It happened right after the 2003 annual meeting — a revelation. In a debriefing after the event, Stacy Waymire and his staff at the Independent College Bookstore Association shifted their conversation to finding a new way to engage both exhibitors and attendees.

“We thought: ‘Wouldn't it be great if instead of doing a traditional trade show, we set it up so buyers would have private appointments with vendors?’” recalls Waymire, executive director of the Ashland, Ore.?based association. “We thought we had an original idea,” he says, laughing.

A few months later, they researched the idea on the Web and found an organization that was doing something similar. For Waymire, it was validation of the ICBA idea, so they began creating a new event — the Planned Retail Innovation and Marketing Exchange, or PRIMEtime — for the annual meeting.

Six years later, the model has been a huge success for ICBA, which has continued to refine its new marketplace, turning the traditional buyer-seller models upside down. The concept is catching on among more and more associations. In January, the Trade Show Exhibitors Association is launching its own hosted-buyer event, Face-to-Face Connections (see sidebar, page 14). In February, Meeting Professionals International will scrap its traditional trade show and replace it with a modified hosted-buyer event. And in 2011, both IMEX and Reed Travel Exhibitions are debuting hosted-buyer events in the U.S.

It wasn't an original idea, but ICBA's PRIMEtime was and is on the leading edge of a growing trend.

The Message was Clear: “you Need to Change”

The impetus for PRIMEtime came from exhibitors and attendees, who were not satisfied with ICBA's exhibition. Both sides told ICBA staff that they needed more value from the exhibition to justify the investment in time, money, and resources. “They were looking for that return on investment,” Waymire says.

Once the idea was hatched, ICBA spent the next year figuring out how to make it happen. In the process, Waymire heard about a Cleveland-based company called Efficient Collaborative Retail Marketing, which had been doing private planning sessions since 1994. Waymire went to an ECRM event in his field as a buyer and saw firsthand how the model worked. “I thought, ‘We can do this,’” says Waymire, and ICBA proceeded to develop its own version for the 2005 annual meeting. Before going forward, they approached their most influential vendors and attendees and asked: “If we do this, will you come?” The key partners supported the idea.

The result was an exhibition hybrid: one day of the traditional exhibition and one day of the new PRIMEtime format. The hybrid model remained in place until 2008 when ICBA, citing the success of the hosted-buyer format, overhauled its show with PRIMEtime as the focus.

How it Works

PRIMEtime brings vendors out of the exhibit hall and into hotel rooms where they conduct 20-minute meetings with attendees, or buyers. PRIMEtime now has about 150 buyers and 75 to 80 vendors. Roughly 75 percent of the buyers are hosted. Over the course of the four-day conference, two days are carved out for PRIMEtime, with ICBA scheduling the private meetings. The other two days of the conference are dedicated to educational sessions.

PRIMEtime's product areas are academic resources (textbooks and course materials); apparel; backpacks and imprinted gifts; technology; and school and office supplies. “We let buyers qualify themselves on which products they are really interested in,” Waymire says. “If you are not interested in widgets, then you don't need to see the people who sell widgets.”

ICBA pays for buyers' airfare, ground transportation, food and beverage, and meeting registration. “It removes an enormous obstacle to getting buyers to the show,” Waymire says. Paying the buyers' way seems like quite an investment, but it's not, when you consider the alternative. “There's tremendous overhead to the traditional trade show,” he says, including the cost of renting the convention center, hiring a decorator, catering, and security, among other things. “We've reallocated those revenues to the buyer.”

If a buyer skips any appointment with a vendor without a good excuse, the buyer is required to pay back the money that ICBA laid out for them to attend. ICBA officials are the judge and jury when it comes to determining what's an acceptable reason to miss an appointment. So far, nobody has missed an appointment without a good excuse.

The meeting rooms are provided as part of the vendors' registration. Vendors are charged a flat fee to participate, which is about five times more than what they would have paid for a traditional booth under the old trade show format. ICBA also offers a less-expensive option called PowerHall, where vendors set up 10-minute private meetings with buyers in pipe-and-drape booths in a hotel ballroom. The fee for PowerHall is roughly half that of PRIMEtime.

Additionally, ICBA offers a third venue called Marketplace, which is like a traditional trade show. It is open for 60- or 90-minute blocks, and there are no pre-scheduled meetings. However, all registered buyers participating in PRIMEtime and PowerHall have access to Marketplace. For vendors, Marketplace is half the cost of PowerHall and is much smaller. There are only about 20 companies that exhibit in Marketplace.

Overall, the number of vendors is about the same now as it was before 2005, but show profits have increased significantly because expenses have gone down and revenues have gone up, Waymire says.

The View from the Hired Help

In 2008, when ICBA decided to commit itself completely to PRIMEtime, it partnered with Efficient Collaborative Retail Marketing for help. Since 1994 ECRM has run more than 400 category-specific “planning session” events (as they call them) on everything from school and office supplies to health and beauty.

In 2008 ECRM did 70 private-planning session events on four continents, says Thom Randle, ECRM's vice president of strategic partnerships and industry affairs. ECRM runs its own conferences, which it calls Efficient Program Planning Sessions, but in recent years it has begun to outsource its model to other organizations. Associations can customize the ECRM model to fit their own meetings, which is what ICBA did when it partnered with ECRM in 2008.

In addition to experience, ECRM offered technology that would enable buyers and sellers to remain in contact after the meeting. ECRM's MarketGate software creates “a 365-days-a-year relationship around the event, connecting buyers and sellers before, during, and after,” Waymire says.

Here's how it works. When buyers and vendors sign up for PRIMEtime, ECRM account managers contact the buyers and sellers, who download the MarketGate software. Then buyers and sellers communicate in advance of their meeting. Buyers can download all the necessary catalogs and forms they need to prepare for the PRIMEtime sessions, while vendors can ask buyers what product areas they want to discuss.

At the live meeting, ECRM staff is on site, working the hallways to make sure appointments are on schedule and everyone knows where they are going. Staff also provide participants with a tablet PC, which includes appointment schedules and can be pre-loaded with product information, brochures, and past e-mails between buyers and vendors.

Participants are allowed to keep the PCs, so when PRIMEtime ends, communication between parties continues. “Most people will tell you one of the hardest things about trade shows is, once it's over, within a week you almost have to start over because people see so much and they recall so little,” Waymire says. “This software allows them to recall everything they saw, everything they did, and everyone they met.”

The View from Vendors and Buyers

Since PRIMEtime launched, it has earned high marks from both vendors and buyers. James McCollough, national sales manager at J.America Sportswear, Webbersville, Mich., calls it his favorite meeting of the year. In the two PRIMEtimes McCollough has participated in, J.America has landed 40 new customers — some for just one order, others for an entire clothing line. J.America exhibited at ICBA before PRIMEtime and was impressed with the quality of attendees the show attracted. But this format is superior, McCollough says, because it puts him in front of decision-makers for 20 minutes, uninterrupted.

The room set-up is simple, basically just McCollough and an assistant on one side of a table, with the buyer sitting on the other side. The ECRM software enables him to tailor his presentation to each individual buyer. He knows in advance what lines they are interested in, so he doesn't have to waste time going through his entire pitch.

As the head of sales, McCollough takes the leads gathered at PRIME-time and sends them out to the various sales reps across the country.

McCollough says the cost of PRIMEtime is worth it. He pays about $15,000 and sees about 30 buyers, so the cost per buyer is $500. He would have to spend much more than that to have face-to-face meetings with 30 clients if he had to travel to each of their offices. Plus, the price is less than half of what it costs him for a booth at the largest show in the industry.

“The other shows are a necessary evil,” McCollough says. “You have to be at them for brand awareness, but there isn't another show that's as effective at building relationships.”

J.America shows at about 10 exhibitions each year and has cut back on some regional shows. But this is “by far my favorite format and the one we get the best return from.”

Heading into his third year of participating in PRIMEtime, McCollough now views the event differently. Having met most of the buyers in the past, he says PRIMEtime will be an opportunity to strengthen relationships with buyers who are now customers and show them new products, review lines, and answer any questions. “We basically just sit and talk about how we can do things better.”

When does PRIMEtime no longer become necessary for a vendor? “I really don't know the answer to that question,” McCollough says. He is committed to PRIMEtime for the next three years and says the event is valuable even if it's only a place to strengthen relationships with existing clients.

Relationship-building is what Diane Wirth, apparel buyer at The Duck Store at the University of Oregon in Eugene, likes best about PRIMEtime. Wirth has participated in PRIMEtime for the last four years; she meets with vendors she's already doing business with to review new lines and have a dialogue about prices. And each year there are a few new vendors to meet. “ICBA definitely has become a very important part of our buying plan.”

The fact that ICBA pays for transportation and registration is critical, especially in this economy, Wirth says. “It makes it much more accessible and easier to put into your travel plans, because you are looking at every expense right now to try and decide whether it's necessary.”

A Complement to Trade Showes

According to a recent study from the Center for Exhibition Industry Research, the economy has forced greater scrutiny in how marketing dollars are spent. As a result, companies are forgoing events that have a low return on investment. The report also finds that some executives are looking to shift money to alternatives have a better return on investment, including digital and in-person marketing/sales alternatives.

Thom Randle, vice president of strategic partnerships and industry affairs for Efficient Collaborative Retail Marketing, the company that created the hosted-buyer program for the Independent College Bookstore Association, is seeing this trend. Many of the associations he has met with are “going through a re-engineering mode, trying to redefine themselves based on the instability that they are facing in the marketplace right now.” He believes that for many associations, hosted-buyer or private-planning sessions will be part of their new strategic direction.

“I don't see us in competition with trade shows,” says Randle. But he does think hosted-buyer meetings can fill an ROI void and should be part of an organization's portfolio of events, along with exhibitions.

Certainly there are limitations to conducting the hosted-buyer format on a large scale. “If I have a big show, say 1,000 vendors and 5,000 buyers, I can't do a face-to-face with all those people,” says Stacy Waymire, executive director of ICBA. However, it works perfectly for ICBA, since theirs is a small show. Other associations would probably have to apply the model differently, but “it would be a mistake not to consider it,” Waymire says.

The hosted-buyer format can be employed as a stand-alone event or carved out of the annual exhibition. If it's a large event, the number of buyers could be capped. Another approach is to add a day to the trade show for hosted-buyer meetings.

Randle believes running a separate event is the way to go, because it doesn't take buyers off the trade show floor and it gives buyers and vendors a quiet, focused atmosphere in which to conduct meetings.