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Not just a numbers game: Why exhibiting means more than head count

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The organizers of the Medical Design & Manufacturing West Conference and Exhibition did not expect attendance to grow this year. The show opened under the cloud of a dismal economy that has gutted travel budgets and culled foot traffic at face-to-face events. But preliminary end-of-show reports indicate that more than 16,000 attendees traveled to the Anaheim Convention Center for the event, organizers said, an increase of more than 4% and a record for the 25-year-old show. Moreover, in a climate that has seen marketers slash budgets, the show reported a 70% exhibitor renewal rate for 2010. “It's quite possible that this economy can make the shows extremely important and dynamic,” said Dan Cutrone, director of marketing at Canon Communications, which produces the event. Show organizers hope so. As shows open, they are waiting to see how the economy has impacted head count—and how exhibitors react. Exhibitions historically weather recessions well, both because their health tends to lag that of the industries they serve and because, even in down times, events offer an efficient sales call, said Doug Ducate, president-CEO of the Center for Exhibition Industry Research, which in January released a study tracking the exhibition industry through five recessionary periods. “Customers are coming to [exhibitors],” he said. “It's why the visitor promotion side is so important. Even though companies may be cutting back, they still have to make purchases to stay in existence.” Organizers have to work with exhibitors to reinforce the value of their shows, Ducate said: “This is the time you earn your money.” “The shows are having to make a case for why,” he said. “More often than not, it's a 911 call. In some cases [marketers'] jobs are at stake. It's a cooperative environment.” An event's audience profile generates the most important data for exhibitors attempting to reinforce the value of a show, Ducate said. “The metrics don't crash and burn during a recessionary period,” said Joe Federbush, VP-sales and marketing at Exhibit Surveys, “but attendance goes down. Everyone gets so caught up in the numbers, looking at the quantity, but they need to be looking at the quality.” Exhibitors want details like the name, company, title and buying power of prospects, as well as geographic breakdowns, said Kerry Talbot, a member of the board of the Trade Show Exhibitors Association and director of trade shows and events at Quintiles Transnational, a clinical research and outsourcing company. “Organizers overlook how much analytic data we want on their attendees,” she said. At Canon, organizers collect information from attendees as they register. Exhibitors then have access two to three months before a show to segmented lists of attendees that help them prepare. “Every bit of information we can give them to demonstrate ROI, we do,” said Kevin O'Keefe, senior VP-events at Canon Communications. “We let them know who we're expecting by individual name and company. When exhibitors look at that, it removes any doubt.” A raw attendee list can be just as valuable, said Harris Schanhaut, senior trade show manager at C2 Creative. “It doesn't cost anything,” he said. “That builds tremendous value for the exhibitor and builds tremendous loyalty.” M SHOW ATTENDEES EVENTS HAVE VALUE IN A DOWNTURN ? -Retool your message. The audience for MD&M West wanted to improve profitability. Marketing materials stressed the show as a place to identify margin improvements and find vendors hungry for new business. ? -Provide relevant education. Sessions that focus on meeting the challenges of a down cycle have been drawing crowds. Attendees are looking for ways to cut costs. ? -Be persistent. Canon promotes attendance to registered attendees up until the last day of the show. The company's regional model means many attendees live within driving distance of the show.
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