Can a show survive, let alone flourish, without the presence of key exhibitors? How do trade show organizers detect exhibitor unrest in advance? How can they avoid key exhibitor attrition?

Michelle Bruno, a Salt Lake City-based trade show consultant, outlines the answers in a new research paper she wrote for the Center For Exhibition Industry Research called Managing the Special Needs of Key Exhibitors and Market Leaders.

Know Your Key Exhibitors

Key exhibitors are essentially the market leaders in their industries — the Cokes and Pepsis, Microsofts and IBMs, says Bruno. And if Microsoft and IBM are exhibiting at a show, smaller companies will likely follow. Key exhibitors attract media coverage, attention, and attendees — and they have a lot of money to spend with your show. And when they leave, it can be devastating.

Organizers have to be so in tune with the exhibitor and the industry that they can identify potential shifts in the business climate that cause exhibitors to modify their exhibition plans, says Bruno. And they should be able to provide sponsorship opportunities throughout the year, new media opportunities, or other ways to gain visibility, in addition to exhibiting.

“We need to change the way we talk to these key exhibitors and change the levels at which we engage them,” she says. If organizers don't communicate the benefits, companies will look elsewhere for return on investment.

Bruno recommends involving your executive directors, vice presidents of marketing, business development officials, and chief strategists in the discussions with key exhibitors so they can help exhibitors better understand where trade shows fit in their overall marketing mix.

Also, she says, associations should consider employing a key account management strategist to establish guidelines on how to work with key exhibitors; to quantify the value of key exhibitors to the organization; and to identify key exhibitors across a variety of industries to broaden the field and reduce the risks involved in depending on just a few key companies.

The Language of ROI

The most concrete way to show value is through return on investment, but that has proven to be difficult. A study by Tradeshow Week found that 77 percent of exhibiting companies are feeling pressure to measure ROI, but only 35 percent actually track it. “The trade show industry hasn't done a very good job, up until this point, of providing exhibitors with a tool for measuring ROI,” says Bruno.

While products recently have emerged to help exhibitors measure ROI, the problem is figuring out what to measure and how to measure it. According to a new survey of exhibitors by Catalyst Exhibits and the Business Marketing Association, 81 percent of companies that track ROI do so by measuring sales leads. The next most popular measurements were anecdotal feedback (48 percent), number of visitors to the booth (47 percent), sales (44 percent), and decision makers at the booth (43 percent). These areas are measured, Catalyst posits, because they are the easiest to measure.

That's a good place to start, says Tim Roberts, president of Catalyst Exhibits, but exhibitors should also look to measure “soft ROI,” such as brand awareness and knowledge of products. He has one client that, in a pre-show survey, found that just 26 percent of attendees considered the company a market leader. But after the CEO was in the booth at the exhibition talking about the industry, and the research and development staffers were talking about new products during the show, 96 percent of those surveyed post-event perceived the company as a market leader.

Organizers who work with exhibitors on how and what to measure, as well as what tools to use will be better positioned to retain key exhibitors.

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