Need to reimagine your event or improve results but your organization is stuck in the past?

Need to reimagine your event or improve results but your organization is stuck in the past?

By Karen Vogel, EAG Partner

The realization that changes are needed for your event can creep up slowly or come suddenly. New executive leadership, missed financial goals, a competitive threat, downturn in the economy or other disruptions can really rock the boat for associations. An event operation once perceived as efficient and steady can suddenly seem inflexible and reactive, making change management difficult if not impossible.

 One of the most talked about Learning Lab sessions at the August 2018 ASAE Annual Meeting & Exposition was “Walk the Talk of Change Leadership.” Change is difficult for any organization, and non-profit associations are no exception. Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, provides a great report of the session in his blog titled “Avoid the pitfalls of change management“.

Implementing any new initiative at an association is usually met with resistance. Why?  Because the path of least resistance is to maintain status quo, and no one likes to get out of their comfort zone.  The event team is already overloaded with their day-to-day responsibilities and they see change as just more work.

Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.  So, how do associations create a culture that supports change needed to reimagine an event or produce better results?  As Mr. Athitakis’ blog post points out, change management needs to happen at the top, but leaders also need to spend time considering how change plays out in middle and lower levels too.

 Along with creating a culture of change, below are some things to consider so your association can successfully make the necessary changes that can produce positive results:

  • Consider bringing in an outside event consulting firm. While often brought in to review what’s happened in the past or to create a strategic plan, consulting firms can be a catalyst for cultural change within the organization and help leadership and staff navigate the pitfalls of change management. An outside voice in the room gives rise to honest, sometimes difficult conversations that need to happen on the path to real change.
  • Make sure you have a solid plan for the new initiative or changes you are trying to implement, including the goals or financial targets, actions needed to execute, resources, timeline and metrics to measure success throughout execution.  Too often, associations try to implement ideas without a well-thought-out plan and most of the time, expectations fall short, goals are missed, and budget is wasted.
  • Think through the implications of a new initiative.  What actions do each department need to do to execute the strategy?  Develop a matrix for all actions and include the time it will take to accomplish the initiative for each staff resource.  Does your event team and other supporting departments have enough time to complete the initiative when it needs to be done based on the current event schedule and their workload?  Just adding more work without the necessary support will only discourage your team from supporting the initiative.  Getting buy-in from the staff at all levels and ensuring they have the necessary resources and support will go a long way to maximize employee satisfaction while getting everyone excited to put in the extra effort to ensure the initiative is properly executed.
  • Test and measure, test and measure, and test and measure again.  For example, if you are trying to attract an entirely new target audience to the event, don’t spend all your marketing budget right out of the gate.  Test and measure results and then adjust the messaging, target lists and creatives to continually optimize results.
  • Don’t try to do too many new initiatives at once and ensure there is plenty of time to plan and execute them.  Too often, associations try to implement several new programs or initiatives at once only to find none of them are given the attention or time needed.  Include the changes you want to make in your long-term strategic plan to allow plenty of time for planning and implementation.

Want to reimagine your event or improve results by implementing new initiatives, programs or strategies?  Make sure your organization has the proper change management process in place and the buy-in from the top down before venturing into unknown territory.  It will save a lot of time and costs and improve employee morale when you’re ready to implement changes!

Who decides when your show is a success?

A question was posted recently on a trade show forum asking readers if there is a ratio of attendees to booths that can be used to measure an event’s success.  I felt compelled to respond although I knew my answer to this person’s question was probably not what they had hoped for or expected.  Here then was my response. . .

In my opinion, there is no ratio of attendees to exhibitors that would be meaningful in any way, let alone determine your event’s “success.”  OK, perhaps you could devise a formula (or adopt someone else’s rule-of-thumb) for determining success, but it would only be your (i.e., the show organizer’s) definition of success.  But I don’t believe that’s particularly relevant or useful.  The only measurement of success that matters (again, in my opinion) is your exhibitor retention rate.  Exhibitors (at least the ones that actually care about investing their marketing dollars wisely, which these days is most of them) decide whether or not a particular show is “successful” based on how they performed against their own goals and objectives.  

Most exhibitors are looking to connect with a specific subset of attendees.  If the folks they want to meet are there, you have done your job (and by “you” I mean you and your exhibitors because it is – or at least should be – a joint effort after all).  Most exhibitors would probably be delighted if attendance was limited only to those individuals who meet that company’s own, specific qualifications.  Aisles crowded with tire-kickers and others who are not (and will not be) interested in a given exhibitor’s products or services just serve to make the “haystack” larger and the “needles” harder to find.

The Problem with Traffic Building “Games”

We, as show organizers, are the kind of people who are natural problem-solvers.  It’s in our DNA.  So, when we sense that our attendees are not spending as much time on the show floor as we feel they should (or, more likely, when exhibitors come to us to complain that traffic is light), we feel compelled to address the problem – as we should.  But before implementing a “solution,” it’s essential to first determine what exactly is happening, why it’s happening, and what behavioral changes are desired.

When we are inclined to explore traffic building options, it’s usually because we’ve concluded that our exhibitors are not getting the ROI they need to remain loyal to our event and/or we instinctively understand the importance of continually striving to add value.  The operative words here are “ROI” and “value!”  Unfortunately, many traffic building efforts only serve to exacerbate the problem they were intended to solve.

If a show organizer has provided ample time (and by that I mean a reasonable amount of exhibit hours unopposed by other programming) but attendees are still not engaging with exhibitors to the degree that they (the exhibitors) feel is adequate, no traffic building “game” is likely to improve that situation.  I’m not suggesting that it won’t drive traffic to the show floor, because it most certainly will.  It just won’t improve the “quality” of the traffic.

If someone not otherwise inclined to visit the show floor is teased to do so by the prospect of winning some sort of prize, the result will be an endless stream of folks with no interest in the exhibitors’ products or services.  Unfortunately, there’s no way to determine on sight that an individual is not a true prospect but, rather, just interested in getting a sticker.  That wouldn’t be so bad if not for the fact that so many people pretend to be interested in exhibitors’ products or services even though they are not.  I know this from personal experience, both as a show organizer and as an exhibitor. 

Our exhibitors are business people who invest in our events with the expectation of achieving certain goals and objectives.  They have finite budgets and will quickly shift funds from events that don’t deliver to those that do.  Before I would ever implement a traffic builder of any kind, I would want to fully understand what my exhibitors’ goals and objectives were for my event and then determine (with the advice and counsel of my exhibit advisory committee) what strategies can best help them be achieved.

The Challenge of Finding New Sponsors

Many associations are finding it increasingly difficult to sell sponsorships.  Beyond the “regulars” that can be counted on year after year, finding those “new” sponsors – the ones that give you a fighting chance of hitting your goal – can be a real challenge.

Yes, there are many persons/companies you can contract with to sell for you on a commission-only basis.  But I would not recommend you go that route just yet; there are a number of factors that need to be considered first.

Keep in mind that if you outsource this function and that person/company only achieves what you sold the prior year, your net proceeds will be reduced by the amount of the commission.  So it’s essential to first determine why selling sponsorships has been such a challenge.  If the problem is simply a lack of sales experience on staff and/or the time to commit to the process, the solution is to either staff-up properly or outsource.  But it’s rare that the lack of on-staff expertise is the sole problem.

With each situation being unique, there’s no one solution.   However, I feel comfortable offering up some things to consider as you work toward a decision. . .

Companies have limited marketing budgets and, therefore, tend to commit to those activities/opportunities they determine are most likely to achieve the company’s goals and objectives.  The challenge for you is to get into the heads of each of your prospective sponsors to determine what’s important to them and then create opportunities that help them achieve their goals and objectives.

This is obviously a time-consuming exercise.  But when it is completed, you’ll know your “customers” better than ever before, and be able to create opportunities that truly meet their needs.  Even if outsourcing is ultimately the right route to go, having this insight first is very important.  You’ll know what to look for in a sales partner and how to craft the terms of the agreement to meet your needs.

5 Pre-Show Marketing Strategies to Improve Exhibit ROI

5 Pre-Show Marketing Strategies to Improve Exhibit ROI

After 25 years of helping companies with their event strategies and marketing and sales plans for exhibiting or sponsoring, it still baffles me that so many companies do not have a plan before they show up at an industry trade show.  Events are one of the most expensive marketing channels, but can produce some of the best leads and brand awareness for the company if it’s done right.  Yet too often, exhibitors send their marketing and sales teams to the show without defining a clear strategy or executing pre-show marketing campaigns, leaving their team unprepared when attendees come to their booth.

Consider these exhibition industry facts:

  1. The average tradeshow attendee will visit approximately 26 exhibitors.
  2. 76% of attendees arrive with an agenda of exhibitors they plan to visit.
  3. As many as 3 out of 4 exhibit visits are preplanned.
  4. Less than 20% of exhibitors utilize targeted pre-show marketing campaigns.

(Source:  High-Impact Pre-Show Marketing, Jefferson Davis, Competitive Edge)

Your company can gain a huge competitive advantage over your competition just by developing and executing an effective pre-show marketing program to ensure the right attendees visit your booth.  Here are 5 key things to consider when developing your exhibit strategy: and pre-show campaigns.

1. Assess your exhibit strategies and results from previous years.   Doing the same thing every year and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.  Review what worked, what didn’t and brainstorm new ideas.  Think about the type of buyers that will be at the show and who you want visiting your booth.  What will draw their interest to your exhibit?  What will your sales team say when they come to your booth?  How will you capture the lead and what questions should you ask to qualify them?  What is the sales plan for lead follow up?  All of these questions and others should be answered before you get to the show so you can maximize your exhibit results.

We recently supported an RV sales and rental company that were exhibiting in a consumer RV show and did not have a strategy to capture leads from the show.  We developed an exhibit strategy and a sweepstakes campaign, “An Adventure of a Lifetime,” for a free weekend RV rental by completing an entry form with their contact information.  We recommended they exhibit at another travel event (the same weekend as the RV show), and because we knew the trade show organizer, we secured a front row position for their RV on the show floor.  Marketing materials were created that conveyed the benefits of renting an RV for the attendees’ next vacation.  The company was a big hit at both events, generating thousands of consumer leads for sales follow up and great brand awareness for the company.

2. Define your sales and enterprise goals.  Determine realistic lead and conversion goals as well as other enterprise objectives you want to achieve at the event, such as improve media awareness and editorial coverage, improve thought leadership, identify new partners, conduct competitive research, etc.  Then, develop strategies and campaigns to achieve them.

I worked with a large medical device company on their exhibit strategy for the leading trade show for surgeons.  I discovered quickly that sales and marketing were not aligned and the teams were pointing fingers at each other because of poor event ROI performance.  A meeting was called with the regional sales leaders and marketing to discuss leads and how to better qualify them.  When I asked the sales team what they considered a “qualified lead” you could hear a pin drop in the room.  The sales meeting turned into a facilitated strategy discussion and eventually, a ‘qualified lead’ was defined so marketing could better support sales by capturing critical data  from attendees needed for sales follow up.  That year, the company had their best exhibit results; generating many more highly qualified leads for sales with the right data for efficient sales follow up.

3. Develop sales messaging that demonstrates your company’s value.   Attendees hear the same thing as they pass by exhibitor booths– sales pitches about what the company does, the features of their software, or how they know they can help the attendee because they are the experts.  Make sure your sales team is prepared and trained to discuss the challenges and issues facing the attendees and how your company can solve them.  It can change the conversation into an engaging discussion versus the attendee grabbing your giveaway and quickly moving on to the next booth.

4. Be creative.  Business professionals are bombarded by sales calls and marketing campaigns all day long.  So, how can your company break through all the clutter?  Be creative and do something unique and different at the show to stand out from the crowd.  I don’t mean setting up a putting green at the booth – that can be an attendee draw to your booth, but it doesn’t get your product or solution message and value across to the attendee (unless your company is a golf equipment manufacturer).   Make sure the campaign messaging, signage, and marketing material is consistent and reinforces your company’s value.

For example, I developed an exhibit marketing program for a government contractor specializing in financial management solutions for the Department of Defense.  They were exhibiting in a military financial association trade show reaching DoD financial managers.  Instead of showing up in a booth with a capability statement like every other exhibitor at the event, we created a character called a FMja (a ninja for financial management or Financial Management Warrior).  We knew this character would resonate with our audience of military professionals.  One of the company’s financial managers was an incredible artist who created the FMja character, which I brought to life by creating the FMja persona and exhibit marketing program centered on helping DoD financial managers to improve their organization’s financial performance by achieving FMja status (much like a black belt in karate).

I develop the exhibit strategy months ahead of the event, including the lead goals and expected contract results, as well as sales messaging, booth signage, marketing materials, and a premium giveaway (microfiber cloth to clean glasses) all with the FMja theme.  Messaging included the challenges faced by DoD financial managers and demonstrated how the company could help them overcome their issues and achieve their goals of better financial performance.  I also arranged a networking happy hour with the FMja theme immediately after the first day of the show at a local landmark with views of the entire city of Seattle.   In addition, I found a ninja costume that we customized and I hired a local person to appear as the FMja at the show.   I developed pre-show campaigns to reach financial managers (emailing our prospect list and pre-registered attendees), inviting them to the booth and networking event.

Not only was the show a huge success for the company, generating tremendous traffic at our booth (sometimes two and three people deep to talk to the company’s financial management experts) and hundreds of highly qualified leads for our sales team, our company was the ‘hit’ of the show and the buzz among attendees was all about our FMja warrior and networking event.  Attendees took pictures with our FMja and he led them back to the booth to talk to our team.  We had so many attendees come to the booth asking for a ‘ticket’ to our networking event that we ran out of tickets.  We generated three times the number of expected leads, we reached capacity at the networking event, and our sales team converted over a $1M in new contracts for the company within nine months.

Use all marketing channels for your pre-show campaigns.  Make sure you use every marketing channel to promote your presence at the event, including updating your website home page and news section that you will be at the show and your campaign theme, create posts for your social media sites, develop email, print, and PR campaigns, and create booth signage and onsite programs with integrated messaging.  Campaigns should be targeted by job function and role, with effective messaging and a strong call-to-action to drive attendees to your booth.  Contact the event organizer to see if you can market to the pre-registered attendee list via email or direct mail along with your prospects.  This is a great opportunity to reach all your prospects even though they may not attend the trade show to let them know what you are doing.   Find out what publications will be there and contact them ahead of time to discuss your news and announcements.

If you follow these pre-show marketing tips, your company can have a much better exhibit ROI and convert leads to sales faster.  Stay tuned for onsite programs that can help you drive attendees to your booth, build better brand awareness, and achieve enterprise objectives.

“Grab and Go” Lunches– Driving Exhibit Hall Traffic or Just a Tease?

As show organizers, we all feel (or should feel) a tremendous responsibility for ensuring that our exhibitors receive value for the investment they make in our events.  Unfortunately, many of the strategies we employ to accomplish this not only fail but actually exacerbate the problem.

Case in point: serving food in the exhibit hall.  Sounds perfectly reasonable, right?  If attendees want to eat (and they do), serve them in the exhibit hall and, voila!, instant traffic.  True, it does provide traffic.  But does it drive business for exhibitors?  I would argue that it typically does not.  Here’s why (if none of this applies to you, congratulations; you are among the minority):

Chances are lunch is being served immediately after a session has concluded, and new sessions are scheduled to begin immediately after the lunch break.  Attendees are not only hungry, this is also likely the first opportunity they’ve had to check email, call into the office, etc.

So, how exactly does this exacerbate the problem since it does drive traffic to the hall?  Imagine you’re an exhibitor and you see hundreds (or thousands) or attendees rushing into the hall.  But instead of stopping by to visit your booth, you see them grabbing lunch and going (hence the term “Grab and Go”).  As an exhibitor it feels like a big tease!

The problems we often look to solve are of our own making.  We provide hours of open exhibit time and then run programming in competition with it.  The end result is hours of boredom with an occasional window of opportunity to get the attention of attendees who are already starved for time.

More often than not, the key to giving one’s exhibitors a quality, satisfying experience is providing a reasonable number of exhibit hours unopposed by programming of any kind (and, preferably, not during lunch or at the end of the day).  This is the time when attendees can take what they’ve learned in your sessions and engage with the many potential “partners” who are there with the products and services designed to help them turn theory into practice (and results).  In other words, create an appreciation for the fact that your exhibitors are an essential part of the education process.

What I always suggest to my clients is this:  When in doubt about a strategy or tactic, put yourself in the shoes of the person or group you are trying to help.  What are the possible unintended consequences?