Associations may not be getting the backlash corporations are for their meetings these days, but that doesn't mean everything's rosy. Especially on the show floor where, according to a recent report by the Trade Show Exhibitors Association, exhibiting budgets and the number of shows companies plan to attend are expected to decline 17 percent in 2009.

So it's not surprising to hear that, like so many other companies, Advanced Micro Devices is exhibiting less.

You could blame the economy, which is chiseling away at many corporate marketing budgets and forcing exhibitors to cut back on the number of shows where they buy a booth. AMD, which specializes in computing and graphic solutions for business, is among those who are a lot choosier with their trade show choices these days, says Allen Reichard, corporate director, integrated marketing communications, events at AMD.

The shows that end up getting its booth bucks are the ones that understand that it's no longer about just showing off products — “people can get more information about any product they want on the Internet than they can by talking to someone at a trade show,” he says. Now, exhibiting for AMD — and much of corporate America — is about creating experiences and developing brand preference. As Karen Jensen, senior marketing manager at Leggett & Platt Storage Products Group, Chicago, says, “Our main concern is return on investment — what we are getting out of the show.”

Because exhibits account for, on average, about two-thirds of association meeting revenues, you can't afford for your exhibitors to drop out for lack of good ROI. But how can you give exhibitors what they want? Hint: It likely will take more than a 10-foot-by-10-foot concrete slab. But it can be done.

It's All About Branding

First, take heart: Most exhibitors aren't ready to toss trade shows out of their marketing mix altogether. “Creating preference only happens face-to-face, it doesn't happen virtually,” says Reichard, because people can relate to a brand better when they can feel or experience it. But AMD no longer exhibits at a set number of shows per year as it did in the past. Now, the decision to exhibit is closely tied to product launches and corporate marketing campaigns.

And it's not just AMD that's moving in this direction, says Reichard. It was a telling sign of the times when Apple announced this past January that it would no longer be exhibiting at its own show, MacWorld Expo.

Companies like AMD need new ways to showcase themselves, produce experiences, and create customer preference through trade shows, he says. “Show management has to start realizing that this is not about selling physical space anymore; this is not about providing promotional space for signage anymore; this is not about having large attendance numbers,” he says.

Get Relevant

So what do exhibitors want? An environment that's more conducive to what they're trying to do and deliver, says Reichard. “Can you create promotional opportunities that are more relevant to the audience?”

“We live in a time when people are numb to advertisements — we need to be offered new ways of getting our name and message out there,” says Kelsy Van Camp, marketing communications assistant at Building Owners & Managers Institute International, Annapolis, Md. “While sponsoring a coffee station will never go out of style, why not offer sponsorship opportunity in the Starbucks located in the attendees' hotel?” adds Van Camp, a trade show exhibitor.

“Alternatives to the high cost of exhibiting on a trade show floor,” is what Emil Mellow, visual merchandising and trade show director at Armstrong World Industries. Lancaster, Pa., would like to see: areas where perhaps they could do focused presentations.

When exhibitors tell you what they want, associations must listen, says Steven Hacker, president and chief executive officer at the International Association of Exhibitions and Events, Dallas. Show managers should visit key exhibitors to assess their circumstances and objectives and customize a solution.

For example, most associations have electronic news outlets and print magazines. Why not create a package that combines e-media, print media, and face-to-face media? asks Glenn Hansen, president and CEO, BPA Worldwide, Shelton, Conn. Or create a social media platform or virtual trade show or Web page and tie the live event to a virtual presence. This extends the life of the show, gives exhibitors exposure before and after the event, and helps people move from awareness to preference, says Reichard.

Hacker suggests that you could give exhibitors a presence at other meetings and webinars throughout the year — maybe at a smaller conference where they can demonstrate their products. Or give them the opportunity to do a “product theater” where they can pay to make an hour-long presentation on stage. If they are looking to reach a certain demographic, say women under 40, offer sponsorship opportunities at a Future Leaders program. “People are not thinking that way yet. They are thinking within the confines of that 10-foot-by-10-foot foot pipe-and-drape booth,” says Hacker.

Let Them Go Clubbing

Convention planners at NAMM, the International Music Products Association, are offering exhibitors some alternative ways to participate that don't necessarily require space in increments of 100 square feet, says Kevin Johnstone, director of trade shows at the Carlsbad, Calif.-based organization.

Two years ago, based on feedback from exhibitors who were looking for additional opportunities, NAMM added some new twists to its summer conference, which is held in Nashville every year. First, they converted a ballroom into an area called “the club.” The club is designed as a lounge for exhibitors, with comfortable seating areas and spaces for private meetings with clients. There are no desks or tables, just couches and chairs on the main floor, but they do have private conference rooms for one-on-one meetings.

It's an alternative to the hustle and bustle of the trade show, explains Johnstone. All exhibitors have access to the club, but NAMM also sells space to exhibitors who, for whatever reason, don't want to buy space on the exhibit floor. Exhibitors can meet with clients, show a limited amount of products, conduct demonstrations (on a limited (basis), or display a prototype — all in a comfortable, relaxed setting. “Rather than have them suitcase or outboard on us, we basically legitimize their ability to conduct business on the show floor,” says Johnstone. It's been embraced by exhibitors. “We didn't have a bunch of exhibitors cancel to do this, but we did have a number of companies that weren't exhibiting sign up for this,” he says. The club is open to all registered buyer attendees and registered exhibitors.

While NAMM staff came up with the club concept, it was driven by feedback from exhibitors who wanted more options.

Become a Traffic Cop

When Deidre Ross listened to her American Library Association exhibitors, the main complaint was that there was not enough traffic on the exhibit floor. In reality, there was plenty of traffic. “We had 25,000 people at the show and three-quarters of them were on the exhibit floor,” says Ross, director, conference services at the Chicago-based organization. But if an individual exhibitor is not seeing enough activity at their booth, they may perceive a traffic problem anyway.

How do you battle a perception? Ross hired a company called EthnoMetrics to monitor its Winter Conference, held in January. The company videotapes trade show traffic, analyzes it to find solutions to improve overall traffic flow, and provides training sessions to help individual exhibitors get more visitors. These training sessions can be key: ALA exhibitors who took the courses reported a 31 percent increase in leads generated and an 81 percent increase in sales.

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To improve the flow of attendees, the company sets up cameras around the hall to record and determine where the hot and cold spots are.

“We do a ‘dwell count’ of how many people are in each part of the hall at each hour of the entire show, so you can see what the traffic patterns are,” says Dave Fellers, president at EthnoMetrics, Stevensville, Mich., and a former client of the company during his days as the executive director at the Radiological Society of North America, based in Oak Brook, Ill.

Main Street and Pavilions

Once they looked at the video evidence, EthnoMetrics recommended ways to change ALA's exhibit floor to improve flow.

One thing they did was create a “Main Street,” one or two extra-wide aisles that go down the middle of the floor. Many exhibitors want to be on Main Street because of the foot traffic, but beyond that, it allows more people to move to other parts of the hall. This is key for many associations, says Fellers. “Once we widen the drive aisles, all of a sudden the traffic in the back is as good as in the front and there are not as many cold spots as you would have had in the past.”

They also added pavilions to cluster booths into common interest areas. For example, they have a graphic novel pavilion where all the graphic novel booths are located, an international pavilion for international exhibitors, and a gaming pavilion for companies that serve that area. It helps attendees find what they are looking for as well as create hot spots throughout the hall, says Ross.

Some of these pavilions were placed in the back of the hall to draw in traffic. They also put a stage in the back for a promotion called “Live at the Library,” which is a place where authors and writers read their work. It was a big draw.

Having these types of attractions in the hall is critical, concurs Johnstone. “You have to concentrate less on the trade and more on the show,” he says. At NAMM, they try to make it more like a fraternal gathering than a trade show. “An experience you'd be hard pressed to skip.” To create that atmosphere, they fill the convention center and hotel lobbies with live music played on various stages. The performances aren't sponsored; they are simply there for the enjoyment of visitors. They serve as gathering places where people can listen to music and have a beverage as they move about the hall. Planners find that people hang around the hall longer because they want to see what's next. “It's like a party,” says Johnstone.

Also, the exhibitors do a lot of clinics and demonstrations in their booths, some even have small stages, so there is activity and music everywhere. Ultimately, it's a great atmosphere for business. Despite the recession, exhibit revenues were down just 3 percent for January's annual meeting and exhibitors were satisfied.

Overall, Ross was very pleased with the results. Attendance was down from the previous year at about 10,000, but “Even though we had fewer people, exhibitors were ecstatic.” It showed exhibitors that, just because attendance is down doesn't mean the show will be a bust. ALA plans to use the company again for the annual meeting in June.

“Right now, the exhibitors are saying, ‘Why should I come? It's going to be a down year, I'll take a year off,’” says Fellers. “But if they know that you are doing something to help the show and help them in their future, it makes them much more interested in participating.”

Get Competitive With Costs

So what else do exhibitors want? “All of us are being pressured by our customers to be more competitive with costs. It would be nice if exhibit organizers could help by not increasing their costs and, if possible, even show some signs of reducing costs,” says Drew De Grado, director of marketing communications at Topcon Medical Systems, Paramus, N.J.

That's a message that leadership at the International Carwash Association heard loud and clear last year. For ICA's 2008 annual meeting, Car Care World Expo, they offered exhibitors an economic stimulus package to help them through tough times. It came at a time when gas prices were $4 per gallon and the automobile industry was hurting, so association leaders wanted to reach out to exhibitors to find out how they could help, explains Dave Weil, senior director, convention and trade show services at SmithBucklin, which manages ICA.

So, they did three things. First, they surveyed exhibitors about industry trends and challenges, as well as their thoughts on the expo. “We uncovered that there was a lot of angst out there in the industry — a lot of challenges and a lot of questions about our show,” says Weil. Some exhibitors were talking about downsizing their booths because of the economic pressures they were under.

Economic Stimulus, Exhibit-Style

The research led to an economic stimulus package that ICA rolled out at the convention. To keep exhibitors from downsizing or canceling in 2009, they offered a 20 percent discount on rates if they kept the same booth size and booked on-site at the 2008 meeting. The result? They had 163 exhibitors take the offer while only 37 downsized. Interestingly, they had 77 upgrade to a larger booth, essentially paying the same as last year for more space. It helped because they were expecting twice as many to downsize. It wasn't so much about boosting revenues as it was about but helping out exhibitors and building a deeper relationship with them. “There are a lot of choices for them out there and the pie was getting smaller for them so we wanted to make sure that our slice of the pie remained the same,” says Weil.

Like ALA, ICA offered an exhibitor-training webinar. “You can't just sell them a booth and say, ‘OK, make it work.’ You have to take ownership and help them achieve their ROI,” says Weil.

Through the survey they found exhibitors were getting leads, but they were having trouble with engagement — that is, turning those leads into business. So the webinar was created to advise them on selling in a trade show environment, how to staff booths and interact with attendees, and how to measure ROI. One hundred companies participated in the free webinar and the association plans to make it an ongoing program.

The old saying, “Build it and they will come” doesn't always work, he says. “You have to work a little harder.”

Sidebar #1: Exhibitor Feedback

Exhibitors, responding to a query through the Trade Show Exhibitors Association, Chicago, relayed their main concerns around exhibiting these days. Their responses included the number of quality leads they obtained, their return on investment, getting additional opportunities or packages, and the need for more information on attendee demographics. “Are we reaching the right decision-makers at events?” wrote one respondent.

“The quality of leads is always more important than quantity or traffic count,” says Michael Hatch, senior vice president of marketing and sales at a2z Inc., Columbia, Md. The company has eliminated a couple of shows this year because of poor performance last year, before the downturn. “New or year-round opportunities like virtual trade shows that complement live shows are will prompt us to choose one show over another.”

Patricia Sanders, director, marketing and communications at DRS Technologies, Herndon, Va., says her greatest exhibiting concerns were “More transparency of attendee profiles and lower space costs.”

Sidebar #2: Tips for Exhibitors

As part of the package, EthnoMetrics, Stevensville, Mich,, offers training programs full of pointers on how to interact with and engage attendees, and also some general ideas about how booth design and layout can attract — and repel — visitors.

Some tips you can pass on to your exhibitors:

  1. Having a different color carpet in the booth than in the aisle can serve as a barrier. “We strongly advise using the same color carpet [in a booth] as the aisle carpet,” says Dave Fellers, president at EthnoMetrics.

  2. One of the major flaws in exhibit design and layout is to have equipment, tables, or walls limiting access to the booth. It is important to have an open design that allows flow into the exhibit and to make sure that sales staff are able to interact with attendees without blocking access to the booth.

  3. Video measurement of an exhibit is a motivating factor for the booth staff. “We see a remarkable increase in the sales effort and productivity when staff know they are on camera,” says Fellers.