The exhibition model isn’t broken, but panelists at a session at the International Association of Exhibitions and Events Mid-Year Meeting in Boston said there is room for improvement. Pre-show marketing, co-location, labor relations, and virtual events were just some of the topics discussed at the session titled, “Exhibition and Event Industry Makeover.” The hybrid session, held on July 12, was attended by 60 industry executives in Boston and watched live by about 40 people online .

Marketing was a particularly hot topic. Not enough exhibitors do pre-show marketing, said panelist Beate Halligan, president, H+A International, a Chicago-based marketing company. Event organizers can’t afford to stand idly anymore, she added, they have to help exhibitors market. “The days of build it and they will come are over,” said Halligan. “It’s a new world.” Event organizers have a good story to tell, but they need to do a better job of telling it, she said.

Panelist John Rose, president, JC Rose and Associates, Greenville, S.C., agreed. Exhibitors that don’t do pre-show marketing may not get the results they expect, he said. If event organizers help them market their booth in advance, the exhibitors will likely see more customers, get more leads, and have a better return on investment. The better ROI exhibitors get, the more valuable the show is. That, in turn, improves the event organizers’ ROI, which they can promote to attract and retain exhibitors.

How can event organizers help? One audience member suggested they could provide exhibitors with an incentive—perhaps a discount or a rebate on booth costs—if the exhibitors agreed to market their presence at the show. Another participant suggested including marketing in the pre-show checklist, which is typically a list of essential tasks provided to the exhibitor by the show organizer.

Panelist Vinnie Polito, managing director, VP International, New York, added that now is not the time to scale back. “People are trying to save their way out of this problem,” he said. But he believes that strategy is ill-advised. “The knee-jerk reaction is to make the booth smaller.” That means less freight, less machinery, but also less for attendees to see. That translates to smaller events, lower attendee satisfaction, and possibly lower ROI. In that scenario, nobody wins. Now is the time to give customers more ROI, not less, he added.

One trend that moderator Jason McGraw, CAE, senior vice president of expositions, InfoComm International, Fairfax, Va., is seeing is co-location. More organizations are co-locating their events to leverage each other’s assets and give attendees more to see and do at the conference. Co-location is an emerging trend in the meetings industry. For example, the Professional Convention Management Association has co-location agreements with both Virtual Edge and AIBTM. The IAEE Mid-Year Meeting co-located with Trade Show Exhibitors Association’s TS2 conference.

Panelist John Perry, director, trade show and convention center division, Teamsters Local 82, Boston, talked about labor trends. He believes more destinations will follow Boston’s lead in consolidating union jurisdictions under one union, with one point of contact for the show organizer. “Boston has always been a one-union city,” said Perry. Chicago recently consolidated jurisdictions as part of an overall plan to streamline the process for customers and he expects others will follow. One of the participants surmised that the economy has forced some of these changes. Unions have lost work due to the economy, so they are realizing that changes need to be made, he said,

Perry urged attendees not to be afraid to seek out union officials with their concerns. “There is this misconception that you can’t approach them,” said Perry. That’s not the case, he added. “They will listen to you,” he said.

There was also some discussion about the use of social media and virtual events. “I see social media as an enhancement to a face-to-face event,” said Rose. Face-to-face events won’t ever go away because you can’t get the same kind of interaction over the Internet. As McGraw quipped, “You can’t drink a beer over the Internet.” One audience member echoed those sentiments, saying face-to-face events are most appropriate to deliver ROI—Richness of Interaction. Virtual meetings, on the other hand, are more appropriate for DOI—Dissemination of Information.

However, social media does allow show organizers to reach a broader audience and extend the event. One participant likened the face-to-face event to New Year’s Eve, saying people wait all year for this one big event and then it’s gone in a couple days. Social media allows organizations to be a buyer’s resource 365 days a year. That’s why it’s important for organizers to have an integrated marketing plan, said Halligan. Growth in the future will come from tapping into new markets, whether it’s through social media, international channels, partnerships, or by other means.