How do young professionals view meetings and exhibitions, and what can meeting professionals do to attract them? Those were the central questions explored in a study by the Center for Exhibition Industry Research, called “The Power of Exhibitions in the 21st Century: Identify, Discover, and Embrace Change from the Point of View of Young Professionals.”

A key finding of the study is that about 87 percent of professionals under 40 plan to attend at least one exhibition in the next two years. But to keep them coming back for more, the report says, organizers need to know what they like, what they don’t like, and what makes them tick.

Generational Differences
The report differentiates between Generation X attendees (ages 28 to 39) and the younger Millennials (ages 18 to 27). For example, Generation X is considered the “Family First Generation” and the toughest sell when it comes to exhibitions. “They do not want to become workaholics whose work hours intrude into their personal lives, especially their time with their children,” the report states.

Millennial attendees, on the other hand, tend to be more like Baby Boomers (ages 40 to 63), driven in their careers and passionate about their contributions to society. “Exhibitions represent a good vehicle to exercise that passion,” the report states. While Millennials can be more easily won over than Gen Xers, their tendency toward instant gratification means they could also be lost if not satisfied.

“In summary, Gen Xers are the challenge facing the exhibitions and events industry, while Millennials are the opportunity,” the report states.

Convenience and Relevance
The researchers found that 84 percent of respondents had attended one or more exhibitions in the past three years. On average, respondents had the opportunity to attend 7.6 events related to their careers during that period and attended 2.8 of them. Typically, Millennials attended a higher percentage of meetings available to them than Gen Xers.

Both Gen Xers and Millennials ranked convenience and the relevance of the event’s theme as critical factors when deciding whether to attend an event. Gen Xers also considered the cost of the event to be a top factor, while Millennials did not.

Further, 73 percent of respondents created a “must see” list of exhibitors they wanted to visit, and two out of three said they had the authority to make buying recommendations at their companies. However, many said they felt ignored by exhibitors because of their age. “This mistake can cost an exhibitor future sales and also impacts the young attendee in a negative way that influences his perception of the value of exhibitions,” states the report.

Lectures, Not Workshops
Approximately 90 percent of those surveyed attend educational sessions at conferences. However, only 54 percent said those sessions have met their expectations.

Interestingly, about 47 percent said their first choice for the session format is a one-hour lecture followed by a 15-minute question-and-answer session. One-quarter said their first choice is a hands-on workshop, and just 15 percent said they would prefer an open discussion with the speaker seeking feedback from the audience.

Social Networking and Socializing
Young professionals make intensive use of the Internet for information and networking. About 88 percent use a social networking Web site regularly. Facebook is the most popular for respondents, followed by YouTube and LinkedIn. In addition, 78 percent get exhibition information from Web sites, while just 60 percent get it from publications and journals. Overwhelmingly, they prefer to be reached and marketed to via e-mail.

When it comes to face-to-face interaction, 35 percent said they attend exhibitions with the primary goal of networking, while 45 percent said that social functions are the most important part of the exhibition. Most said they would participate in first-time attendee programs, if offered.

The study is based on interviews with more than 300 individuals between the ages of 20 and 39 at 10 exhibitions in 10 different industry sectors that took place in 2008 and 2009. Lusage Marketing of Chicago conducted the research for CEIR. Data was also culled from an online survey of young professionals who had attended an exhibition within the last three years.

For copy of the 41-page report, go to www.CEIR.org. It’s free to members of CEIR or the International Association of Exhibitions and Events; for others, the cost is $299.