“Strategic planning by committee just doesn't work,” observed Nancy Berg, executive director of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, at the fourth annual Exhibition and Convention Executives Forum, held May 28 at the new Washington (D.C.) Convention Center. Produced by show veterans Sam Lippman and Michael Hough, the conference was sold out at 120 registrants, most of whom were top-level executives from the country's largest association and for-profit trade shows.

In her keynote presentation, Berg delivered a riveting account of how she led the 35,000-member association in a radical re-engineering of its internal/external cultures, governance, staffing, and trade shows to reflect a revenue-driven business model rather than the traditional service-driven model espoused by many associations.

“Our theme was ‘Moving the Mountain,’ but the reality was more like ‘Walking on Broken Glass,’” she said. At the end of the day, the SME 300-plus staff was reduced by half, the board of directors was re-constituted to include more members with financial management experience, and the group's trade shows and magazines were successfully repositioned to be more profitable.

If you don't know what a CMO is and how she or he thinks, you're in trouble, warned another speaker, Ed Kenney, president of TrainRight Solutions and former chief marketing officer for Advance Imaging. Chief marketing officers control the purse strings that can make or break your trade show, Kenney said, noting that CMOs typically have a “bucket” for each marketing channel (advertising, meetings, trade shows, e-marketing, and direct mail). The smart show organizer can get money from different buckets by asking: How can our trade show help you with your overall marketing strategy?

Kenny said that many companies were spending just as much on marketing these days but putting more money into meetings and public relations and less into advertising and trade shows.

After-lunch speaker Billilynne Keller, executive director, Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association, gave a knockout presentation on different ways to “transplant” your U.S. event to other countries. She outlined different models for international shows, including partnering with a local entity, licensing your show, or running the show overseas on your own. (She prefers the first and finds the last most difficult.)

In discussing growing an international audience for existing U.S. shows, Keller described the terrible experience many foreigners have when they go through U.S. Customs. “These guys [Transportation Security Administration employees] are on a power trip. They think yelling at people helps them speak better English.” Keller issued an emotional plea for exhibition industry professionals to work to change the port-of-entry experience for foreign visitors to a more positive one.

Other hot topics at the conference included how to get a more diversified attendee base to reflect the growing power of minority markets, and the pros and cons of centralized versus decentralized marketing for trade shows. For more information on this year's and next year's forum, visit eceforum.com.