Taking Trade Shows from Areas to Avoid to Centers of Interest

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The echoing halls have been telling the story even before the latest Center for Exhibition Industry Research’s CEIR Index found that growth in the exhibit industry has been slowing to a crawl. Most I've been to in the past few years have been on the sad side, with exhibitors chatting with each other or gazing wistfully at the few attendees wandering the aisles in search of the food and drink that was used to lure them into the exhibit hall.

Historically attendees have said that the expo hall is an important piece of their educational experience, that they wanted to go walk the aisles, meet with exhibitors, learn about products and services. But what I usually see isn't attendees eagerly seeking out exhibitors and engaging them—it seems more like exhibitors have to offer some pretty nice tchotches to entice people to their booths, and many who do visit are more interested in "trick or treating" than interacting with vendors. I know that's not true for all shows, but it sure is for some, perhaps even most.

Show organizers too have been bending over backward to get people into the expo halls. They serve meals and breaks in the expo halls to force hungry and thirsty attendees into booth proximity. They offer "passport" programs where attendees have to visit various booths to get their paper stamped to win a prize. They organize scavenger hunts, use QR codes, incorporate their trade show into mobile app games, organize a "speed-dating" session—they dangle every goody in their considerable goody-bag in hopes attendees will grit their teeth and interact with exhibitors.

Others seem to think there's a better way to encourage interaction—we're seeing more and more shows going the hosted-buyer route, which at least guarantees sponsoring companies that they'll have a face-to-face opportunity with some select buyers. But the very structure says something is out of whack when you have to pay someone to interact with you. If your attendees are in fact buyers, and your exhibitors are in fact selling things your attendees want to buy, why is it so hard to break down that wall between the two?

Or worse, is the way we've been doing trade shows actually helping to build that wall in the first place? Has all the bribing reinforced the idea that interacting with exhibitors is an odious task?

I'm thinking about how, after I search for a certain type of product on Google, the search engine conveniently (yes, and annoyingly) provides ads for those very products for a while afterward. And I'm thinking about those sponsored links at the top of search pages that, often as not, actually do provide the information I'm searching for. How Amazon (and now a boatload of other companies) crunch their data to try to figure out, based on past buying habits, what I, personally, might want to buy next. Advertising and marketing are no longer separate things, they're fully integrated into every aspect of our lives—we have product placement in our entertainment, our daily commutes, everywhere. But especially on the Web. The Internet is training us to expect targeted, personalized information about the stuff we want to buy, presented to us where we are already looking.

The traditional trade show is the antithesis of that—and like it or not, the trend toward personalized, customized, in-your-face marketing is not likely to do anything but accelerate. Because, like it or not, it works. Think about the latest generation to enter the workforce: They think catalogs are magazines, they follow a brand on social media because they're genuinely interested in what that brand is putting out into the world, and they have a low tolerance for creaky marketing models that require the user to literally do the footwork. These are your not-so-distant-future attendees.

So how do we work with sponsors and exhibitors differently in this brave new marketing environment? The keywords, I think, have to be:

Customization: How can show organizers help exhibitors and sponsors appeal to specific attendees? Who exactly is coming to the show, and why would it be to their particular benefit (not yours, not the exhibitor's) to interact with these folks? What can you do to make those encounters joyful (no, I don't want to settle for not dreaded)?

Ubiquitity: Instead of keeping exhibitors walled off in a separate exhibit hall, how can you incorporate them into the show itself, the good stuff that people are excited about? I'm not talking about lanyards and banners, but content (caution: I'm also not talking about giving sponsors 10 minutes on the stage to tout their products/services). These people have a lot of knowledge to share—are there ways to let them share it without turning the show into a big mess of commercials? I like the idea of product theaters on the show floor, but can we take that concept an broaden it even more? Should we?

Just-in-time promotion: Is there a way to put exhibitors and attendees together at the moment an attendee is primed to want to learn about what that exhibitor does? Again, the traditional show floor jumbles everything together. Is there some way to let attendees learn more about a product that can help them achieve with X topic, perhaps during or just after a session on X topic? I just ran across this example of an organization that designed a series of learning centers with some of its exhibitors, which seems like an interesting idea.

Technology: Because it has to play a key role in this, just as it does in everything nowadays. Virtual, hybrid, RFID, NFC (near-field communication, a bit Big Brothery but interesting), the social networking of pretty much everything...

Way greater minds than mine have been pondering this, of course. Some meetings industry foundations and companies even recently banded together to see what the future of the trade show might look like.

But what are show organizers doing now, as their exhibitors complain about the lack of traffic (other than argue that it's quality that counts, not quantity), poor lead generation, and feeling that they're not getting their money's worth out of the deal? Do we just keep tweaking the existing model as long as the exhibition hall is still generating a fair chunk of change, even if people have to be bribed to set foot in it? Or is it time to blow it up and put it back together again, based on what people—attendees, exhibitors/sponsors, and yes, show organizers—really value in their commercial interactions now?

Do you know of any organizations that have figured this all out? I'd love to see examples of retooled traditional trade shows that people really do crave to enter, and/or non-traditional ways of putting buyers and sellers together productively in a meeting environment.

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