The current business climate for exhibitions is not pretty: Exhibition budgets are down 17 percent this year and 17 percent of exhibitors said they will participate in fewer events in 2009. Instead of despairing, exhibition organizers should take advantage of this downturn to adapt their strategies and strengthen the role of exhibitions as a marketing tool, says a new whitepaper published by Exhibit Surveys Inc. called Looking Past the Recession: Exhibition Strategies for the Interim.

Exhibition organizers should focus on three areas: relationships, value, and communication, states author Skip Cox, chief executive officer at the Red Bank, N.J.–based consultancy.

More and more, companies view events as opportunities to create brand awareness and preference through experiential marketing, which is about establishing an emotional connection with customers. Exhibition organizers should find new ways to create the “highly personalized, experiential exchange between seller and buyer” that fosters these relationships.

The second objective of a good interim strategy should be to increase the value of the show for exhibitors by identifying where value gaps exist and refining the exhibition accordingly. For starters, that means measuring more than just the number of attendees. Look for ways to provide additional targeted data and help exhibitors find more ways to measure the return on investment so they can justify the value of the show to their chief marketing officers.

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

The white paper also offers some strategies that organizers can use to improve relationships with customers, citing ideas discussed at a recent summit of industry executives hosted by the International Association of Exhibitions and Events. The interim tactics include:

  • Acknowledge the recession and focus on how your event can help exhibitors through it.
  • Set realistic attendance expectations for exhibitors in advance.
  • Consider offering special deals on conference registration fees to encourage attendance.
  • Offer interim discounts or financial incentives to major exhibitors and sponsors.
  • Spend more on attendee marketing.
  • Enhance the quality of education to attract and retain attendees.
  • Consider using social media and virtual events that will benefit exhibitors.
  • Assist exhibitors in measuring their ROI from your event.
  • Within the constraints of the economy, determine how you can help your exhibitors comply with the current pressure to “go green.”
Despite the recession, the good news for exhibition organizers is that exhibitions account for 20 percent of the average company’s marketing spending—the highest single area of spend. And the general trend over the past few years has seen marketers move away from advertising and mass marketing to customer-facing events. Thus, says Cox, the value of exhibitions doesn’t necessarily need to be sold to marketers, but it does needs to be delivered.