Wanted: Quality Attendees

How to indentify and attract the ideal audience for your exhibitors

Why Attend?
In the Center for Exhibition Industry Research's January 2014 Attracting New Attendees study, 421 respondents outlined their preferences when selecting a new show to attend. Participants were asked to rate each reason on a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 being most important. The following are some of the top-ranked reasons:

• Reputation of event: 5.16
• Ability to network with colleagues: 5.13
• Obtain specific information for issues and decisions I am facing: 5.11
• Quality of speakers: 5.07
• Focused on needs of my industry sector: 5.03
• Value for the money: 5.01

Not long ago, the International Baking Industry Exposition, a triennial event for wholesale bakers, was in trouble. A combination of factors -- the recession and subsequent sluggish recovery, major industry consolidation, and low-carb diet fads -- contributed to the steep decline in both attendees and exhibitors. In 2007, overall attendance was down to 14,000, from nearly 19,500 just a few years before.

To reverse this troubling decline, IBIE organizers turned to San Diego-based Marketing Design Group, helmed by Kimberly Hardcastle-Geddes. Two shows later, attendance had climbed to 21,000, -- but numbers don't tell the whole story. "We did it by attracting quality participants, the buyers that exhibitors told us they wanted to see at the event," says Hardcastle-Geddes.

As experts attest, it's quality leads that keep exhibitors coming back show after show. Here's how several organizations targeted desired attendees and converted them into loyal show-goers.

Identifying Quality Attendees

Step one for Hardcastle-Geddes and the MDG team was to sit down with exhibitors and ask what they needed in order to be more successful at the show, including what types of buyers they wanted to see more of. These interviews were conducted in advance of IBIE, at industry meetings held by the two member organizations that run the event, the American Bakers Association and the Bakery Equipment Manufacturers Association. (For other shows, MDG goes on-site to speak with a sampling of participants.)

"We try to get to exhibitors that vary in size, geographical area and industry segment," so the data is broad-based, notes Hardcastle-Geddes. One clear message: IBIE exhibitors wanted more international buyers. Vendors felt they knew most of the domestic buyers in the business and wanted to expand their reach globally.

MDG identified countries with the most current and future market potential for the bakers' event, through analysis of food consumption trends and statistics; market size, value and growth; ease of doing business, and ease of travel to the United States. Targeted marketing campaigns were then devised for the top 20 to 30 countries, and marketing collateral was translated into native languages for potential attendees.  

IBIE traded ads with several publishers that serve the targeted foreign markets, like Backtechnik Verlagsgesellschaft mbH in Germany and Revista Panaderia in Peru, to build a media presence. Likewise, several key trade publications were bestowed a designation of "Official Media Partner" of the show to increase their sense of participation.

Some of the more proactive publishers offered to place IBIE brochures in their publications and send emails to their lists; in exchange, IBIE agreed to host country-specific attendee delegations organized by the publishers in those countries. "Each of the deals are really a case-by-case basis, and we always start by asking them how IBIE can help advance their objectives," says Hardcastle-Geddes.

MDG also reached out to active exhibitors who already were doing a substantial amount of business in the target countries and simply asked them for advice: Which publications dominate the market in that region? Who are the trusted distributors? "We tap into their expertise to help guide our marketing campaign," explains Hardcastle-Geddes. "Thankfully, we have some really nice, invested exhibitors who are more than happy to help," she says.

Another tactic: IBIE enrolled in the International Buyer Program, a U.S. government-run assistance service that helped promote the show overseas, recruit qualified buyers, and incentivize international buyers through travel assistance, off-site technical tours and other programs.

This integrated approach worked. IBIE'S international attendance increased from 3,286 attendees in 2007 to 5,454 at the 2013 show, held in Las Vegas, representing 26 percent of total attendance and 33 percent of buyer-only attendance. More importantly, exhibitors were happy, and overall attendance grew by more than 50 percent from 13,905 in 2007, to 20,977.

"Exhibitors came up and hugged me," recalls Hardcastle-Geddes.

Exploring Ancillary Markets
Another expressed goal of IBIE exhibitors was to gain exposure to other markets that might use their products and equipment. MDG researched and identified industries that use a lot of the same equipment, ingredients and supply solutions as wholesale bakers, and reached out to related associations. This resulted in profitable new relationships with two ancillary organizations.

The Retail Bakers of America, which organizes the annual American Retail Bakery Exposition, became a partner and, through a revenue-sharing agreement, co-located expositions with IBIE, bringing an influx of retail bakers to IBIE's wholesale-centric show. According to Hardcastle-Geddes, "Retailers loved seeing the larger, more sophisticated equipment and technologies to which they could aspire," while IBIE members received access to RBA's robust educational offerings.

To tap potential attendees in another related field, IBIE worked with the Tortilla Industry Association to align their conference schedules; TIA held its technical conference just days before IBIE's convention in the same city. Because tortilla industry buyers were already on-site, attending IBIE was easy, and via a revenue-sharing agreement, TIA participants received access to IBIE's trade show floor, bringing in an entirely new segment of qualified buyers.

With TIA and RBA on board, MDG devised a multichannel, targeted campaign to reach out to these new markets and appeal to their specific interests. The covers for direct-mail pieces were changed to reflect each industry segment, and targeted micro sites were created for each industry. "We wanted to ensure that the marketing campaign and value propositions reflected the audiences we were targeting," says Hardcastle-Geddes. "We were investing too much into the strategy to rely on a one-size-fits-all message."

Because tortilla and retail bakers weren't the show's typical attendees, IBIE organizers created seminars that would speak to their needs, while the exhibitor sales committee alerted vendors to be prepared to talk to these new demographics. In 2010, overall attendance to IBIE increased by 39 percent from the previous show in 2007; in 2013, it grew by an additional 13 percent.

Government Assistance
The International Buyer Program is a joint effort between the exhibition industry and the U.S. government that helps brings thousands of global buyers to trade shows in the States. According to its website, the program brings in billions of dollars in business annually to the trade-show floor.

Exhibitions participating in the program are promoted in 80 countries through the U.S. Commercial Service with support from an International Trade Administration IBP project officer.

To participate in the program, show organizers must apply two years out and, if accepted, pay $9,800 for shows running for five days or less, and $15,000 for shows longer than five days or events with two or more co-located shows.

For more information: export.gov/ibp

Going Global Via Social Media
In 2012, Bethesda, Md.-based Frost Miller Group was hired to meet a similar objective. Organizers of MINExpo's quadrennial mining industry event in Las Vegas wanted to grow the show beyond its existing domestic market. FMG had its own approach to the task.

After compiling a list of countries with thriving mining industries, such as South Africa, Australia, Guinea, China, Ukraine and Russia, FMG decided the best way to reach these markets was to create a social media campaign. However, according to the marketing communications firm, it's difficult to find up-to-date lists of prospective attendees in many overseas destinations, and some countries frown on unsolicited advertorial campaigns.

The effort began with a Facebook page, which quickly accumulated a few thousand followers. FMG also created a Twitter account to follow industry influencers, including writers in the targeted countries' mining industry trade press.

"By interacting with the international mining media outlets, we gathered more followers and got more engagement from their communities," says Elizabeth Johnson, FMG's director of public relations and content development. Nearly three-quarters of the show's Facebook followers are from outside the U.S.

From 2008 to 2012, MINExpo's international attendees grew by 68 percent. Show organizers are now investing in a more in-depth international campaign for the 2016 show, including placing ads on the most popular local social-media outlets of VKontakte, the largest Russian and Ukrainian social network in Europe, and Pengyou, a popular counterpart in China.

Making Room for More

The National Retail Federation has a similar aim: to expand its attendee pool and tap into new market segments, including the grocery store, convenience store and restaurant industries, for its annual Big Show. But growing the numbers would pose a problem: The event is running out of room. The show broke attendance records in 2012 and 2013, with some 27,600 people on-site in New York City's Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. "Right now our show has wall-to-wall people," says Susan Newman, senior vice president of conference for the NRF. In order to increase the amount of desired retailer attendees on the show floor, the association has launched two new initiatives that will limit the number of nonbuyer participants.

Next year, organizers will raise the price on expo passes from $750 to $1,250 for attendees who don't buy an exhibitor booth but enjoy access to attendees -- a practice known as "suitcasing." A few years back, those passes sold for as little as $295. "We're raising the price to the point where they might as well be buying a booth," says Newman. At many trade shows -- including the NRF's other shows, NRF Protect and the Shop.org Summit -- no suitcasers are allowed at any price. All attendees must either be exhibitors or retailers, period.

The second initiative will target some 5,000 international attendees who receive a discounted delegation rate if they're part of an organized, countrywide group. In 2016, the NRF will allow only retailers with buying power to be part of an international delegation.

These programs are intended to separate the wheat from the chaff, but might risk lowering overall numbers to increase the percentage of quality attendees. "When we started this strategic plan to refocus our audience, we knew it could mean a decrease in attendance, but we also know that it will ultimately be the best thing for the show and for our exhibitors," says Newman. "We are willing to take a loss to make the show better."

Courting Future Attendees

A coveted segment of the marketplace is the "next generation" attendee, future leaders who are typically younger or newer to the field. Though not all of them bring buying power to the trade show floor, their participation gives exhibitors a chance to establish relationships early on in newcomers' careers. "They do bring different buying power to the show floor, yet our vendors recognize that even if they aren't decision makers, they're still spreading word about the show back to their companies," says Patti Rouzie, vice president of membership and meetings with the National Beer Wholesalers Association.

NBWA leaders started such a program a few years ago. It has since grown from around 40 members to almost 300. To keep the community thriving throughout the year, the association sends newsletters out to members, uses a LinkedIn Group for discussion and hosts a leadership conference each August.

About 100 up-and-coming leaders attended this year's recent convention in New Orleans, up from about 40 two years ago. To incentivize their participation, organizers ran a happy hour for them and set up a luncheon with a well-known industry reporter who talked to them about the business, the future and his personal path through the beer distribution world. The show welcomed 2,016 attendees in all, breaking the previous record of 1,903.