Greg Reid, chief marketing officer of YRC Worldwide, had an interesting message for the 170 people who gathered last week at the Washington (D.C.) Convention Center for the Exhibition and Convention Executives Forum: Get deviant. No, he wasn’t telling them to channel their inner juvenile delinquent. He was, however, exhorting the crowd to depart from the trade show manager’s usual habits if they want to reach the ever-more-elusive marketing executives like himself.

Here’s his six-point plan for deviance:

  • 1. Create change. “There are three things you can do with change,” he said. “Resist it—don’t. Embrace it—don’t. You have to lead change.”
  • 2. Let go. This one may be tough for those who wear their control-freak badge with pride, but, Reid said, sometimes you have to let go of something, even something that historically has worked well for you, to be able to try something new.
  • 3. Realize you’re not in the exhibition business. You’re in whatever business your exhibitors are in, he said. You have to understand their business, partner with them in their business, not just sell booth space. “Selling is dead; partnership is alive and well.”
  • 4. Get me there without the need to go there. Reid said that virtual attendance will be even more important to upcoming generations, and for all Fortune 500 companies that now have increasingly global work forces. Virtual events are “not a threat, but an opportunity,” he said. “The threat is what happens if you don’t do this.”
  • 5. Stop selling booth space. Similar to his third point, he reemphasized that the way to turn off a marketing executive is to try to sell him booth space. “Booth space is important to you—you have to lay out the floor,” he said, adding that, from the exhibitor’s point of view, “It’s making money that’s important to me. Don’t sell me anything—partner with me so I can improve my business. The more you can help me, the more relevant you are to me.
  • 6. Educate, don’t entertain. Much as we all like big-name entertainers and flashy décor, “the reason we go is education, not entertainment,” Reid said. “The most enjoyable thing is improving our bottom line.”

Another highlight of ECEF was a session on measuring engagement and the effectiveness of marketing media, led by Glen Hanson, BPA Worldwide; Gordon Hughes, American Business Media; Roy Pettit, Marketshare Partners; and Bob Liodice, Association of National Advertisers. As Hughes pointed out, “In order to compete in today’s marketplace, we need good research and to untether ourselves from our past sales mentality.” The panelists cited several studies, including one from Forrester, that found that business-to-business events continue to be an important tool for business decision-makers: Not only do a majority of BDMs say they attend industry-specific events, their number—and the number of days they spend at events—has grown since 2001. Despite the fact that these events rank No. 1 for helping BDMs learn about new products and services, they still plan to under-use industry-specific events in 2009. “They under-use our media because we don’t sell it like TV or radio does,” Hughes said. “We need to start advocating it if we don’t want to start contracting in 2009.”

What many say was the best, however, was saved for last. At the end of the day, Galen Poss, president of Hanley Wood Expositions, provided a brutally honest case study of how his company recovered when its 2004 Surfaces show went from having its best event ever (in terms of revenue, attendance, number of exhibitors, and square footage) to losing its top four exhibitors—along with their 90,000 net square feet of space—and another 15,000 net square feet of exhibitor-contracted space, for a total loss of 20 percent of its show. In a riches-to-rags-to-riches story, he detailed the steps his staff took to stem the immediate damage, then build the show back over time to new records in revenues, exhibitors, and net square footage.