WE DRAGGED AN OLD PROBLEMattrition — into the new millennium, and despite everyone's best efforts, it continues to plague many medical societies. While culprits can be found on both sides of the booth, defecting exhibitors are the most frustrating for many association trade show planners because they tend to hold bigger blocks in the host hotels than attendees, making their absence painfully obvious to the bottom line.

Why are exhibitor blocks shrinking, and what can you do about it? That was a topic of much discussion at a session at this year's Healthcare Convention & Exhibitors Association annual meeting, held in June in Austin, Texas.

Where Did All the Exhibitors Go?

Many shows are finding that while booth space is still booming, fewer exhibitors are coming to the event. That's because for the exhibiting companies that used to send anyone who wanted to attend, those days are now gone, said Joann Kerns, associate director, global meeting management, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Princeton, N.J., who led the session at HCEA. BMS, which contracts sub-blocks from the host organization's block and is responsible for its own pickup, was getting hit with up to $500,000 in attrition. Something had to change.

BMS had already centralized its corporate event spend. Now that it has done the same for its congress and association side, that $500,000 attrition hit has shrunk to $10,000, she said.

The company requires everyone who might attend an exhibition to register with its Web-based internal housing system, as an individual for a U.S. operation or as a country if the department is outside the United States. Each person or country has to sign a contract with the meetings department that they will attend the exhibition — the contracts ensure that any attrition gets passed along to the individual or country, should they choose not to attend.

The result of the new system is that, instead of blocking the 1,000 people who in the past might have expressed interest in going to a particular show, BMS may only send the 250 or 300 who are willing to commit — and take the financial consequences of a no-show. “People are more cautious now and request only what they know they will use,” Kerns noted. Other pharma companies have implemented similar programs, she said.

The inevitable result is that exhibitor housing blocks are shrinking for many shows, and show organizers who don't adjust accordingly — or tell their large exhibitors to take on the attrition burden themselves — will just as inevitably feel the pinch if regular attendees don't take up the slack.

But attrition can come from other sources, such as companies that book directly with the hotel, those who are siphoned off by third-party “pirates” who glean their names from association trade show Web site exhibitor lists and offer them a better deal elsewhere, and those who simply can't justify staying within an assigned block in a hotel that's unacceptable in some way. As one attendee said, “We want to stay in the block, but we can't justify to management why we are wasting 45 minutes of our sales force's time” driving back and forth between the blocked hotel and the convention center.

Attrition Stopgap Strategies

Associations are using a variety of tactics to keep exhibitors within the block and prevent attrition problems. Some meeting planners take a hard line, penalizing those who book outside the block — a technique that can be effective. “We don't go outside the block,” said Kerns. “We don't want to have an organization threaten to shut down our booth because our German division went through a third party to get its rooms.”

But many associations try to partner with exhibitors or use incentives to keep them within the block. “We want a mix of exhibitors and attendees” in the preferred hotels, said Christine Lindmark, president, Vista Marketing, Denver, (formerly director of sales and exhibitions, Association of Operating Room Nurses), “but we just can't fit everyone into the ‘good’ hotels.” She said AORN gave exhibiting companies with priority points a certain number of rooms in the hotel, although that strategy doesn't necessarily accommodate all the exhibitors.

One attendee said she woos exhibitors back into the fold with the personal touch. “We assigned a person in our meetings department to strike up relationships with our exhibitors, especially our big ones,” she said. “We reach out to them to see if we can work something out instead of just putting them in a third-rate hotel based on the information they submitted.”

Let exhibitors know you're willing to work with them, agreed Kerns. “We will not bypass the rules. But if a hotel is unacceptable, I've called the association and they were willing to work with us. It's in their interest because [otherwise] their pickup could go down.”

Attrition Busters

Christine Lindmark, president, Vista Marketing, Denver, (formerly director of sales and exhibitions, Association of Operating Room Nurses, suggested these tactics for preventing exhibitor attrition:

  • Give priority points for each reservation made at a contracted hotel — but don't take away points if they don't book the hotel.

  • Provide three complimentary badges for each room reservation, bundled with free continental breakfast and reception. Badges alone aren't enough of a motivator, she said. “If the value isn't high, exhibitors won't take advantage of it.”

  • Educate exhibitors with articles and letters from the association's board and president about the importance of booking within the block.

  • Require exhibitors blocking more than a certain amount of rooms to sign individual contracts with hotels, including cancellation and attrition clauses they are responsible for, within your overall block. Be sure to identify these sub-blocks to the hotel so they know to credit you for their pickup.

  • Use overflow properties, but state in the hotel agreement that the rooms are being held “off market” — requested but not reserved exclusively for your group — so you are not liable for pickup.

  • Explore the possibility of extending the conference rate for exhibitors who want to stay pre- or post-meeting.

  • Make exhibitors pay for all the rooms they block, regardless of pickup.