and EIBTM events, planners have a plethora of other hosted-buyer opportunities from which to choose. Show organizers, in turn, have brought the hosted-buyer format -- previously unique to the travel and meetings industry -- into a variety of other business sectors.

"The model lends itself very well to bringing buyers and suppliers together in a very efficient manner," according to Michael Lyons, a Philadelphia-based consultant and speaker who previously was the show director for AIBTM. "As we all know, the traditional trade-show model, where people just walk up and down the aisle, is almost like a carnival barker trying to pull you in, saying, 'Look at our stuff!' That's inefficient. Within two minutes of conversation, it often becomes clear that the buyer isn't really a qualified customer."

With the hosted-buyer model, on the other hand, show organizers typically match up buyers and suppliers in advance for one-on-one meetings. In exchange for being hosted, a buyer agrees to a predetermined number of meetings with suppliers with whom, based on expressed interests and needs, they're more likely to do business. Buyers and exhibitors both know ahead of time that whatever other possibilities they find at the trade show, whatever other leads drop by the booth, these meetings that are lined up in advance have a good chance of leading to business deals. It relieves the pressure to be productive on the trade-show floor, reducing the carnival-barker scenario.