Flip This Tradeshow

What if attendees manned their own booths in the exhibit hall? What if vendors came to you? One tradeshow did just that.

What's the great idea? Suppliers make appointments with meeting planners, who man their own booths during an exposition.

Who's doing it? Potomac Chapter of Meeting Professionals International (PMPI)

What's involved? Expos are structured for purchasers and suppliers to meet, but with education sessions and a maze of booths, connecting with the right people at the right time can be a challenge. To enhance the meeting experience, PMPI changed its annual Mid-Atlantic Conference & Exposition, flipping the expo hall from vendor booths to planner booths. Attendees made appointments before the tradeshow and could accept or reject an appointment based on their schedules.

"This setup was about making sure that both our suppliers and planners were getting a good ROI, but especially suppliers. With traditional booths, you may or may not get people stopping by," says Shonzia Thompson, CMP, director of regional conferences for PMPI and meetings manager for the National Association of Manufacturers. "With the appointments, you know that you're getting a qualified planner that wants to meet with you."

PMPI promoted the flipped tradeshow early to get attendees signed up so appointment scheduling could begin. Planners were assigned their own booths, each complete with a coffee table, comfortable chairs, and a sign with professional information. For 10 minutes, attendees got acquainted without missing education sessions, which were scheduled outside of tradeshow hours. PMPI also supplied Spotme devices, which hold schedules and electronically transfer business cards, making it easy to track information without extra paper.

What are people saying? Thompson says the biggest challenge was getting people to understand what the flipped marketplace was, but once they were there, PMPI got good feedback. "The planners liked having the booths because they didn't have to walk around so much. The suppliers liked having the preset appointment times rather than attracting people into a booth," she says.

Thompson says it will be easier to promote the flipped tradeshow next year, since attendees have now experienced it. "Word of mouth is our second-most-popular marketing channel. So now that people have experience, that's a huge help because they can tell each other what happened."

Online Extra: Tips for Flipping a Tradeshow

Shonzia Thompson, CMP, is the director of regional conferences for PMPI and helped plan the MACE! 2009 flipped tradeshow. Here's her advice to flip your next tradeshow floor.

Start early. "Definitely get your participants singed up as early as possible, because that determines when you can open up the appointment scheduling. You can't open up the appointment scheduling until you've got a critical mass of participants signed up."

Take more time. "The appointment scheduling needs several weeks so that people can go back and forth, accept, decline, move appointments around. Ours only had a week and a half ... it worked, but it was more challenging on our staff trying to get all those appointments scheduled."

Have a backup plan. "Make sure you have an onsite infrastructure set up [to reschedule appointments]. Sometimes someone doesn't show up. Attendees really appreciate being able to come on site and have appointments made for them there as well."

Strength in numbers. "For some planners, it makes sense to have a booth individually. But, there are other cases where it makes sense for four or five planners to be in the same booth because they go to conferences together, or they need the same kinds of suppliers."

photographs by RCS Photography.