According to a recent study from the Center for Exhibition Industry Research, the economy has forced greater scrutiny in how marketing dollars are spent. As a result, companies are forgoing events that have a low return on investment. The report also finds that some executives are looking to shift money to alternatives have a better return on investment, including digital and in-person marketing/sales alternatives.

Thom Randle, vice president of strategic partnerships and industry affairs for Efficient Collaborative Retail Marketing, the company that created the hosted-buyer program for the Independent College Bookstore Association, is seeing this trend. Many of the associations he has met with are "going through a re-engineering mode, trying to redefine themselves based on the instability that they are facing in the marketplace right now." He believes that for many associations, hosted-buyer or private-planning sessions will be part of their new strategic direction.

"I don't see us in competition with trade shows," says Randle. But he does think hosted-buyer meetings can fill an ROI void and should be part of an organization's portfolio of events, along with exhibitions.

Certainly there are limitations to conducting the hosted-buyer format on a large scale. "If I have a big show, say 1,000 vendors and 5,000 buyers, I can't do a face-to-face with all those people," says Stacy Waymire, executive director of ICBA. However, it works perfectly for ICBA, since theirs is a small show. Other associations would probably have to apply the model differently, but "it would be a mistake not to consider it," Waymire says.

The hosted-buyer format can be employed as a stand-alone event or carved out of the annual exhibition. If it's a large event, the number of buyers could be capped. Another approach is to add a day to the trade show for hosted-buyer meetings.

Randle believes running a separate event is the way to go, because it doesn't take buyers off the trade show floor and it gives buyers and vendors a quiet, focused atmosphere in which to conduct meetings.