Anytime you can speak to customers, whether individually or as a group, you want to take advantage of it. With the (increasingly rare) exception of companies exhibiting at and/or sponsoring your events solely for the purpose of “supporting” your association, the decision to do business with you is just that – a business decision. The number of opportunities a given company is presented with each year is, typically, greater than their finite marketing budget can accommodate. So, tough decisions must be made as to where to invest those precious dollars. You are in a competition, and your success hinges on your ability to show why exhibiting at and/or becoming a sponsor of your event is an essential part of their overall marketing strategy.
You want to walk away from this focus group meeting with an understanding of the marketplace from your exhibitors’ and sponsors’ perspective. What are their goals and objectives? What challenges are they facing? Who do they need to reach with their marketing? How well does your attendance match up with their target audience? What role does your event currently play in achieving their goals and/or overcoming those challenges? And here’s the key one: what changes could you (reasonably) implement that would make your event essential to their marketing strategy? (The responses you get to this question should also give you insights into what you could do to drive even more of their marketing budget to your event.)
Finally, I would urge you to broaden the participation in your focus group. Current exhibitors and sponsors will give you great feedback. But you won’t get the full picture unless you also include past and prospective exhibitors/sponsors. When a company tells you why they don’t participate, they’re simultaneously telling you what it would take to make them a customer. (If you’re concerned that current exhibitors/sponsors might be adversely affected by the comments made by past/prospective companies, it’s fine to hold two separate focus groups.)