Trade Up Your Tradeshow Model

By: Nancy Mann Jackson

Looking for the next big thing in tradeshows? It may be closer than you think. Associations that have found success with new and different tradeshow models share what they’re doing and how it works for them.

Have you taken your tradeshow's temperature lately? Take a look at your expo floor. Would you say business is red hot, tepid, or cooling fast?

"With the economic changes going on for the past few years, so many associations are suffering, and they have to care for the annual meeting because it's such an important part of their health," says John Parke, CMP, president and CEO of Leadership Synergies, LLC, which assists associations in sales performance and process improvement. "The annual meeting, especially the tradeshow, has to work. And many are scrambling to make sure it works."

While some may be scrambling, other associations are soaring, with new tradeshow formats that fit their audiences and their organizations. Some have made slow changes; others have drastically transformed their shows. And some have years of experience with the "new" formats that other associations are just now discovering.

Hosted-Buyer Programs

Twenty years ago, Ray Bloom pioneered the concept of the hosted-buyer conference at the International Association of Professional Congress Organizers in Geneva. His goal was to ensure that the buyers at the show were highly qualified and motivated to be there, so he implemented a qualification process and paid qualified buyers' expenses to attend. Two decades later, Bloom is chairman of IMEX, an international exhibition for incentive travel and meetings, where he continues to use the hosted-buyer format with powerful results.

"Our role is, like any tradeshow organizer, to encourage the attendance of buyers to the show," Bloom says. "The difference is getting a commitment from very qualified buyers."

For instance, at IMEX 2009 in Frankfurt, 3,500 hosted buyers made almost 50,000 appointments with exhibitors in advance of the show. Also at the show were 5,000 nonhosted buyers; as a group, they only registered for 1,500 appointments with exhibitors.

While the hosted-buyer format has worked successfully in Europe for years, it's only recently begun to gain ground in North America. In 2005, after finding "general dissatisfaction with the traditional format" among its vendors, buyers, and show managers, the Independent College Bookstore Association offered a modified hosted-buyer event, with one day of the traditional tradeshow and another day of "PRIMETime," which included preset appointments among buyers and sellers. By 2008, it became clear that the hosted-buyer format was preferable to vendors and buyers alike, and ICBA overhauled its show to become a hosted-buyer event.

Today, the show attracts 150 buyers and 75 to 80 vendors. About 75 percent of the buyers are hosted, meaning ICBA pays for their airfare, ground transportation, food and beverage, and meeting registration. While paying for buyers to come represents a new expense, ICBA Executive Director Stacy Waymire says it's actually less expensive than paying for the overhead expenses associated with a full-scale tradeshow.

Before experimenting with a new model, Waymire says, associations should "talk with key vendors and buyers, discover the weakness of your existing events, strategize solutions for those weaknesses. And accept that solutions will be completely different, not just a little bit different." ICBA conducted a validation process with key vendors and members before recasting its show. "Any significant change requires buy-in from your stakeholders to succeed," says Waymire.

ICBA completely replaced its traditional show with a hosted-buyer show, but that's not the only option available. In January, the Trade Show Exhibitors Association launched Face-to-Face Connections, a hosted-buyer event to augment its standard tradeshow.

"Our members had asked for an alternative because they can't always make it to the main expo," says Dave Brull, TSEA's vice president of marketing and membership. "This was a great way for them to evaluate multiple vendors in a quick, easy format."

Rather than holding one large hosted-buyer program, TSEA plans to hold three smaller hosted-buyer events each year, limiting the number of buyers to about 25 to encourage deeper relationship growth. While many of the vendors will remain the same, "the guests will always change, because different people have different buying cycles," Brull says.

For TSEA, determining a fair price point for exhibitors that would be profitable for the association was a sticky issue. "As an association for tradeshow exhibitors, we are a strong advocate for exhibitor rights, so we have to be just as considerate of exhibitors as we advocate others to be," Brull says. "You want to make sure the host is just as happy at the end of the event as the hosted buyer is." The association settled on $9,995 per host and scheduled Face-to-Face Connections events in second-tier cities to keep costs down.

Appointment Shows

Get Ready for Tradeshow 2020

Are these new tradeshow formats built to last? A new study on the future of meetings, Convention 2020, may provide some hints.

"The demand for live events is expected to hold strong out to 2020, but to attract customers will require significant innovation in meeting formats, business models, organizational capability, and the use of technology," says Martin Sirk, CEO of the International Congress and Convention Association, a founding sponsor of the study, which involved 1,125 participants from 76 countries.

Some of the changes most expected by Convention 2020 respondents include:

Demand for meetings. While 74 percent of respondents thought their organizations would maintain their investments in live events in 2020, 46 percent said time and cost pressures might deter them from sending delegates and 59 percent said their organizations would be investing far more in alternatives to live events.

Supply of meetings. Almost half (49 percent) said there would be fewer but larger events in 2020, while 79 percent expect a growth in smaller, more specialized meetings and 48 percent thought there would be an explosion in the number of free or very-low-cost, evening-only meetings.

Personalization. Seventy-nine percent of respondents expect a totally personalized technology experience, and 70 percent felt this individual customization would extend to areas such as food and seating. Ninety-three percent believe that technology in 2020 will enable capture and analysis of every activity, presentation, and conversation.

While hosted-buyer shows usually include preshow appointment setting, not all appointment shows (also known as "speed meetings," with a nod to speed dating) include hosted buyers. The American Bus Association has held an appointment show rather than a tradeshow for more than 15 years, and organizers say interest in their model has skyrocketed recently.

"I get calls all the time from people looking for more ROI for their attendees," says Lynn Brewer, ABA's senior vice president of meetings, education, and member services. "When attendees and exhibitors come to our show, they know they'll get to meet face to face with a certain number of people."

At ABA, buyers have 174 seven-minute appointments available, and each seller can have up to 58 appointments. While ABA has offered some sort of appointment system since the show began, the feature has "really caught on" in recent years, Brewer says, especially with the addition of a high-tech appointment-setting system. Each person receives a schedule of his or her appointments before the meeting begins.

Before implementing an appointment show, Brewer says, "know your market, know who your buyers and sellers are and whether they will do the research and make a one-on-one relationship. If they just want to hand out brochures, it probably won't work."

For the Health Industry Distributors Association, which added an appointment show to its traditional tradeshow in 2008, the format was a perfect fit because "our members and exhibitors told us they are looking to deepen existing relationships at our show as opposed to finding new relationships," says Matt Rowan, HIDA's executive director. "The 'seller-looking-for-buyers' value from our tradeshow had diminished."

The HIDA model includes 20-minute meetings in a reverse tradeshow format where buyers sit at tables and teams from selling companies circulate. Prior to the event, HIDA's scheduling software matches buyers and sellers who want to meet with each other. Last year, HIDA hosted 2,000 meetings between 120 companies in four hours and was able to meet 90 percent of meeting requests by buyers and sellers.

"We're finding the value is increasing each year as participating companies are coming in better and better prepared," Rowan says. "This event ends and spills out onto our tradeshow floor to create a surge at the expo opening and an opportunity to continue unfinished meetings."

Show-Floor Meeting Rooms

Because its exhibitors were notorious for scheduling offsite, private meetings with buyers during tradeshow hours, the United Fresh Produce Association decided to offer its own private meeting rooms right on the show floor. Last year, UFPA rolled out its private business suites, available for the same price as booth space, and 13 companies purchased rooms in addition to or instead of traditional booth space. The private rooms represented 10,000 square feet of the 75,000-square-foot show and served as ideal meeting places for exhibitors and customers. In 2010, UFPA plans to sell 25 onsite meeting rooms.

"At tradeshows, there's a lot of activity that takes place in hospitality suites, and a lot of people hold meetings and product reviews during the day when the tradeshow is going on," says John Toner, UFPA's vice president of convention and industry relations. "If you're showing a new product to [an important customer], you don't necessarily want to do that on the show floor; you want to do it in private." Organizers decided that offering private space on the show floor would be an easy way to meet the needs of both buyers and sellers, while keeping them all onsite.

Selling that space at the right price was also key. Companies pay $29 per square foot for a private meeting room throughout the three days of the show. For most, that fee is less expensive than a private offsite hotel suite or other meeting room would be. "We're really promoting the meeting suites as a cost-effective way to do business," Toner says. "The cost to the exhibitor is the same, whether you're there on the show floor or if you're doing meetings." And for buyers, the onsite suites allow for more efficient use of time.

Booth Packages

HIDA is also finding ways to increase revenue while cutting costs for exhibitors.

After fielding complaints from exhibitors about the total costs of exhibiting at the show, HIDA leaders crunched some numbers and found that "80 percent of [exhibitors'] expenses were outside of our control," Rowan says. "Some of our exhibitors opened their books to us, and we found that we got 20 cents of each dollar, while 80 cents was going to logistics, shipping, and setup. Today, we are working with our largest exhibitors to remove the cost of booth logistics and share in the savings."

HIDA began offering "Power Packages" to select exhibitors, allowing them a prime booth location and a variety of booth configuration choices. Each exhibitor controls their booth's graphics and presentation, while HIDA builds a customized booth the exhibitor won't need to ship or assemble. Incentives are available for exhibitors who include a 10-by-10 meeting room inside their booths.

For 2010, 11 of HIDA's largest exhibitors are participating, and each is saving at least 15 percent on their total booth expense while gaining booth square footage and a meeting area inside the booth. And "HIDA's bottom line increased substantially," Rowan says.

Virtual/Live Hybrid Events

As virtual events become increasingly popular associations are taking a more serious look at the possibilities for tradeshows. "I'm seeing associations playing with the model and developing more hybrid events, where people come together for a face-to-face conference and they also live stream the content out for those who are not at the live event," says Jeff Hurt, director of education and engagement at Velvet Chainsaw Consulting.

For exhibitors, Hurt says, "it takes a mental shift when working with a hybrid event." But once that mental shift is made, the opportunities for sellers to connect with buyers are compelling. Hurt suggests ideas like organizing chats via Twitter about important topics before the meeting and then continuing the discussion in the exhibitor's booth; offering a free white paper on a hot topic through the exhibitor's virtual booth; or even producing a quirky video to introduce the staff who will be appearing as avatars at the virtual tradeshow. "Post something at your virtual booth that says something like, 'You can only see our avatars here, but here's who we really are,' with a link to the video," says Hurt. "It adds a level of human-ness to a virtual booth."

Whatever the format associations use for their tradeshows, it's important to remember that nothing lasts forever. "I see associations continuing to look for new, innovative ways to provide their annual meetings and events to their constituents," Hurt says. "The meetings will continue, but the formats will continue to change."

Nancy Mann Jackson is a freelance writer in Birmingham, Alabama. Email: [email protected]

Nancy Mann Jackson

Nancy Mann Jackson is a freelance writer based in Huntsville, Alabama.