- Kristine Metter, MS, CAE
Don’t move your exhibit program online. Bury it in the ground.
The pandemic has brought us an opportunity to examine how we convene people which in turn forces us to accept that some of our traditional operations no longer make sense. One of those areas is the event's exhibit program. The traditional exhibit hall format has been broken for some time and needs to be put out of its misery.
We should have been paying attention to participant behavior all along. Few people crave walking through endless rows of booths with exhibitors launching their pitches like barkers at the circus sideshows of the late 1800s – “spin the wheel of fortune for a chance to win,” “putt the golf ball in the cup for a chance to win,” “guess the number of jelly beans in the jar for a chance to win.” Win what? An iPad and your name on a marketing list? Most say no thanks.
Similarly, have you noticed that exhibitors have started to question the ROI on sending five staff to a conference to coax people into the booth and maybe leave with a handful of leads or just one sale? It’s an expensive proposition with an uncertain outcome if you don’t make the right connections. Maybe that’s why they keep asking you for other opportunities to connect with your members through personal introductions or speaking opportunities.
Now stop and consider about how much time you have spent thinking about artificial ways to drive attendees into the exhibit hall. Breakfast, lunch, cocktails, passport games, and the like all bring people into the hall, but let’s be honest, 90 percent of them have no business to conduct. Many are not decision-makers, or if they are, they are not currently in the buying cycle. You are spinning your wheels in a mud puddle that is never going to give you the traction you need to make exhibitors and members happy.
By my count, that makes it a lose-lose-lose situation. So, what should we be doing to turn it into a win-win-win? We should be spending more time listening and learning.
Ask your corporate partners what their goals are and who they want to reach. Maybe they want sales leads. Maybe they want to improve their brand. Maybe they want to expand into a new market. Maybe they just want to have a chance to thank current customers. Each of these scenarios requires a unique type of interaction and often targets different people.
Ask your members what problems they are trying to solve or challenges that keep them up at night. Maybe they already know all the vendors who can help them with the problem and have to allocate the purchase in next year's budget. Maybe they need someone to help them explore how to become more efficient. Maybe they are trying to stay on the cutting edge of innovation and want to see what products or services are coming to market in the next three years. Each of these scenarios requires a unique type of interaction and often targets different companies.
If you listen and learn, you can create meaningful ways for sellers and buyers to connect. You can take all that energy you spent on propping up the old exhibit hall and build something new. Yes, it will be hard to walk away from what you have been doing for years. Yes, it will be a risk to a reliable source of revenue. But really, very few people were happy with the model so why not find a new path forward?
As you look to move your meeting to a virtual format or revamp it into a hybrid, take this opportunity to kill your exhibit hall and replace it with something completely different. Bring new life to your event by creating a forum that everyone looks forward to and provides real value to all involved.