Boosting Exhibitor Loyalty

Creative ways to keep suppliers happy, year after year

The second quarter of this year tossed a pail of cold water on a trend that had trade show exhibitor numbers growing consistently since 2011, according to the Center for Exhibition Industry Research. The period from April to June showed an 0.5 percent dip. While various reasons can be cited, including the still-struggling U.S. economy, many trade show organizers need smarter strategies to fill booth space -- and to keep those suppliers coming back year after year.

"If you put a little bit of energy into keeping your exhibitors happy, you won't have to work as hard to refill your show the next year," notes Christine Hilgert, vice president at Atlanta-based association management company Meeting Expectations. "Remember: It's easier to keep exhibitors than it is to bring in new ones."

And building loyalty requires an ongoing effort, above and beyond the sale of a booth. "A lot of times exhibitors feel like once they've signed up for a space, that's the last they'll ever hear from an organizer," says Marlys Arnold, who runs exhibitor training sessions and helps coordinate related education programming. "The idea is to show that trade show management isn't there just to take their money. It makes them feel more appreciated and more cared for." The following tactics can help prove that point.

Offer training
"Salespeople are not necessarily the best booth staff," says Arnold. "Being able to work a show floor really involves a different set of skills. Exhibitors who have been put through booth-skills training or education will be more successful on the show floor, which translates into increased exhibitor satisfaction."

Hold a pre-event session. Tom Carbott, senior vice president of exhibitions at the Charlotte, N.C.-based Material Handling Institute, has held one- or two-day exhibitor training programs at the meeting site up to six months prior to the event. In addition to providing valuable hands-on advice, this allows exhibitors to network with peers and familiarize themselves with the venue. Carbott provides attendees with breakfast, lunch and dinner, in addition to an evening networking event and a "very discounted hotel rate."

The training not only is free to registered exhibitors, but, to encourage participation, Carbott offers discounts on show sponsorship opportunities or advertising packages. "We are confident that a better educated exhibitor will be more successful," he says. And successful exhibitors are more likely to return for the next show.

Conduct webinars. Carbott also is a staunch advocate of online training. "These days, everyone's strapped for time, so we like to make our education in a format and delivery system that is accessible to our exhibitors at their convenience," he says.

Last month, Carbott and his team launched a four-part series of webcasts called ShowPro for MHI's MODEX, an expo for manufacturing and supply-chain industries that will be held March 17-20, 2014, at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta. The modules cover how to set objectives, pre-show marketing and booth skills, all at no cost to registered exhibitors. As noted on the MHI website, "The sequential modules prepare you, the exhibit manager, and your team to increase your results through effective planning."

Christine Hilgert, who runs the Oracle Applications Users Group's annual Collaborate show (the next of which takes place April 7-11, 2014, in Las Vegas), hosts a webcast two to three weeks before the event to prepare her exhibitors. "We'll run data off the attendance and let them know how many people are coming, what kind of decision makers we might have or how many international attendees there might be," she says. "They need to know what they're walking into so they can make the most of their time during the show."

Other major show partners, like the general contractor or the mobile app developer, are invited to take part in the webcast so exhibitors have a chance to ask logistical questions. Send newsletters. For those on the tightest of budgets, training or education can come in the form of an email newsletter. "It can offer content such as tips about being better exhibitors, sponsorship opportunities and how attendance numbers are tracking, in addition to increasing regular communication with partners," says Kevin Miller, president of Frost Miller, a strategic integrated marketing firm in the trade show and association space.  

Newsletters also are great vehicles for dispensing all manner of helpful background information. In advance of Collaborate, Christine Hilgert sends monthly newsletters to her exhibitors with bits of news or research she thinks would be valuable to them. "We'll give them access to different reports or papers from places like the Center for Exhibition Industry Research or the International Association of Exhibitions and Events," she says. "We also send whatever we think will help them during the show."

Tout registration benefits
Shows such as the Astronaut Autograph and Memorabilia Show and the Oral Health Kansas Conference offer 10 percent discounts on booth space for returning exhibitors, but if your organization can't spare the registration revenue, giving veteran exhibitors a choice pick of booth locations on the show floor is one way to boost loyalty.

Establish a point system.
For each year that exhibitors sign on for a booth or serve as a sponsor at the annual Southeast Regional Fruit and Vegetable Conference (next to be held Jan. 9-12, 2014, at the Savannah International Trade and Convention Center in Georgia), they receive one or one-half point, respectively. Points accrue over the years, entitling the exhibitor with the most in any given year first choice of a spot on the floor. "This gives loyal exhibitors a chance to move to a desirable area of the show floor or stay in a familiar location," says Kelley Atkinson, who coordinates the show for the LaGrange, Ga.-based association management company Association Services Group.

Show appreciation
A simple show of gratitude toward exhibitors can go a long way.

Hold a reception. Janegale Boyd, president and CEO of LeadingAge Florida, a Tallahassee-based association representing senior-care services, holds an exhibitor appreciation reception in the board chair's suite just before the show begins, featuring premium liquor and hors d'oeuvres. "It's a no-agenda reception, simply to say thank you," she says.

For her part, Christine Hilgert likes to provide exhibitors with a chance to speak with show managers and service providers during her own pre-show reception. "We have Freeman and other major players there as well, so they get to see our faces and know who we are," she says. "Sometimes it takes some food and drink to get people comfortable enough to ask questions."

Foster casual networking. During MODEX 2012 in Atlanta, MHI's Tom Carbott held an evening reception so exhibitors and attendees could mingle. "We made it available to exhibitors at no cost and included drinks and food," says Carbott. "This allowed everyone to network in a place that was not a selling environment."

Walk the floor. For a no-budget option, have board members or high-ranking leaders of an association stop by major exhibitors to shake hands and exchange a few words. This shows booth proprietors that their business and presence truly matters. Create a floor map of top exhibitors to help senior staff plot their rounds.

Up the odds for sales
Giving attendees special reasons to head to the exhibit hall will help provide exhibitors with more sale opportunities.

Build buzz. For LeadingAge Florida's 50th anniversary show, Janegale Boyd stocked the hall with photo booths, held a silent auction and offered 15-minute educational presentations. "We did everything we could to keep people there," she says. "We wanted to make our exhibit hall the place to be." (For more ideas, see "Building Buzz on the Trade Show Floor," mcmag.com/article.aspx?id=51390.)

Keep in touch
"A big problem with a lot of shows is that once the exhibitor is signed, that's the last they hear from show managers," says Kevin Miller. "Establishing regular communication, even after the show has ended, can really help create strong partnerships."

Ask for feedback. At the Oracle Applications Users Group, Christine Hilgert likes to keep a dialogue going with her exhibitors. "If you didn't have a good show, let's talk about it. We like to keep a really open door," she says. Similarly, Janegale Boyd has hired marketing firms to conduct in-depth post-show exhibitor surveys.

Make good. If exhibitors believe they didn't get enough out of their investment, Hilgert will offer other solutions that can be implemented during the remainder of the year to make up for it, such as web banner space or other initiatives that can provide exposure at little cost. "If they feel like we don't care about their success, they're going to walk away, and so does that check for next year," she notes.

Create a committee. For more formal and regular feedback, Hilgert established an Exhibitor Advisory Committee, made up of exhibitors, sponsors and member companies who do not participate in the event. "We hold a conference call once a month to talk about pain points and receive feedback from them," says Hilgert. "This is the easiest way to figure out what problems we might have. If you can get them on the phone for a few minutes, they're going to talk, and that's valuable information I can take to our board."

In exchange for their time and input, Hilgert also shares information about the event before it goes out to the public, like floor plans or new sponsorship initiatives. "We really try to get them involved so they feel like they're invested in a part of the show," says Hilgert.