Exhibition organizers can increase their exhibitors' return on investment by looking at how supermarkets and other retailers design their stores.

The design of exhibit floors and booths can have a dramatic impact on attendee traffic and behavior, said Mike Cooke, chief executive officer, DMG World Media, Braintree, Mass., during a presentation at the recent Exhibition and Convention Executives Forum in Washington, D.C. If exhibition organizers understand how retailers engage customers, they can increase “dwell time” and generate more leads and higher ROI for exhibitors. “At the end of the day, that's what we sell — not square feet, but face-to-face business leads,” he said.

Decompression Zones and Better Flow?

When people walk into a supermarket, the first things they see are the fruit-and-vegetable displays, perhaps a coffee shop, or maybe a magazine stand. Supermarket and department store designers call these entry areas decompression zones.

Stores try to slow customers down, appeal to their senses, and make them feel comfortable. Statistics show that the longer someone stays in a supermarket, the more they buy, Cooke said. Store design is about creating a positive experience from the start so people want to stay longer.

That's also why the essentials — milk, bread — are placed at the far back corners. Grocers don't want customers running in and out for only a gallon of milk. If they do come in for milk, grocers hope to catch the consumer's eye with something else on the long trip to the back of the store. Department stores do the same thing by putting bathrooms and food-service areas on the third floor.

How can exhibition organizers design decompression zones that will slow people down as they enter the expo hall? Consider placing a host or an information kiosk at the entrance. Create welcoming space so customers can get their bearings and figure out where to go, as opposed to walking into a wall of booths, he said.

Cooke also suggested looking at ways to reconfigure the hall to create better traffic flow. Think about putting the restaurants, lounges, and activities toward the back to draw people in, he said. Consider spreading out the island booths and widening lanes to give people more room to move around. DMG has videotaped traffic flow during some of its clients' shows to identify and eliminate bottlenecks.

Department stores use techniques, including mystery shoppers, to find out what customers like, Cooke said. For example, stores know that people are 30 percent more likely to buy something if they try it on (or try it out), so it's critical for sales clerks to engage customers. However, department stores also understand that consumers don't want to be told what to buy — it generally puts them off. What they want from sales staff is guidance — an answer to a question or affirmation of a product they have selected. Perhaps the worst offense, Cooke said, is not being there when a customer has a question. “People don't like to wait,” he said. If a sales clerk is not readily available, customers will head for the exit empty-handed.

How to Increase Exhibitors' ROI?

Whether an exhibitor attracts attendees to a booth and properly engages them when they arrive depends on how the booth is laid out and staffed.

Cooke recommends that exhibitors measure four things: aisle traffic, attraction rate, interaction rate, and conversion rate. Aisle traffic is the number of people who walk by, attraction rate is the number of people who walk into the booth, interaction rate is the number of attendees who talk to booth personnel, and conversion rate is the number of interactions that translate into qualified leads. If organizers can help exhibitors improve those rates — particularly the last two — then they are helping them increase their ROI, he said.

For example, if the interaction rate goes from 20 percent last year to 30 percent this year, that's a substantial ROI increase. And if the conversion rate to qualified leads goes from 50 to 100, that's an ROI of 100 percent. So how do exhibition organizers help to improve the metrics?

A redesign of the exhibit hall might create better flow and more aisle traffic, but traffic isn't worth much without engagement. To illustrate the importance of engagement, Cooke presented a case study involving two bellwether tractor exhibitors at one of his shows. One exhibitor had high aisle traffic and attraction rates, but little interaction with customers and few qualified leads. The other had less aisle traffic and a lower attraction rate, but walked away with far more leads. How did this happen?

The first tractor company had more equipment on display, showcasing the latest models throughout the exhibit. While they attracted more visitors, there were not enough staff members available to answer questions and give guidance. The second exhibitor didn't have as much attention-grabbing equipment on display, but had more people deployed to talk to customers and provide information. That type of engagement is critical, Cooke said. On average, exhibit personnel talk to only about 33 percent of attendees. That's not enough.

An exhibit that is a combination of these two examples — optimizing both attraction and interaction rates — is preferable. If exhibit organizers can create a more inviting customer environment, improve traffic flow, and impress upon exhibitors the importance of engaging attendees the right way — as retailers do — then they should be able to deliver better ROI.

Sidebar: How Exhibitions Can Deliver Value During the Recession and Beyond

The current business climate for exhibitions is not pretty: Exhibition budgets are down 17 percent this year and 17 percent of exhibitors say they are participating in fewer events in 2009, according to a new white paper published by Exhibit Surveys Inc. called “Looking Past the Recession: Exhibition Strategies for the Interim.” Show organizers should take advantage of this downturn to adapt their strategies and strengthen the role of exhibitions as a marketing tool, says Skip Cox, chief executive officer at Exhibit Surveys, a Red Bank, N.J.-based consultancy.

Exhibition organizers should focus on three areas: relationships, value, and communication, Cox says.

Companies are viewing events as opportunities to create brand awareness and preference through experiential marketing, which is about establishing an emotional connection with customers, the white paper says. Exhibition organizers should find new ways to create the “highly personalized, experiential exchange between seller and buyer” that fosters relationships.

The second objective of a good interim strategy, according to the white paper, should be to increase the value of the show for exhibitors by identifying where value gaps exist. That means measuring more than just the number of attendees. Look for ways to provide additional targeted data and help exhibitors measure ROI.

Third, organizers must enhance communication with exhibitors and attendees. Show organizers need to have personal discussions with exhibitors about their needs and how the event can benefit them. They should also remind attendees that the content, networking, and business opportunities provided by face-to-face events are even more critical in a recession.

Plus, they should use social media to create an ongoing conversation and react to attendee needs.

The good news for organizers is that exhibitions account for 20 percent of the average company's marketing spending — the highest single area of spend.