How far do you go to keep your exhibitors satisfied? Holding a post-show meeting to get feedback, or hosting a “getting to know the show management” breakfast during the meeting is no longer enough, said panelists during a session at the Healthcare Convention and Exhibitors Association Annual Meeting, held in June in Austin, Texas. To do it right these days, they said, you need an effective Exhibitors Advisory Council, or EAC.

“The Exhibitors Advisory Council is for me the humble recognition that I don't have all the great ideas,” said panelist Barbara Charbonneau, senior manager of exhibits with the American Heart Association in Dallas. Humbling, perhaps, but essential in today's cutthroat environment where exhibiting options are burgeoning and consolidations are shrinking exhibitor pools.

First, the panel explained what an EAC is not. It's not a clique of your favorite exhibitors, and it's not a place where specific issues are solved. While the EAC's goal, like that of the organizer, is to improve the exhibition experience for exhibitors, it's even more focused on improving the experience for the attendees who view the exhibition as another vital link in their educational process.

An EAC facilitates open communication between an association and its exhibitors, explains HCEA's brochure on EACs. This dialogue leads to “better understanding of mutual interests on both sides and to decisions that positively affect all parties.” Or, as an attendee at the session said, “You guys go to hundreds of shows, and we don't. You give us invaluable feedback and can tell us what you've seen work and not work at other shows — and suggest ideas that we may not think of.” Exhibitors can even give you site selection ideas, since they've experienced so many convention facilities firsthand.

Charbonneau also stressed that, while the EAC is an advisory body, not a decision-making body, the group's input can start the snowball rolling — better meetings equal better attendance, which attracts more exhibitors and persuades existing exhibitors to buy more booth space and perhaps increase their sponsorship activities.

Working for the Greater Good

It can be tough to gather a group of corporate representatives in one room and have them put aside competitive issues for the greater good, Charbonneau admitted. Those who are chosen to be on the EAC must be willing to express their own and others' opinions and be willing to look out for the best interests of all exhibitors and attendees. She stressed repeatedly that the EAC members should be representative of the entire group of exhibitors.

“It should be a mix of 10 by 10s, 100 by 100s, and everything in between,” added Cyndi Erp, customer development services manager, conventions and showrooms for KCI, a healthcare products company based in San Antonio, Texas. Erp sat on the panel with Charbonneau.

One attendee added, “I like to include the chronic complainers, because it's a good way to both address their needs and get them on our side. They usually become our biggest champions after serving on the EAC.” An HCEA board member in attendance also said that she invited only HCEA members to be on her EAC, since they understand the importance of working together toward a common goal, despite competitive issues. (HCEA comprises exhibitors, associations, and vendors who all have as their goal a more productive healthcare exhibition industry.)

However you structure it, the EAC members have to be representative — that's the trouble with the catch-as-catch-can exhibitors' breakfasts at the show: You never know who might show up, and chances are, they'll just be looking out for their own interests, not those of everyone involved.

Charbonneau said she prefers to invite those who have at least three years' experience in exhibit marketing, though it doesn't have to be three years with one company, so they have enough experience to have a good grasp of the issues. She also thinks twice about anyone who's been around forever, because they might be stuck in the “we always do it this way” rut. It also makes sense, she said, to stagger their terms, so you always have a mix of experienced EAC members and those who can bring fresh ideas to the table.

Most societies meet with their EACs at their show, then communicate throughout the year at sister association meetings where most EAC members will be exhibiting, or via e-mail, teleconference, or videoconference.

While most session participants said that they prefer to keep their EAC relatively small — fewer than 10 people because, as one attendee said, “any more than that and work starts to become a party” — Charbonneau said she likes to keep it an odd number, 11 in her case, to keep votes from deadlocking.

Taking It to the Top

But what if the powers-that-be think an EAC is just a group of whiney exhibitors looking for the moon and the stars? It's all in the people you pick. Charbonneau, who before her current position was a member of several EACs as an industry representative, said that it's important that EAC members see themselves as sort of ambassadors for the association. “We were tasked with approaching new exhibitors before the event, not as competitors, but as part of the association's team.” An attendee added that her EAC calls new exhibitors months in advance and walks them through the process to help make their experience a success.

One attendee said she held her EAC review meeting immediately prior to her planning committee's meeting and would present their feedback to the planning committee. “They do listen,” she said. One exhibitor said her EAC's input was enough to cause the organization to move from a “horrible” lead-retrieval system to a good one.

Charbonneau e-mails the details of EAC meetings to all the important stakeholders, from the executive vice president to the program director, and reports about the meetings during their other meetings. An attendee added that she sends minutes of her meetings, along with exhibitor evaluation results, to all her leadership. She further suggested inviting one of the association's decision-makers to be on the EAC to increase their commitment to taking it seriously.

The results that attendees and panelists reported were pretty persuasive: One said that the EAC input caused a grueling five-day exhibit to be cut to three and a half, and another said that EAC reports of physician attendees saying that the exhibition was vital to their learning about the latest drugs, techniques, and devices was enough to persuade the program committee to stop having exhibit hours coincide with sessions.

And the exhibitors love it. Not only are their needs heard, but “mostly it's going back the next year and hearing how you've gotten good things to happen,” said Erp. What better music for a show organizer's ears than to hear the trilling of happy exhibitors?

The Most Effective EACs …‥

  • Represent a sample of all exhibitors — including those with large booths and small ones.
  • Are focused on what will make the show better for attendees as well as for exhibitors.
  • Are willing to be constructively outspoken on important issues, not just complainers.
  • Are relatively small groups — usually up to 12, so that the group can be more productive.
  • Create input that is channeled to association management, and is acted upon in some way. It is important to build a sense that EAC participants are ambassadors of the association.