How to Drive ROI for Event Exhibitors and Sponsors

Keyhole money

Are exhibitor and sponsorship revenues declining at your event? While contributing factors could be blamed on declining attendance, industry consolidation, industry regulation, competition, budget cuts, irrelevant event content, or poor venue selection, the best way to find out why exhibitors and sponsors are turning down your event is simply to ask them. Don't be surprised if this is their answer: ROI (return on investment).

In my experience, ROI is one of the top three reasons given for cutting back on exhibit or sponsorship spending. Exhibitors and sponsors want more leads, more customers, and more tangible benefits. Over the years, my team and I have developed a four-step approach to improving ROI for our sponsors and exhibitors.

1. Determine how each exhibitor/sponsor defines ROI.
 The root of any ROI issue is context. Understanding how exhibitors and sponsors measure value is critical to engaging them in your event. However, not all exhibitors and sponsors measure it the same way. You must tackle this issue on a case-by-case basis.

For instance, when an exhibitor says "not enough leads," when citing the reason for poor ROI, you should seek more context. How does the exhibitor define a lead? For some, it is a name and contact information. For others, it is a qualified opportunity to sell a specific product or service. Drilling down further is necessary for discovering the real math behind the exhibitor or sponsor ROI.

2. Develop an exhibitor/sponsor engagement wish list.
 Once we understand what exhibitors and sponsors require to achieve their ROI target, we can consolidate this information and develop an exhibit/sponsor wish list of engagement opportunities that will help drive higher ROI by addressing the exhibitor/sponsor components in their ROI calculation.

3. Research your audience and share the information. The two primary stakeholders of an event are the exhibitor/sponsor and the audience/attendee, and they are inextricably linked to the success of the event. One without the other is an unsustainable model. This is why the solution for driving higher ROI is in the deep knowledge and understanding of the needs of both stakeholders.  

To better understand your audience, create complete and robust demographics. Find out why attendees come, what they do when they're at the event, and what they do when they leave and return to their offices.

This information should be analyzed and compared against the wish list of engagement opportunities. The sales team and event managers can craft unique experiences throughout the event that match what the audience needs while simultaneously delivering some or all of the engagement opportunities on the exhibitor/sponsor wish list.

4. Offer unique solutions with engagement opportunities that contain quantifiable ROI benefits.
 One trend I've seen in the marketplace is that exhibitors and sponsors want more face-to-face interaction with attendees. Speaking, networking, education, product briefings -- the list of potential engagement opportunities is endless for the creative events manager.

One solution that has worked for my team is to make the event look like "a genius bar," where exhibitors and sponsors rotate through shifts and provide subject-matter expertise on current trends within the industry. Offer a new-product pavilion, where new technologies can be showcased in a mini-theater format. Feature a best-of-the-best competition inviting exhibitors and sponsors to compete against attendees. Provide a networking lounge or a marketplace to transact business. There are so many potential engagement opportunities when you have the right background information to begin with.

One of our client organizations saw a reduction in exhibitor and sponsor spending because of low ROI. Upon investigation, it was determined that attendees' engagement and registration numbers had been declining. It was creating an imbalance in the exhibitor/sponsor-to-attendee ratio.

Recognizing that attendance would not change for the following year, we set out to understand the needs of the exhibitors and sponsors and learn how they were calculating ROI. It turns out they needed a lower exhibitor/sponsor-to-attendee ratio to conduct quality conversations during the exhibit-hall hours.

We worked with our event services team to design a floor layout with exclusive areas, and then we increased the price for those who valued exclusive audience access on the exhibit floor. Net revenue to the organization was targeted to grow slightly, and ROI for exhibitors and sponsors was targeted to improve year over year using our assumptions and detailed knowledge of the exhibitor/sponsor ROI calculation.

From the start of the event sales cycle to the last results letter, your sales team should be responsible for understanding ROI for each exhibitor or sponsor prospect. Armed with thorough research of the audience, industry, event, and prospectus, the sales team can execute a near-flawless qualification of the prospect. By proactively addressing ROI during qualification of a prospect, exhibitors and sponsors will spend more at your event, allowing you to focus on delivering a great audience experience and making the event successful for everyone involved.

Tom Myers is vice president of sales services at SmithBucklin, an association management and services company. He is responsible for leading a dynamic sales force that is accountable for growing client organization revenue through the sale of sponsorships, exhibits, advertising, Web properties, and other association assets. His team works to develop new and innovative opportunities in order to establish deeper relationships with the sponsoring companies of SmithBucklin's client organizations, while also creating systems to enhance current exhibit and sponsorship efforts.

This article appears in the November 2014 issue of Successful Meetings.