Instant Makeovers

How some show managers have turned to new formats for bringing buyers and sellers together

Discover Beauty pavilion at Cosmoprof North America


Attracting fresh faces:
The Discover Beauty pavilion
at Cosmoprof North America

Ask any trade show organizer to defend the value of his or her event, and Exhibit A is likely to be the indispensable opportunity for face-to-face interaction between buyers and sellers. It may well be true, even in the Internet and iPhone age, that nothing beats a handshake or a sit-down meeting. But that argument begs two questions: Are trade shows equally effective venues for everyone, regardless of company size or budget, looking to make one-on-one connections? And, more importantly, are trade shows ideal environments for face-to-face meetings?

In recent years, some show organizers have tinkered with the formats of their shows, shifting the emphasis away from the traditional exhibit floor with endless rows of booths, simply for the sake of change. Dwindling attendance and waning exhibitor support have forced other organizers to invent new models for their events to save them from obsolescence.

Here’s a look at some companies and associations that have abandoned the standard trade show format in search of a better model that focuses more directly on pairing buyers and sellers, and helping smaller companies compete on an even playing field with industry leaders.

The pavilion

A pavilion is a specially themed group of exhibitors that is set apart from the rest on a trade show floor. Creating a pavilion can be a baby step toward change -- a way to inject new life into a show without a conceptual overhaul.

Earlier this year, however, Daniela Ciocan, Las Vegas-based director of marketing for Societa Gestione Cosmoprof (SoGeCos), an Italian company that produces several beauty and cosmetics shows, took pavilions to a new level entirely. It happened at Cosmoprof North America, held in July at the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino in Las Vegas.

Ciocan conceived and launched Discover Beauty, a pavilion for a dozen U.S. startups and foreign cosmetics firms entering the U.S. market for the first time. Each exhibitor, which Ciocan hand-picked after reviewing applicants’ products, not only enjoyed desirable foot traffic, because Discover Beauty was marketed as a special destination on the show floor, but benefitted from a host of other services that would have cost thousands of dollars elsewhere, if they could be purchased at all.

Ciocan arranged for each Discover Beauty exhibitor to meet with VIP buyers from high-end specialty stores such as Nordstrom and Sephora, people who normally don’t attend many trade shows and are out of reach for most young companies.

But Ciocan didn’t stop there. Using her industry contacts, she set up meetings with beauty magazine editors in New York and personally pitched the exhibitors’ new products to them. She also consulted with each exhibiting company in the pavilion, prepping representatives for their one-on-one meetings with buyers. She helped them ready presentations and, in some cases, showed them how to write effective press releases.

When the exhibitors arrived at the show, all they had to bring were samples of their products. To minimize the discrepancies between companies with disparate budgets for exhibit booth design, Ciocan discouraged exhibitors from bringing decorations, in part to control the clean, tasteful look of the pavilion, and in part to counteract the “arms race” of booth decor. “We wanted to give equal opportunity to everyone,” she says.

The endeavor yielded “phenomenal results,” according to Ciocan, but it was costly to produce, despite the fact that exhibitors paid higher-than-normal registration fees to participate. The process monopolized Ciocan’s time and energy, and SoGeCos didn’t quite break even on the feature this first year, Ciocan notes. However, she views the pavilion, which will likely double in size for next year’s show, as an investment that will help the overall show grow.

Discover Beauty attracted new and loyal exhibitors and engaged high-end retailers, a market segment that’s currently underrepresented at Cosmoprof North America.

Michael HorstmanWhy did the organizers of the Midwest Vision Congress and Exposition cancel the trade show portion of their event and recast the expo next year as an educational conference? Because of the changing demands of the marketplace, explains Michael Horstman, right, executive director of the Illinois Optometric Association, based in Springfield, Ill.

“There seem to be a lot more one-on-one meetings in offices as opposed to trade shows,” he says. The ability to find products and make contacts via the Internet, the rise of buying groups affecting how purchasing is done, the advent of larger chains that buy centrally have all “changed the volume of purchasing done at shows,” he adds. Regional events feel the impact of these buying trends more than national or international events, Horstman notes.

A case in point is the American Society for Enology and Viticulture, based in Davis, Calif., which will discontinue its small trade show after next year, a staple of the association’s annual June meeting since the 1960s. The demise of the trade show was partly ASEV’s doing -- it also produces a larger, more important show in January, which is a better month for winemakers and buyers to meet, says Lyndie Boulton, executive director of ASEV. Another factor is the gradual shrinking of marketing budgets for exhibitors. -- T.I.

FAH’s no-product trade show


About face:
FAH’s no-product
trade show

Reverse trade shows

Bonnie Moneypenny, senior vice president, administrative services, for the Federation of American Hospitals, which has offices in Washington, D.C., and Little Rock, Ark., is one of the pioneers of the “reverse trade show,” where buyers sit at booths and sellers walk the floor.

FAH has produced reverse trade shows, which Moneypenny prefers to call “business expositions,” for a decade. The expositions are “no-product” events:Sellers show up with business cards and little else, not even the wares they’re trying to sell. Moneypenny says this levels the playing field for all exhibitors. The no-product rule also helps vendors save money, because they don’t have to ship items or booth displays to the event.

At the reverse show, buyers set up shop in private “service centers,” meeting areas enclosed by 10-foot-tall walls that replace traditional booths. Three weeks prior to the show, Moneypenny sends suppliers the contact information for attendees, and sends attendees supplier contact lists. The process of making appointments is not centralized. Everyone has to take the initiative to arrange his or her own meetings.

Moneypenny is so convinced that this model satisfies the business needs of her members better than a regular trade show -- while eliminating distractions and unnecessary costs -- that she offers a money-back guarantee. “I’ve never made a refund,” she says.

Other reverse trade shows operate on slightly different models. At the Virtuoso Travel Mart, for instance, which brings together Virtuoso travel agents and preferred suppliers of the Fort Worth, Texas-based company, every agent meets with every supplier, and schedules are drafted centrally. This past August at the Bellagio Las Vegas, 2,800 attendees convened
for 260,000 four-minute meetings.

At Meeting Place Berlin, a hosted-buyer event for meeting planners sponsored by the Berlin Convention Office in Germany, planners were asked to schedule appointments with a selection of suppliers from an authorized pool of meeting venue and services companies. Planners each were assigned their own booths, and suppliers showed up for meetings at the appropriate time.

The purpose of reverse trade shows is to reduce the element of chance that enough buyers will stop by exhibit booths to make attendance at a show worthwhile, says Barry Boutilier, manager of supplier development for the Department of Economic Development in Nova Scotia, Canada. Boutilier runs reverse trade shows to introduce government procurement executives to suppliers throughout the province.

Invitation-only events

The Entertainment Software Association, based in Washington, D.C., made the year’s highest-profile transformation from a trade show to an alterative format. In July, instead of holding its annual Electronic Entertainment Expo, known as E3, the ESA decided to leave the Los Angeles Convention Center, dramatically shrink its trade show floor and make the event an invitation-only series of smaller meetings spread across several Los Angeles hotels.

“Over the years, it has become clear that we need a more intimate program, including higher quality, more personalized dialogue with the worldwide media, developers, retailers and other key industry audiences,” Douglas Lowenstein, president of the ESA, said in a statement last summer. Lowenstein resigned last year and was replaced in May by Mark Gallagher. (The ESA did not return calls seeking comment, and several exhibitors at this year’s reformatted E3 Media & Business Summit declined to speak about the changes or did not respond to requests for interviews.)

“The new E3 Media & Business Summit is first and foremost about getting business done,” Lowenstein continued. “When we asked key audiences what they wanted in the new event, we heard that they wanted opportunities for high-level meetings in a businesslike setting, to play games, network and socialize, to see major company offerings while also preserving the sense of discovery that is so much a part of the show, and to hear substantive presentations on the most important issues facing the industry.”

Video game blogs and news reports from the event were mixed on the execution of the summit -- many attendees had logistics complaints -- but most conceded that the new format helped exhibiting companies save money on booths, which in recent years became more and more elaborate, and helped midsize companies escape from the shadow of industry giants who used to dominate the show floor.

NAMA show floorNAMA: Looking to perk up its show

One of the many ways the Chicago-
based National Automatic Merchandising Association has attempted to stimulate its annual trade show was to create a “show within a show.” In 1999, NAMA brewed up a plan to absorb the fizzling National Coffee Service Association, based in Fairfax, Va., and create a special coffee pavilion within NAMA’s annual trade show. “It worked very well,” says Sue Ralston, director of trade show sales and service for NAMA. Overall attendance at the show climbed for the next three years.

But new formats don’t always reverse course for a struggling show. Since 2002, attendance at NAMA’s convention has again slipped. “Our show suffers from a lack of innovation,” Ralston admits. She’s tried other pavilions, finding success only with one, geared for new exhibitors, which is popular with attendees seeking out the latest products and services.

Ralston has looked to other trade shows around the country for ideas, considered co-location and met with other NAMA executives to discuss what the shows are missing. “We haven’t figured it out yet,” she says. But she’s developed a reluctant mantra: “Keep trying.” -- T.I.

Insight hosted buyer event

Insight: Suppliers
pay for access
to elite buyers at
hosted buyer events.

Executive summits

When Philip McKay worked for Gartner Inc., an information technology research and advisory company that produces tech trade shows, he began to question if the traditional event format was best for face-to-face interaction. “There’s got to be something better out there to ensure return on investment,” he recalls thinking. “Everyone seems to worry about vendors, but I was worried about attendees. At very high-end events, are they getting their money’s worth?”

McKay realized he could form a business model around arranging meetings between high-powered executives and suppliers. He could even pay for qualified buyers’ travel, hotel stays and meals, and turn a profit by making the suppliers pay for access to meet with the elite crowd.

McKay formed PPM Media in 2005, a Manchester, N.H.-based company that produces executive summits for niche tech markets, such as Blade-Systems Insight and Health IT Insight. McKay says PPM Media is set to launch 11 new events over the next several months.

Success starts with attracting the right attendees, and McKay says he targets 2,000 people who are known to have significant buying influence; he caps attendance at roughly 150 people who not only are interested in the event but are looking to make purchases within a given window of time and will commit to attending all sessions for the three full program days. McKay usually saves 40 or 50 spots for vendors.

The beauty of his model, McKay says, is that exhibitors’ spend and attendees’ time are dedicated to the face-to-face meetings and little else. And McKay does a lot of prep work to make sure the meetings are as fruitful as possible.

McKay acknowledges that the format has limitations: Larger events wouldn’t be able to operate effectively using the executive summit model. And, in the pursuit of intimacy, his events do exclude many companies. “I truly believe there is a time and place for large trade shows,” he says. COMDEX, a now-defunct technology trade show McKay used to organize, is missed by the industry, he argues, especially by midsize, small and startup companies.

But McKay believes he delivers what his attendees really hope to get from a trade show: the chance to forge or strengthen lucrative connections with clients or vendors.