It's Time to Think Beyond the Tradeshow Booth

By: Jacqui Cook

Tradeshow success is no longer defined by having the biggest booth or the best tchotchkes. If you look beyond traditional exhibit-hall formats, you can create an experience that will keep potential clients coming back for more. (Titled "Think Outside the Booth" in the print edition.)

Even before the recession began eating away at tradeshow attendance, Stephanie Hobbs could see the Yellow Pages Association show was heading for trouble. Booth prices were rising, attendance and exhibitor numbers were slumping, and even her experienced sales team was having trouble filling the cavernous floor space.

Within two years, as the economic collapse hit tradeshows hard, the situation turned from distressing to near disaster.

"We were in San Diego in 2009, and it was a terrible, terrible year for meetings," says Hobbs, vice president of communications for the Yellow Pages Association (YPA). "The tradeshow was a shadow of its former self. At its height, we had about 110 booths; that year it was 70. And it was a thin 70. It was an ‘all-I-brought-was-a-pop-up-fixture' kind of 70. And we had difficulty driving traffic to the booths. We knew we had to come up with another idea."

The inspiration came from a board member who shared something he had seen at the National Association of Chain Drug Stores meeting. Instead of the traditional exhibit floor, attendees could take part in "strategic-exchange sessions" in which they have a set appointment with a vendor. What set these sessions apart was the location: An exhibitor could purchase a poolside cabana, a full hotel suite, or private space on the floor to set up appointments with attendees.

YPA didn't have much to lose, so the organization gave it a try at last year's meeting in Las Vegas. The gamble paid off in a big way."Of course the cabanas sold out first, and that blew our minds," Hobbs says. "But if you think about it, it makes sense that they would be so popular. You could sit outside in a cabana that you would never buy on your own, with misters going and fans blowing, having some water and iced tea while you talk to your clients."

Needless to say, the strategic-exchange sessions are back for this year's meeting. Of the 20 poolside villas reserved at Caesar's Palace, just three remained with more than two months to go. The suites and the floor space also are selling briskly.

"We made more money off the strategic-exchange sessions than we made off the tradeshow the previous two years," Hobbs says. "What it tapped into was that eyeball-to-eyeball contact. It wasn't just ‘Look at the cute tchotchke' and then goodbye. These are guaranteed meetings. I know when I get there that these are the people I am talking to."

New Approaches

YPA's experience mirrors that of other associations that have been forced to think bigger—or at least differently—to get attendees engaged with exhibitors on the show floor. Some are spicing up the show-floor catering menu, others are merging education opportunities with exhibit space, and many shows are integrating social networking into the experience. All of these changes point to the desire for a richer experience in exchange for the time and money spent to attend or exhibit at a show.

"There is still a huge value meeting face to face, but the way you do it is different," says Sandy Reynolds, CMP, president of Meetings & Events USA, which managed the Yellow Pages meeting. "You can't just put up an exhibit floor and expect people to come. There has to be more applied value—not just catching up with people they may have worked with."

Reynolds has worked with several associations in recent years to find ways to engage participants and exhibitors in a more meaningful way than just a stroll through the floor. One client, for example, gave each exhibitor two full conference registrations so they could take part in the education sessions alongside attendees, and there was a special lunch the day after the exhibit floor closed where exhibitors could participate in roundtable discussions with attendees.

"I think traditional exhibits themselves are not as significant as they used to be in terms of being a draw, unless it's a buying show," Reynolds says. "For the most part, associations don't have big buying shows. They tend to be more focused on education and ROI. Their attendees have to prove there was value to being out of the office. You have to be able to articulate what you learned, apply it to your everyday job, and quantify the results."

On-the-Floor Learning

The Institute of Food Technologists' (IFT) Annual Meeting and Food Expo brought some of its education right to the floor. The meeting and expo draw a wide range of attendees from the food-science industry, many of whom are scientists looking for educational opportunities. For the past two meetings, the organization has built two theaters right on the expo floor, says Heidi A. Voorhees, CAE, MBA, IFT's vice president of meetings and events. The walls are clear to pique the curiosity of people on the floor.

One theater houses "exhibitor spotlights," in which an exhibitor can purchase the space to talk about a new product, with the understanding that it will be about new industry information more than a pitch for business. The other theater is the Special Events Pavilion, where IFT stages programming with a lighter, broader appeal. For example, two years ago IFT worked with Disney Consumer Products on a Nutritious Foods for Kids product-development competition. The final round of the competition to develop a nutritious snack was held in the pavilion, where the students showcased each creation and talked about how they developed it and its health benefits.

Last year, IFT did a social media 101 presentation that was very popular with attendees. This summer, at the conference in New Orleans, IFT is planning a session in the theaters on consumer trends and possibly two social media sessions, one on applications for product testing and one on how the food industry can leverage social media.

"Ninety-nine percent of the people who come to the event go to the show floor," Voorhees says. "What we try to do is maximize their time there. We want to make sure people stay on the floor as long as possible."

Another draw for attendees is the self-guided tour of trends in the food industry. IFT's editorial team picks the most popular industry trends, such as low sodium or weight management, after which exhibitors can submit their product to be part of that trend. IFT creates a brochure for each one, mapping out the exhibitors with products related to that trend.

Voorhees says the heart of Food Expo is being able to smell, touch, and taste the products being offered, so exhibitors are strongly encouraged to bring samples to offer attendees.

"That experience of the senses is very important for our show," she says. "We try to educate our exhibitors on how important that is and encourage them to bring a sample of the new products to the show. All the other stuff, like the theaters, is to create a buzz and make it feel like this is the event they have to be at. We want to be the only event they attend, whether it's as an exhibitor or an attendee."

Creating an Experience

For the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA), the key to more attendee time on the show floor was to build on something that already was there. The show already has a massive built-in audience. The six-day annual event has the distinction of being the world's largest medical meeting, drawing 58,000 attendees and 678 exhibiting companies last year. It fills more than 452,000 net square feet of exhibit space over three halls at Chicago's McCormick Place.

Three years ago, it took the usual show-floor food and revamped it into a dining experience called "Bistro RSNA." The organization constructs a dining hall on the show floor that can accommodate 500 to 700 people and mimics a fine restaurant.

"It's a very nice atmosphere to do business," says Steve Drew, RSNA's assistant executive director, scientific assembly and informatics. "It has white tablecloths, a carpeted floor, a buffet of good quality and selection. The goal is [that in] five minutes or less from when they get in line, they are sitting at the table enjoying themselves."

Drew estimates Bistro RSNA brings about 20,000 people through the hall each day. Exhibitors also have the option of reserving a table to bring guests to throughout the day.

"It provides exhibitors and their personnel with a place to go so they don't have to leave the hall and take up valuable selling time," says Tom Shimala, director of technical exhibits. "And it's a place where they can sit with a customer and discuss business away from the booth."

It appears to be paying off: RSNA measured the cabs picking up and dropping off at McCormick Place during the lunch break, and it dropped by 25 percent the first year of Bistro RSNA.

To make it successful, RSNA builds buzz through social media, email reminders, and ads in other publications.

"Our exhibitors make up more than half the people on our Twitter feed," says Evonne Johnson, a writer in the member communications department who is in charge of social media. "We did not do much on the exhibitor side to promote it. They ran with it, and we loved it. They used the RSNA hashtag, and you could see tons of exhibitors doing promotions."

Shimala and the others from RSNA agree that it is key for any association to know the audience—both attendee and exhibitor—when trying to develop new strategies for the exhibit floor. RSNA is a professional and somewhat formal audience, so any change had to stay in line with that expectation.

"If you go on the exhibit floor, you won't see jugglers or fire eaters or exhibit booths serving food and beverages," Shimala says. "We don't allow a lot of things you see at other shows. To some, it might be stodgy, but to some it might be professional and they appreciate the non-circus atmosphere."

Keep Smiling

Once your association makes the decision to change something, be prepared for some pushback, no matter how good or vital the idea is. Even Reynolds, who managed the Yellow Pages show, had some qualms about selling the strategic-exchange sessions space.

"I was kind of a Negative Nellie because I was really unsure how it would work," she says. "But the feedback we got was that the people exhibitors met with were high quality. It wasn't the same number of people as they would get walking by on the floor, but the quality of the person they met with was much higher."

Just in case, Hobbs kept a supply of coffee-shop gift cards in her pocket throughout the whole show last year, and she was generous in handing them out to anyone who had a problem or complaint. She also had to contend with a board member who refused to go along with the strategic-exchange sessions and an older member who berated the sales team when he found out about the changes.

"He was very upset with the sales team, and when it was over, he sent them flowers," Hobbs says. "To me, that tells the whole story. He had six half-hour meetings that generated actual sales leads he could follow up on. When it was over it was a huge success. We went from ‘We hate you' to ‘Put my name down for a cabana next year.'"

Jacqui Cook is a freelance writer in the Chicago area. Email: [email protected]

Sidebar: Tips for Creating a Better Show-Floor Experience

Sandy Reynolds, CMP, president of Meetings & Events USA, offers this advice for associations considering new ways of bringing attendees and exhibitors together:

Know what they need. It pays to do research when planning your exhibit experience. Do not get stuck in the rut of "we've always done it that way." Conduct spot calls and surveys to find out what attendees really want out of vendor time and discover what exhibitors value most when meeting with attendees. You might be surprised.

Look outside booth space. There is much more to a successful show then attracting exhibitors and providing times for attendees to visit. Provide incentives to help exhibitors and attendees interact in a meaningful manner whether at the booth or in an alternative setting. Consider selling time for live demos or even some entertainment to add life to the floor.

Think like a marketer. Discover every opportunity to make the show more effective. Provide preshow communication opportunities to build rapport, create social media sites to encourage viral marketing of the conference, and design the show experience so attendees can quickly get to the exhibits they want but will also visit booths designed to draw their attention.

Consider adding content. There is no reason the tradeshow experience has to focus just on booth time. You can add sessions or structured networking meant to bring vendors and attendees together to solve common solutions. This also breaks down the selling/sold-to mentality and fosters collaboration.

Follow up. Without post-show follow-up, the experience fades quickly. Make sure your exhibitors and attendees have gotten the most out of the conference so they return again. Quickly provide leads and attendee lists to exhibitors if relevant and post exhibitor product-line and contact information to your website so attendees can reference points of interest. Do a brief post-conference survey to see if they've liked what you've done.