March 01, 2001
Meetings & Conventions - Who’s Counting? - March 2001 Current Issue
March 2001

Who’s Counting?

Independent audits promise an end to questionable statistics from show management

By Carla Benini

Nicole Grani never really needed to justify her company’s participation in trade shows. Santa Clara, Calif.-based 3Com Corp. had been “so flush with money,” Grani had the freedom to choose the shows at which to exhibit, says the worldwide event manager. “We were not under close scrutiny.”

Things have changed at 3Com. The company has repositioned itself completely, implementing a new branding effort and corporate logo. It has entered new markets and dropped out of less lucrative ones. As a result, 3Com’s trade show strategy has changed radically.

For starters, the trade show budget was cut by about three-quarters. “With a new focus came a new focus on money,” says Grani, who was forced to make some hard decisions about where 3Com’s presence was absolutely necessary. She also was answering to newly hired executives, some of whom were unfamiliar with the industry shows. They wanted hard data from trade shows that would practically guarantee a return on their investment.

But while plenty of shows offered attendance reports, the majority of those reports were completed by the people who put on the event a situation Grani found unacceptable. “We can’t show any kind of audit to our executive staff that is not independent,” she says.

At least one independently audited event, the Consumer Electronics Show, has made Grani’s work easier. “I brought their audit to our senior vice president of corporate communications,” says Grani. “It was an incredibly effective tool.”

But events like CES are in the extreme minority. ABC Expomark, based in Schaumburg, Ill., is the sole independent auditor of trade shows. The company audits only about 60 trade shows a year. Compare that to a recent study by the Chicago-based Center for Exhibition Industry Research, which reported that 11,095 events take place annually in the United States alone.

Fear of a dramatic discrepancy is what keeps many shows from auditing. “You have to make a two-step decision,” says Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Arlington, Va.-based Consumer Electronics Association, which owns and produces the Consumer Electronics Show. “You have to want accurate numbers, and then you have to be able to live with the consequences.”

Not for magazines only
Magazines and newspapers have been audited since 1914, says Paula Fauth, director of marketing and sales for ABC Expomark. In fact, the Audit Bureau of Circulations, now part of Expomark, was created as a reaction to demands from advertisers, who felt they were being duped by inflated circulation numbers provided by the media.

“How successful would publishers be if they sold advertising without presenting independently audited circulation and demographic numbers?” asks Steven Hacker, president of the Dallas-based International Association for Exhibition Management, which worked closely with ABC Expomark to develop guidelines for trade show audits.

A publishing audit reveals the demographics and total number of readers. A trade show audit answers similar kinds of questions. “The exhibitor is purchasing access to buyers,” says Hacker. “How many are there? What kind of buying authority do they have? Those are the key issues. Unless that information is produced independently, it doesn’t have credibility.”

Others believe audits do more for trade shows than reveal some statistics they elevate the industry to a greater level of maturity and respect. “What the trade show industry needs is legitimacy,” says Deborah Grosz, global advertising and promotions manager for Tellabs Inc., a worldwide technology communications firm based in Lisle, Ill. Grosz has been exhibiting at shows for more than 20 years. “Trade shows have been looked at by corporate management as suspicious that they’re just a good ol’ boy time.”

Currently, most trade shows make available their attendance numbers as well as profile information on attendees their buying power, their particular markets and buying history. The problem is, every report is different; there is no standardization. “It doesn’t give us a consistent measure,” says 3Com’s Grani. “I can’t compare a show in Las Vegas and a show in Atlanta, because none of the data is formatted in a similar fashion.” An audit, however, produces results in the same categories for every show.

Inflating the numbers
The ways show managers inflate attendance numbers run the gamut, say industry insiders. Sometimes, the exhibitor is intentionally counted as an attendee. Other shows don’t have accurate systems of checking who actually showed up. Some exhibitors have their own hunches. “I am an exhibitor in this trade show [where] I get two badges, one for the educational aspect and another for the trade show,” says a source who asked not to be named. “I will guarantee you that I am counted twice.”

For a trade show that has engaged in such tricks for years, it would obviously be difficult to come clean. Not only would management appear untrustworthy, but it is likely some exhibitors would flee if the audited numbers were far lower than what had been reported.

But Hacker believes exhibitors would prefer to see an audit and make their own decision about whether to invest in a show that had done some fudging. “I think most exhibitors would probably respond positively if [the numbers] were presented appropriately,” he says.

There’s always some anxiety in going from rounded estimates to real numbers, says A.J. Janosko, director of operations for Arlington, Va.-based Supercomm, which has been audited for three years and went public with its numbers for the first time in 2000. Supercomm had been claiming about 10,000 more attendees over what the audit reported, Janosko admits. With the audit, he says, “You’re putting it out there. People can check.”

It’s up to the show manager whether to publicize the audited numbers, points out ABC Expomark’s Fauth. If there’s a large discrepancy, some shows, like Supercomm, prefer to “adjust” the numbers gradually, over a few years, so the change is less dramatic. Fauth says some audits have uncovered discrepancies of up to 60 percent.

Where’s the demand?
Whether shows are fluffing their numbers, many people in the industry say exhibitors have contributed to the problem by not pressuring show managers to audit. “Exhibitors haven’t become savvy enough to demand audited attendance information from trade shows,” says Fauth. “They believe it’s an important service, but they just haven’t been brave enough to stand up and demand it.”

Some exhibitors want to take a stand but are afraid of being singled out. Grosz would like to approach a show about auditing, and maybe even threaten to pull out if management refuses. But she runs a decided risk. “If you tick off the show organizer, you can loose. They have ways of putting you in the corner of the hall.”

Grosz hopes exhibitor advisory boards will hold some sway, expressing as a group the importance of audits. In fact, it was an advisory board that helped encourage Supercomm to audit, she says. “We try to refine and improve our service,” says Jack Chalden, general manager of Supercomm. “A critical part of that is, are we delivering the audience that exhibitors want? If we say it, that’s one thing; if a third party says it, it lends more credibility.”

“There will come a point in time when more events are being audited than not,” believes IAEM’s Hacker. “The balance tips, and it becomes more difficult to explain why you’re auditing than why you are not.”


The trade show audit is not meant to replace an event’s attendee reporting process, but rather to verify a reporting system already in place.

The process begins before the trade show does. The auditor comes on-site to meet with representatives from the registration company and trade show management and to gather information. Among the questions asked: How are people preregistered? How does on-site registration work? What kind of information is collected about attendees?

During the show, the auditor observes the registration process and the various check-in areas. He also walks the trade show floor, counting exhibitors and square footage.

A final claim of the number of attendees, exhibitors and staff is sent to the auditing firm. A sample of attendees is then called to verify attendance. If the auditor did not feel confident about the registration process during the show, the sample called is larger.

“If we find there are people who say they did not attend the show, they’re going to be projected onto the base number,” says Paula Fauth, director of marketing and sales for ABC Expomark. In other words, the number of no-shows is represented by a percentage of the overall attendance and reduces the final count. The final report usually is sent to show management within eight weeks of the event.



The decision to audit is a simple one if your numbers are accurate, insists Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Arlington, Va.-based Consumer Electronics Association, which puts on the mammoth Consumer Electronics Show. “The audit is more self- serving. We’re already honest. It’s easy if you have nothing to hide.”

Gary ShapiroBut not everyone agrees. “We basically feel we have the tools we need to sell the shows from the surveys we do and from relationships we have with our exhibitors,” says Phil Robinson, senior vice president at White Plains, N.Y.-Based George Little Management and show manager of the International Hotel/Motel & Restaurant Show, Las Vegas International Hotel and Restaurant Show, International Contemporary Furniture Fair, and Dallas International Gift and Home Accessories Show.

“I don’t necessarily see the lack of an audit as an obstacle in selling the space,” says Robinson. But if exhibitors started demanding audits or threatening to pull out, he adds, “we’d have to consider them.”

Perhaps the industry is too focused on numbers, suggests Bill Sell, vice president and general manager for Comdex, which is produced by Key3media Group in Needham, Mass. “We have a fixation on stats,” he says. Surveys by an independent company hired by Comdex “go into much greater depth” than Expomark audits, claims Sell, and they are done in a format that “fits Comdex better.”

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