by By Tom Isler | February 01, 2009

Wynn Burke was tired of hearing exhibitors complain about dwindling attendance. Burke, the director of conventions, events and meetings for the Brookfield, Wis.-based National Funeral Directors Association, knew the charge was false -- attendance at his show had been steady for a decade -- and that exhibitors were ignoring the underlying problem: They didn't know how to interact with attendees effectively.

To prove his point, Burke hired four people to go undercover, posing as regular attendees of the NFDA International Convention & Expo last fall in Orlando. Over the course of the convention, the "mystery shoppers" evaluated the performance of all 400 exhibitors. "They didn't do anything a normal attendee wouldn't do," Burke notes. "If they had to wait in a booth for 10 minutes before someone said hello, they made a note of that."

Post-show, Burke's team sent out report cards highlighting mistakes and suggesting areas for improvement. Some exhibitors were angry initially, but most were appreciative.

Mystery shopping is a familiar, but far from prevalent, technique in the industry. "The reason there's value in it is it's another way for associations or show management companies to convey to customers that they are doing everything they can to help exhibitors get the most possible out of the show," says Keith Reznick, president of Creative Training Solutions, which specializes in trade shows and conducts mystery shopping for clients. "I think, more and more, it is the joint responsibility of an association or show management company to partner with exhibitors to figure out how to make the best experience we can for both attendees and exhibiting companies," he adds.

Mystery shopping doesn't have to cost much. Burke paid his undercover agents a total of $2,000 ($500 each) over the course of the show.