The Show Must Go On

The strong economy of last year has abruptly given way to diminished travel, fewer meetings, and ultimately, less revenue in almost every industry. In the field of exhibitions, industry experts see this slowdown as an opportunity for a renaissance, a time for building, beginning with the relationships that make shows strong over time. Following are three ways to turn good service into better shows.

Keeping a Lid on Costs

An exhibitor has to take into consideration not only booth expenses, but the cost of transportation, accommodations, and meals too. A show producer's emphasis then, says Michael Hough, consultant and author of The Profitable Trade Show, should be on reducing the overall price tag. "Twenty percent of an exhibitor's total cost is renting the space," he says, "while the other eighty percent comes from moving in, labor, airfare of the booth staff, et cetera. Smart show managers are saying, 'How can I help them reduce costs?' "

As the coordinator bringing perhaps thousands of visitors to a city, show managers are in prime position to negotiate with local suppliers to get group discounts and package deals. Since everyone is feeling the pinch, negotiation is likely to meet less resistance now.

Trade show producers are strengthening sales relationships by other means, too. "Affordability has always been an issue," says Jim Vuko, vice president of Bethesda, Maryland-based International Conference Management. "But in this political and economic climate, potential exhibitors are more cautious. They're shopping harder and want a fast return on investment."

That doesn't necessarily mean you should start slashing booth rates, however. "It cheapens the value of a show," says Wayne Dunham, owner of Dunham Communications, a trade show consulting company in Lisle, Illinois. Instead, use economic incentives for those who sign up early, or who buy multiple booths.

Quality Over Quantity

Show managers shouldn't rely just on increasing attendance. "The things I ask when considering exhibiting at a trade show are: What kinds of warm bodies are going to be there? And are they qualified?" says Vuko.

Developers of the best-targeted shows have narrowed the focus of their events. It's a matter of knowing their exhibitors' market extremely well, and then providing appropriate incentives.

For example, if there are 304 people who buy 10,000 widgets a year -- the power buyers -- and you can promise to have 122 of those at your show, the value of exhibiting goes up greatly. How would you get those 122 people at the show? Hough's solution: "Bribe them." Give them free airfare, a free train ticket, or discount coupons at area hotels and eateries. "Exhibitors are looking for those power buyers to come," he says.

Others, however, caution against getting too gimmicky. "We don't do giveaways to London or Paris," says Dunham. "The show needs to stand on its own." Incentives his shows use include receptions where buyers can mingle and network in a more relaxed atmosphere, roundtable discussions of issues, and opportunities to learn about new products and ways to save money.

Ear to the Ground

When business is so good that you can turn away customers, you tend to forget customer service. These days, however, experts say they are seeing a paradigm shift. "This industry is finally waking up to the fact that it's not business as usual," says David Larkin, CEO of The Trade Show News Network. Over recent years, "The number of trade shows increased geometrically," he says, with a concomitant decrease in service.

Well-established shows are in a good position to ride out the rough times. Newcomers, though, will have to work extra hard to find success. To stay in the game, they'll have to focus on relationship-building and selling service.

Larkin says that the two primary assets of show organizers -- lists of qualified buyers and lists of qualified sellers -- are only part of the picture. Also to be considered is the goodwill they generate as marketers.

To break out of usual selling mode, "You have to get in front of as many people in a year as you can, then multiply that in subsequent years," says Tom Corcoran, president of Chicago-based Corcoran Expositions and president of Corcoran/Conferon Expositions in Twinsburg, Ohio. Talk to groups, send out newsletters to friends and colleagues, but most importantly, maintain relationships with people. You want to be the one they think of when they need someone. "Then you have to get in there and bust down some walls for them," he says.

For some show managers, this protracted approach may be unfamiliar. Start by posing a few simple questions for potential exhibitors. "Talk to them individually," says Hough. "Ask them what they need, who they want to see at the show, and what kind of outcome they want."

According to Corcoran, trade shows are like political campaigning. To get a new company to say yes can take between six and eight contacts, he says. Plan for it, staff for it, and realize it will take some time.