As companies cut back on marketing budgets in these still uncertain economic times, marketers face increasing pressure to justify their investment in exhibitions as well as other vehicles, explained a panel of experts at the Exhibition and Convention Executives Forum, May 30 in Washington, D.C. The session, “The Value of Face-to-Face Marketing,” was streamed live to an online audience, a first for ECEF.

Panelist Bob Liodice, president and CEO at the Association of National Advertisers, New York, cited a survey by his organization that found that 34 percent of members have seen their marketing budgets decrease this year, up from 29 percent in 2011. Meanwhile, just 17 percent have had an increase in 2012, down from 22 percent last year. While budgets are more conservative overall, marketers are putting more money into areas that are generating higher returns. “CEOs are requiring organizations to prove the impact of their spending decisions,” says Liodice. Consequently, that is increasing the focus at companies on measurement and return on investment of marketing spend. “If you can’t do it, CEOs and CFOs are having no trouble taking the axe to it.”

Panelist Janet Johnson, CMP, manager, events marketing, trade shows, meetings and events, at BASF, Florham Park, N.J., said her budgets have been flat, but her company is increasing the number of exhibitions it participates in. While overall attendance may be down at the shows they go to, Johnson said the quality of attendees is much higher and their booths are usually filled.

Moderator Glenn Hansen, president and CEO, BPA Worldwide, a Shelton, Conn.,–based media auditing company, said his company considers four metrics when deciding whether or not to exhibit at an event. They look at the sales impact, whether the event creates thought leadership opportunities for the company, the promotional impact, and the cost avoidance of exhibiting compared to other vehicles. “Every time our organization sponsors or exhibits, we have to go through this justification process,” said Hansen. Marketers also have to tell executives who the influential audience is, what the persuasive message will be, and what is the expected deliverable. When the event is over, marketers have to submit a report on how the experience delivered against those four metrics.

In a poll taken during the session, 53 percent of on-site attendees said they did not inform exhibitors of the costs they will avoid by exhibiting compared to other forms of marketing. This is an important point to communicate to exhibitors, said BASF’s Johnson. “Tell me where I’m saving money,” she said. “That’s what we are being asked.”

The good news for the exhibition industry is that it is growing, said panelist Claudia Flowers, vice president of revenue initiatives at the Association of Business Information and Media Cos., New York. Revenues from business-to-business events was up 2 percent in 2011 to $10.5 billion, she said. Also, member companies report that events generate 28.1 percent of the revenue pie, up from 26.7 percent the previous year. One of the biggest threats her members are seeing is from companies doing their own private events. Another threat is related to the cumbersome visa process in some growing economies, like China, Brazil, and India, that is discouraging international participation in U.S. events.