The exhibition industry hasn’t changed much over the past few decades. The business model was simple; plan the show, sell exhibition space, rely on mass marketing strategies to build the visitor audience and expect through some form of magic by getting the right people into the room that business will be conducted, contracts signed and at the end it will be a success all round. This was the established way.
However when a three-day event happens once a year, it leaves 362 days to forget about it, forget who you met and forget what benefit there was in attending in the first place. And if you miss a trade show by a week or month, you aren’t going to wait for another year to get a second opportunity. Today it’s too easy to reach out to a potential customer or supplier on LinkedIn, email, or even Twitter. If you are sourcing information on supply chain, market entry, or import regulations you no longer need to speak with a manufacturer or distributor at a trade show, you simply just Google it.
So where does this leave trade show organizers who have spent so much energy and time in the past establishing themselves as the meeting place for entire industries once a year?
Trade show organizations traditionally relied on a sales driven model when building their business. By being focused on selling exhibition space they provided a platform for companies to display their new products, technologies and innovations to a broad audience while at the same creating a profitable business model. Marketing supported the sales team with traditional forms of mass marketing like direct mailing, email campaigns and so forth.
This clearly worked well in the past, but the problem with this model now is its resistant to change when it finds a process works, and does not lend well to keeping up with changing market trends. For example, a sales person acting as a show manager may be happy to produce the same infographic, video, white paper or direct mailing they think helped them generate business last time. Their main priority is their own product, their own sale.
Even marketing funds spent with the best of intentions on creating printed and downloadable e-invites, and email signatures for exhibitors to invite their clients to an event is no longer beneficial. Eighty percent of exhibitors do little to no pre-show marketing according to The Center for Exhibition Industry Research. More importantly, if SME’s with precious financial resources, knew exactly who they wanted to target specifically, would they gamble thousands of dollars attending a trade show in the hope they meet the right people, or instead spend the money canvassing their prospects directly in a more targeted way. The reliance for creating real connections in order to keep their business relevant needs to rest with the trade show organizer.
Times have changed dramatically and marketing needs to be at the core of the whole organization. Look at many of the major companies that have been built in the last 15 years, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Google/Gmail, all are in the business of connecting people. Even established traditional brands like Burberry, with their ‘Burberry Kisses campaign’ or Topshop’s partnership with Google for an ‘Interactive Catwalk’ in 2013, are looking to build their future by engaging with their audience and helping their audience engage with each other.
Trade show organizers are now more than ever in the business of connection and content, and the future will require trade show organizers to create new business models and new ways of communication and engagement. It’s not a matter of simply rolling out technology in an attempt to add value to trade show attendance. Companies like Presdo Match may specialize in creating a networking platform for trade shows, but simply laying new technology on top of old thinking won’t generate new revenue or retain visitor or exhibitor loyalty. What is clear is that the value proposition of a trade show needs to be constantly redefined and expanded, and new formats created that capture the ever demanding audience.
How are others innovating?
A unique twist on the traditional trade show model has been created by an Irish government body, Bord Bia. Originally set-up to work with the Irish food industry for the market development and promotion of Irish food and drink at home and abroad, the government body in 2004 decided to capitalize on its network and connections by creating Marketplace International.
The event allows hundreds of Irish food and drink exporters, and trade buyers from every continent to meet under one roof in Dublin once a year. What makes this event a real success for all participants is the follow up that happens after the initial meetings. Bord Bia offices in international markets lend ongoing year-round support to the manufacturers and retailers on topics like international distribution channels, customs clearance and localized marketing strategies. The model seems to be working, and according to marketplaceinternational.eu over €31m worth of new business was written by exhibitors as a result of Marketplace 2012 meetings.
Messe Frankfurt, one of the world’s largest trade show companies, is currently exploring opportunities with business matchmaking platforms for the purpose of driving traffic and adding value to the attendance of trade shows under their umbrella. To what extent this can be developed will be worth watching.
Trade show organizers are ideally placed to make themselves indispensable to the industries they are engaging in what is a constantly a changing climate. The big opportunity in the future, is if trade show organizers can become an on-going year round resource for their audience to tap into, not just connecting individuals but also becoming knowledge centre for the industry the trade show supports. To a large extent this will require a rethink of the depth of the relationship organizers have existing knowledge and data partners, and the relationships with visitors and exhibitors.
People still need powerful personal interactions to build successful long-term relationships. If a trade show organizer continues to have the most innovative and creative companies at their show then there will always be a reason to attend, and keep in touch with current industry trends and advancements in technology and product design.