At the Annual Expo! Expo! meeting of the International Association of Exhibitions and Events (formerly the International Association of Exhibition Management), held at the San Diego Convention Center November 28 to 30, a panel of experts bellied up to the bar to bash around some of today's hot topics in exhibition management. While the bar was just a set on the stage and they drank only water, the discussion was as lively as the many that occurred after-hours at the real watering holes — and the answers didn't always flow like wine, either. Here is some of what they wrestled with.

Critical Factors for Success

Jane Berzan, CAE, senior vice president of the National Association of Convenience Stores, Alexandria, Va., said that the critical factor for the success of a trade show hasn't changed in years. “We focus on delivering relevant bodies to the floor,” she said. Tony Calanca, executive vice president, exhibitions, Advanstar Communications, New York City, agreed, sort of. “It has changed, though, from being about just quantity to being also about quality,” he said. “Delivering 50,000 people is of no value unless they are qualified buyers.” Adding to the theme, Rick Geritz, CEO, BDMetrics Inc., Baltimore, added that the definition of return on investment, or ROI, is key these days. “We now have ways to prove and quantify ROI.”

Segmentation in Our Future?

When asked what they would change about the trade show industry if they could, the panelists had some interesting suggestions. Take Ignacio Cabrera, CEM, vice president of expositions sales, National Association of Home Builders, Washington, D.C., who dreamed this impossible dream: “I would make all the regulations and union rules the same,” no matter what the city or convention center. He'd also like to see more free move-in days, more-informed exhibitors who prepare for the show and know who is going to attend, and exhibitors who follow up on leads gained at the show.

Geritz kicked it up a notch and out of the dream zone, saying that he would change the way an event relates to the needs of the attendee, segmenting the show to make it easier for attendees to find who and what they're looking for. Cabrera said his exhibitors, who number more than 1,800 in two buildings, are requesting segmentation, at least by product category. On the flip side are exhibitors who don't want segmentation because they might lose a prime location. Calanca said, “It's a dilemma we all face if our show grows large enough. But exhibitors will have a better experience because buyers can find them.” He said that the biggest resistance tends to come from the largest exhibitors.

Berzan's organization already went through the segmentation process for its trade show, which attendees asked for, in 2001. “Their value wasn't as great as it could be because they couldn't meet with everyone they wanted to talk with,” she said. Since it was the attendees' idea, the National Association of Convenience Stores let the attendees decide where to draw the lines, along with the exhibitors. “If we could keep the attendees happy, we figured the exhibitors would come along,” she said, adding that they kept the categories broad, because many of her organization's exhibitors fall into more than one category. “We took a year to do it,” she said.

Calanca's organization began its own segmentation process by forming a subcommittee of its trade show committee that includes representatives of its biggest exhibitors. “We went to all the huge companies we have and explained it to them in person,” he said. Advanstar also sent a letter, “and got a huge pile of responses.”

NACS involved both large and small exhibitors in its segmentation efforts, said Berzan. “For the small exhibitor, it's a huge percentage of their marketing budget,” she added. “We had them sit in focus groups with buyers so they heard the buyers and understood why we needed to do it.”

The only caveat, said Calanca, is that your show must be large enough for it to make sense. “If you only have four companies in a segment, it would just show a weakness” in your exhibition.

Paying Up

Another conversation centered around when to get a deposit from exhibitors, and the panel was mixed in its response. Marcus Arky, general counsel with MetroGroup, New York City, was of the mind that demanding a deposit from the start will turn potential exhibitors off. “I'd be much more likely to buy if there's no money down,” he said. Cabrera replied, “I couldn't disagree with you more. People will register and not come if they don't have to pay [up front]. You should put your money down and reserve that space. I don't want to be a collection agency.” He says NAHB just sends three letters for those who haven't yet paid the deposit: “a nice one saying what you owe, a not-so-nice one, and a letter saying your booth has been canceled.”

Arky argued that, in the contract, the consideration is on both sides, and that should suffice if the contract is well drafted: “You promise to give me a booth, and I promise to pay.” An audience member agreed, saying “I strongly believe in not collecting a deposit. On site, we have been able to sell more booths for the next show by not having to collect that 25 percent there and then.”

But, said Calanca, booth space has a shelf life. If you take it off the shelf for an uncommitted party, you lose the chance to sell it to someone else. “You're being unfair to other parties if you let someone take up a chunk of your show floor for someone who might drop it eight months out. We need to know who's in and who isn't.” A representative from a convention center echoed his sentiments, adding that “if you run out of ability to sell six months out, we lose ability to sell our space for years. We need to know what you have coming.”

Another wrinkle in the wait-for-pay game is international pavilions, where the funds for the space may come from a centralized bank or the government. “It's harder with international pavilions,” said Geritz. “It's a riskier proposition, but you also can get higher rewards. We negotiate to see where we put them. If they downsize on us, we give them less space the next time.” Another way to handle it, the panel said, is to get them to agree to pay penalties. Brian Perkins, executive vice president and CEO of Diversified Business Communications, Portland, Maine, said, “We tell them they have to pay by a certain date, and if they cancel, they will owe us a cancellation fee that depends on how far out they cancel.”

How Important Is ROI?

Calanca said that show organizers are talking about ROI more these days because exhibitors are asking about it more. “As the amount they have to pay to exhibit goes up, so does the demand for ROI. We may not like it, but it's an appropriate response.” Geritz, a firm believer in ROI, said, “Exhibiting at a trade show is a form of media spend. How that pile gets divvied up at budget time is key.” Being able to give a quantitative number on trade show spending can help enormously, he said.

But is it up to the organizer to do the heavy lifting when it comes to helping exhibitors determine the ROI of the show for them? “Some larger companies do the ROI on their own, but we feel obligated to help the smaller companies determine their ROI,” Berzan said. To do that, NACS has invested in educating its exhibitors on how to determine the purpose and objective of the event, and ways to measure progress toward that objective after the show, Berzan said. An audience member mentioned that requests for attendee auditing also were on the rise from exhibitors. “Exhibitors are asking how many of these qualified buyers we say we have actually showed up.”

Whither Wi-Fi?

Wi-Fi connectivity has had a huge impact on exhibitors, said Geritz. “If they can swipe a badge and transfer the lead instantly to the West Coast rep, it helps increase lead follow-up” over what happens if it's left until after the show to sort it all out. He adds that it's important to let the exhibiting company's CEO know that your show has the technology to allow a sales rep who's not even at the show to follow up a lead from the floor.

What to Do with Outboarders

When it comes to companies piggybacking on a trade show and holding their own events nearby, Calanca was fairly serene. “Why force them to buy a booth?,” he said. “If they want access to the audience and you can't accommodate them, you're going to get outboarders. You have to be careful about price differentials: You can't have someone selling suites across the street for $5.”

Cabrera was more interested in stopping them than helping them. “We go to the flagship properties and express how we feel about it, and they're often willing to accommodate us. The sales manager and our housing person have developed that accord and work together to stop it. Now we're selling meeting rooms in the convention center to try to stop the desire to go outside.”

Berzan said, “We encourage them to take space in the hotels, and we pass that space along to them for free.” The only catch is that the company can't hold its own event during show hours. NACS also builds meeting rooms on the show floor, which exhibitors can rent from NACS during the show hours. “We sell all of them every year.”

Calanca added that once you get a customer on the show floor, if your value proposition is good, they won't want to be in a meeting space a half mile away. “If we can't get [a company to exhibit] inside the tent, we use Draconian measures to keep them from setting up outside.”

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