Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The 10 Things Show Organizers Don't Want You To Know

Last week I visited a consumer show (in major Midwest market – not a Marketplace Events property) with modest expectations.  I had been to this event many times prior, and I knew what to expect.  Or so I thought.  It took the whole of 60 seconds after entering - maybe less - for my mood to slide from disappointed to irritated to pissed.  In retrospect, even I was surprised by this reaction.

The fact that the show was a sprawling, unorganized, unadorned mess ignited the reaction; not what sustained it.  What put me over the edge as I walked the exhibit floor was the indisputable truth that these exhibitors didn't have a chance in hell to put their best foot forward in front of their prospects and customers - even if they wanted to - because the show organizer didn't care enough to live up to even the most basic (minimal, really) industry standards.

Now, let me be clear, I am not so naïve to not appreciate some minority of any given show’s exhibitors are just too lazy (or uniformed) to participate on a show floor in a professional, meaningful way.  That's human nature and something inherent to event production.  Any show organizer worth their salt accepts that dealing with poorly motivated or low-information exhibitors is part of the bargain.  Patience, persistence and persuasion are constants necessary to both “upping their game” and/or keeping them in line.

But what I saw last week wasn't caused by an assorted collection of lazy, sloppy exhibitors.  It was beyond their control. You could have put a Tiffany's or a Nordstrom’s or a Zappos on the show floor and it wouldn't have made the customer experience measurably better.

What I experienced last week was the fault of a lazy, sloppy, ambivalent show organizer.  Of course, this promoter was more than eager to take exhibitors' and attendees' money, but they had no intention of giving back much in exchange.  This attitude of indifference - the casualness by which they break promises to their customers - was an affront to everyone who walked into that hall (and our industry).

My epiphany: I walked that show floor and realized exhibitors need protection - an advocate - to raise their awareness against suffering through shows put on by these kind of show managers.  But it is rare for exhibitors to find much in the way of good advice, especially “on the inside”. 

In that spirit, I offer the following 10 warning signs to help exhibitors (hopefully prior to risking their precious time, marketing dollars and staff resources) avoid betting on a bad, lazy or indifferent show organizer:

In no particular order:

1.  People rarely change - neither do shows.  In 34 years in this business I can count on one hand the number of times (not including transfer of ownership) a bad show morphed into a good show the next time around.  Lesson: assuming you gave it your best try, if you were disappointed with a show this time, expect more of the same the next time.  It is what it is.

2.  Talk is cheap - follow the money.  For the vast majority of shows the lion's share of total revenue comes from exhibit space sales.  If sales are weak, chances are good that in the end expenses are going to be cut (it is the rare show promoter willing to take the long view and deficit spend). As an exhibitor, you are reliant on the promises of the show organizer.  The organizer won't spend what they don't have.  Huge media buy?  Fantastic feature on the show floor?  Celebrity appearance?  Probably only going to happen if they've sold a lot of space.  Just sayin.  See item #1 above.

3.  Most show organizers aren't built for customer service.  Well, to clarify, some are (and do a great job).  But by far most aren't.  If you happen to do business with the "arent's" you'd better not be shy.  The squeaky wheel most definitely gets the grease.  The quiet get, um, ignored.

4.  Deals = disappointment.  Sadly, most booth salespeople cut deals on price.  When salespeople cut deals it means they are afraid to lose a sale because they do not believe in the value of their show.  It’s no more complicated than that. Discounting comes at a horrendous price, however, as it undermines the integrity of the promoter and the matrix of relationships on a show floor.  Deals = rumors = misinformation = mistrust.  When you encounter a promoter that sticks to her price take that as a very good sign.  It means she is confident in the value they provide, so you can be confident the chances of a good show are much higher than usual. 

5.  Speaking of confidence, he who hesitates is… not that confident.  If the show promoter doesn't share their complete exhibitor list or floor plan when you request it, be wary.  It’s an immediate red flag. There is a very good chance there is something they don't want you to know.  Maybe sales are weak; maybe a big sponsor pulled out; maybe the promised feature isn't happening.  Organizers with a full floor plan and a robust exhibitor list are usually very happy to share this info.

6.  If the show promoter only communicates with you when they want your money, that tells you about their priorities.  See item #3 above.

7.  Ask about the attendee promotion budget and strategy.  When you buy exhibit space you are essentially buying attendance (either quality or quantity, and in some rare occasions, both). If you can't get details from the promoter about how they are driving attendance, that's another serious red flag.  In our fragmented media world, getting people’s attention is very hard work.  Lots of promoters don’t like hard work…

8.  Staff turnover.  Ask how long the show manager has been with the company; same for other staff.  Consistent high turnover of staff can mean many things, most usually not good for exhibitors.  When it comes to event production, stable relationships in the market being served reflect good things about the show organizer.

9.  No standards says "I don't care!" or “do as I say, not as I do”. Chances are good that if the show promoter doesn't establish and enforce standards for exhibiting (ie., no handmade signs, floors must be covered, no unmanned booths, etc.) you could end up next to or across from the exhibitor(s) from hell.  This can seriously detract from your brand and your return on investment despite your best efforts. It also says - clearly - the promoter is just not willing to put in the effort to keep their house (and show floor) in order and under control.

10.  Where they are says it all.  Once the doors open, where’s the show organizer’s staff: primarily on the show floor or primarily off the show floor in the show office?  Feet on the show floor say the event organizer is committed, confident, connected, engaged.  Off the show floor says the event organizer is less than committed, confident, connected and engaged.

Tom Baugh
CEO, Marketplace Events


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