Tracking Your Trade Show

New ways to evaluate and improve your meeting

Who Can Help?
Many associations handle the task of gathering and analyzing show data in-house. However, outsourcing the job has its benefits. In addition to expertise and time savings, consultants can provide unbiased recommendations.

Following is a sampling of firms that evaluate trade shows and work with organizers to develop data-driven strategies for improvement, among other services.

An experiential marketing agency that operates as a separate strategy-driven group within Freeman, FreemanXP officially launched in June, though it has been operating as an independent business unit since July 2012.

Velvet Chainsaw Consulting

Founded in 2006, Velvet Chainsaw provides strategic-planning services for association planners seeking to improve their annual meetings. The team offers expertise in areas such as education program design, social media strategy and hybrid meeting strategy. 

Acquired by global events company GES in 2007, Ethnometrics specializes in analyzing video data (along with additional input from other sources) to measure and evaluate attendee and exhibitor behavior during an event.

Exhibit Surveys
Exhibit Surveys, in business for some 50 years, has a "value assessment" service that offers research and analysis of an event to help determine where organizers can direct their energy and assets to increase value for attendees and exhibitors. - M.C.L.

David Haas gets calls every week from tech companies promising the latest and greatest gear for the meetings industry. As director of digital solutions at FreemanXP, an experiential marketing firm launched last year by Dallas-based parent company Freeman to provide strategic counsel to the meetings industry, it's the sort of thing he's into. As part of his role in helping clients improve their trade shows, Haas looks for new methods to track attendee behavior.  

"Back in the day, gathering data meant sending an online survey and hoping you got a 2 or 3 percent response rate," says Haas. "But new technology is allowing us to collect more data than ever before, and if you know how to harness it, you can really paint a picture of what people care about and what their intentions are when they come to your show." Major meetings paired with exhibit floors, he adds, are "a chance to gain real insight into what your members are actually doing once they get on-site. You can see where they go and what engages them, and technology can pick up on that."

Behavioral  data is of great value to conference organizers who aim to evaluate and improve their shows. Among them is Peter O'Neil, executive director of the Falls Church, Va.-based American Industrial Hygiene Association. Later this fall, O'Neil will begin the process of picking apart his annual meeting, the American Industrial Hygiene Conference and Exposition, piece by piece, discussing ways to make the experience more valuable to members. "We're going to ask ourselves, is this the best way to do things? What do our numbers show? What is our data telling us?" he says.

O'Neil calls this process, performed every three to five years, a "dismantling and reassembling" of his show. "Whether it's an exhibitor or an attendee, pressure is very high to please them," he notes. "We're just trying to keep up with what members are asking for."

 O'Neil will work with a consultant to analyze data gathered from registration, the expo floor, surveys and more. "We're constantly looking at new ways to find data to help us make well-grounded ecisions," he says. "Data is gold."

Following is a look at some of the newest strategies and technologies being employed to help planners evaluate the trade show experience.

Wi-Fi Monitors and Heat Mapping
Three years ago, Montreal-based Sherpa Solutions developed a Wi-Fi monitoring solution that can read and track individual smart devices (providing Wi-Fi on the devices is turned on). The sensors pick up data on attendee movement, using an algorithm to filter out exhibitors and other nonattendees.

With that information, Sherpa creates a heat map -- a graphical representation of data that uses a color-coding system to represent different values showing where attendees visited, how long they lingered in an area and even in which direction they moved once they were done in a previous area. The graph can be broken down hour-by-hour to analyze the traffic flow throughout the day.

"Associations that are returning to the same venue the following year are able to put attractions or features in areas that haven't been so popular, in an effort to improve traffic flow across the show floor and enhance the value to exhibitors in those zones," says Haas. "Alternatively, areas that have seen a lot of traffic could be monetized by selling sponsorship space with banners."

The technology also can help organizers assign value to different areas of the show floor, opening up the possibility of data-driven dynamic pricing structures, says Jacques Racine, CEO and founder of Sherpa Solutions. "Data like this is bringing more transparency to trade shows and equipping organizers with the knowledge they need to sell the space," Racine notes.

The Wi-Fi sensors, which are about 8.5 by 11 inches and 3 inches thick, are completely battery-powered, requiring minimal set up. And because the technology tracks smartphones carried by attendees, planners can avoid the tedious task of putting individual tracking devices on name badges that are then picked up by sensors around the show floor, as is the norm for RFID (radio frequency identification) systems.

However, there are some pitfalls with the technology. Because not all attendees have smartphones, and not all who do will have their Wi-Fi active, the data will not be as comprehensive as a method such as RFID, which is capable of identifying and tracking every attendee with a tracking device on their badge for a more robust data set. Racine says that Wi-Fi monitors historically have tracked about 30 to 35 percent of attendees, but the technology comes at a lower cost and requires less set up compared with other tracking systems, according to sources.

Mobile Polling
Some audience-response systems offer built-in reporting tools so survey results can be downloaded for potential future analysis.

For example, this past May, Sirius Decisions, a research and advisory firm operating in the realm of business-to-business sales and marketing, used Poll Everywhere ( during its annual Summit in San Diego. Event organizers and speakers posed some 60 questions over the course of the three-day conference, which helped to create a highly engaging, interactive environment.

After the show, organizers downloaded the survey responses and sent the reports to their editorial staff, to integrate into blog posts (, and to their analysts for further research.

Rebecca Barber, senior director of marketing at Sirius and one of the Summit organizers, says it's too early to tell, but she sees potential in the tool. "The responses we got from Poll Everywhere might give us some insight into a direction we may head or an area that we may explore further next conference," she says.

One poll revealed that only 1 percent of participants felt very confident that their sales reps were fully productive, compared with 41 percent of the audience who were very confident their reps were not fully productive. This could help Barber and her team create programming to address the issue of sales-rep productivity for their audience during next year's conference. - M.C.L.

Floor Sensor Mats
For show organizers interested in tracking attendee movement in specific areas, Madison, Wis.-based Scanalytics has created pressure-sensitive floor mats that can determine if someone is standing on them and for how long. FreemanXP recently used the floor-sensing technology to determine if attendees at a health-care association's annual meeting were using pricey touchscreen kiosks to help them find sessions or locate areas around the convention center. The association had created a mobile app for the meeting and wanted to know if the kiosks were worth the expense.

The answer was an overwhelming yes. Not only were the kiosks getting five or six times more hits than organizers thought, some kiosks were so popular that they were never unoccupied for more than two minutes at a time.

"Previously, we could tell when people interacted with the kiosks only by tracking when they touched the screen. We really had no idea that so many different people were coming up to the monitors and just watching what already was there," says Haas, referring to information about events at the show. "The real value with using Scanalytics was discovering the duration of time people stood there, which is a statistic we weren't able to capture before."

The combined duration attendees spent standing in front of the screens was "well over a day's worth of time," according to Haas. For a planner, such information can lead to valuable opportunities for sponsorship. "We think the association could recuperate its costs at the very least, and quite possibly add positive revenue," Haas says. "We always thought the kiosks were a great opportunity for a sponsor, but this data really drives the value home."

Sensor mats also can be used to test out new areas of interest. "You can lay the groundwork this year to attract new exhibitors from new industry segments next year," notes Haas. "At this year's show, you could post pictures or content from that segment on the screens, track attendee interest, and use that data when courting the new exhibitors. It could be a great way to test new markets and see what's grabbing people's attention."

Video Analysis
Video adds another point of reference to a data set: the ability to go beyond  numbers and statistics to record actual behavior visually. For example, Las Vegas-based Ethnometrics set up video cameras to capture attendees' actions during the International Carwash Association's annual meeting in San Antonio, run by SmithBucklin.

Through analysis of the video, organizers noticed that attendees were stopping along the edges of exhibitors' booths, waiting to be invited in; if they weren't, they would move on. The team recommended that exhibitors simply change their booth carpeting to match the show floor carpet. When they did so for the next year's show, "it broke down that barrier and made attendees feel more comfortable when approaching a booth," says Dave Weil, vice president of event services with Chicago-based SmithBucklin. "With technology that solely captures movement by tracking data points, observing and recognizing this behavior would have been much trickier. This takes some of the guesswork out of improving future shows."

The technology also can be used to monitor new areas or layouts a planner wants to test out for the following year, notes Weil, to see which features get the most play or which layout provides the most user-friendly experience. "You can really analyze how minor changes like moving a sign or changing an entrance can affect the way attendees move around the floor," he says. "If you're willing to explore and make changes on-site, you can see how changing certain variables can change behavior and improve the experience."