Venue Change, Low-Tech Marketing Boost Annual Promo Product Event

The Promotional Products Association International in the past several years has significantly increased attendance and exhibitors at its annual exposition by changing cities, upgrading its technology tools and reversing course on its event marketing to a more old-fashioned method.

The three-day PPAI Expo, which is held every January, in 2003 moved to Las Vegas' Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino from Dallas, its previous home of 27 years. The move generated an attendance increase of 35 percent from 2002 numbers. Exhibitor numbers peaked in 2007 at 3,920 booths. The last Dallas expo had less than 3,400 booths.

"The show was suffering somewhat, being left in Dallas, so it was hard to generate some new excitement," said PPAI director of expositions and meetings Darel Cook. "The move to Vegas allowed us to make some significant changes to how we allowed non-members to attend the show as well. In the past, they could, but they had to pay a pretty significant amount."

Las Vegas was chosen after a site evaluation process found that because of the event's size—it required about 1 million square feet of event space—only about a half-dozen other American cities could handle the show. Attendance at the show averages about 25,000 people. This year, the show had 12,000 nonexhibitor attendees, down from a high of 14,000 in 2007. The association has 7,800 company members.

Large cold-weather cities, such as Chicago, were not suitable for the expo's January dates, Cook said. Las Vegas hotel sizes also gave the opportunity for the show to stay out of a convention center. "The advantage of being in a set location for consecutive years, and our desire is to be at Mandalay Bay for many years to come, is that you don't have to sell the site or city," Cook said. "You can focus solely on the event itself. What we are very diligent about is making sure that there is a significant upgrade or an added element every single year."

Such upgrades include the implementation of online registration technology, onsite badge scanning and an online pre-show scheduling tool. This year, the association began using text messaging to provide news and information updates.

PPAI also developed its own event management technology. In 2007, it implemented an in-house exhibitor/attendee matchmaking appointment and planning tool. Prior to the show, the system gives registrants product and booth information and access to exhibitors so appointments can be made.

PPAI's matchmaking tool was developed internally because of the methodology of third party products. "They tend to work on justifying to the supplier how many potential attendees are going to be at the show and ensuring that they can match them up in terms of being able to make appointments," Cook said. "A lot of that on the front end is justifying the reasons to go."

Use of the tool has steadily grown since its launch. In 2008, more than 70 percent of attendees logged on. For the 2009 event, 85 percent logged on, and 30 percent to 40 percent did detailed planning, such as product research and building calendars, Cook said.

While PPAI now uses social networking sites and Twitter to market the expo, two years ago the association went back to telemarketing campaigns instead of some technology-based communication channels. "We find now that in this day and age, when service is so important, that a phone call gets us a lot further along than an e-mail or a direct mail piece," Cook said.

The Irving, Texas-based PPAI has a staff of 12 meeting planners who manage 15 annual meetings and events, according to Cook. Freeman is the association's general event services provider. Ambassadors International handles housing management and provides the automated registration, online member interaction and data tools.

Originally published Oct. 19, 2009