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Conferences and events, disproportionately effected by the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the decline in business travel, are making a healthy comeback. But the revival is distinguished by a shift in emphasis: Marketers are demanding much more accountability from the events, whether they create them or attend them as exhibitors.

"[Event] organizers were the beneficiaries of the mega-growth and `build it and they will come' spirit of the 1980s and most of the 1990s," said Philip MacKay, group VP of Gartner Vision Events, Bedford, N.H. "When tough times hit, they weren't prepared. They didn't know how to demonstrate the value of their shows." But b-to-b events, which fell by more than 10% over the past few years, have come back smarter and more focused around vertical programs.

According to Tradeshow Week's quarterly Executive Outlook Corporate Exhibitor, gross trade show revenue grew only 2% in 2003, but will grow 5.2% this year.

What's more, face-to-face events continue to deliver the greatest return on investment when compared with other customary marketing tools such as advertising, according to an annual survey released late last month by global event marketing agency George P. Johnson Co. and the MPI Foundation, the research and development arm of Meeting Professionals International (MPI).

A key finding of the 2004 "Global Event Trends Survey" report, based on interviews with more than 200 decision-making marketing executives and personnel in U.S. corporations that have recorded sales above $250 million, is that 82% of respondents plan to include event marketing as part of their overall marketing mix, an increase of 6% over 2003.

"Events are definitely making a comeback," MacKay said. "There is more economic optimism. There is more marketing money being loosened up, slowly but surely. There is the realization that the Web or the virtual meeting cannot and will not replace the need for people to come together. Most of all, we are seeing that smaller events are really the big idea in delivering the most compelling shows and creating tangible value for exhibitors and attendees."

Gartner Vision Events, a unit of Gartner Inc., rejects the traditional event format for its failure to generate the optimum return on investment for either attendees or exhibitors. Corporate executives increasingly demand demonstrable returns for marketing expenditures, MacKay said. "There is a better way for buyers and sellers to interact than the haphazard format of ordinary industry events," he said.

Event improvements

Kerry Gumas, VP of Wellesley, Mass.-based Advanstar Communications, organizer of AIIM ON DEMAND for content/document management and delivery concerns, agrees that events are improving their value for attendees. How? With improved conference and education programs, live technology demonstrations and live entertainment. "This is why the industry is achieving audience growth rates of 10%," Gumas said. AIIM ON DEMAND 2005 will entail more than 250,000 net square feet, 30,000 attendees and 500 leading suppliers.

Advanstar provides exhibitors with Web listings; access to pre- and post-show lists; flexible move-in schedules; extended show hours; a "meet the press" breakfast at which exhibitors and sponsors can meet with key members of the trade press; and branding exposure within the IT industry. The group touches 48 trade media outlets and 300 trade reporters to garner more than 7 million impressions globally.

While conventional wisdom holds that regional and local events are the preferred venue for marketers, some continue to back big shows.

Mitchell Orfuss, VP-corporate marketing at Harte-Hanks, New York, still believes in big shows. For instance, the company maintains a firm commitment to the Direct Marketing Association, supporting it and its large annual conference in many ways, "even when we can't measure them," Orfuss said.

Nevertheless, Harte-Hanks has become increasingly focused on a number of verticals, and so its event marketing budget is increasingly applied to sector-specific events. "We figure out which of the shows in each of the sectors is important to our visibility, to perceptions and to our customers," Orfuss said.

With a limited marketing budget that remains stagnant if not shrinking, each initiative has to prove itself to all other parts of the marketing mix. Harte-Hanks assesses the value of individual events by evaluating the quality of speakers; determining which of its competitors will exhibit, which of its clients will attend and which of its prospects will be present; reading trade press reviews; and inquiring of its sales force.

Harte-Hanks and other marketers have taken to tracking event activities carefully to try and understand their ROI. For instance, once Harte-Hanks captures a prospect's information, it almost never stops tracking progress towards the sale. The company developed a lead-management tool that gathers data on booth traffic instantly, almost like a sales force automation tool, notes the potential and archives leads, often to see them resurrected, sometimes years after the event.

Despite the appeal of measuring event ROI, surveys suggest a wide gap when it comes to actually doing so.

According to a May survey released by strategic communications firm Peppercom and Event Solutions, a monthly trade magazine published by Event Publishing, an overwhelming number (76.3%) of respondents are interested in a turnkey measurement program as a means to measure ROI, yet few implement one or know of any that work. More than half of the survey respondents (59%) said they are not currently measuring ROI.

When asked what kind of criteria event producers are using to evaluate successful events, survey respondents identified a multitude of metrics: Attendance (17.8%) and event effectiveness (17.1%) were cited as the most often used criteria to evaluate events. The third most popular choice was cost, at 15.5%, while company exposure was cited by 11.9% of respondents.

Event lifecycle broadens

Gartner Vision Events views an event not as an episodic product that happens at a given place and time but as a continuum.

Even when an event comes to a close, GVE maintains its spark through ancillary services such as year-round Webinars and the recently introduced self-scheduling system that lets exhibitors and attendees view each other's event schedules online and set up on-site meetings.

One of the consequences of focused, high-touch, vertical conferences and meetings is the attendance of prequalified, high-level buyers rather than their underlings, formerly sent to gather information and report back.

To that extent, event producers such as TechTarget began turning away attendees in order to stock their conferences with prequalified attendees, a model that other show producers have adopted.

For example, after vendors at RetailVision and VARVision events clamored for top buyers from Latin America, GVE began flying in high-level retailers and VARs from the Latin American marketplace.

HighTower, a business software developer and reseller located in Lincolnwood, Ill., exhibits at one big event each year and a couple regional conferences. It has exhibited at Best Software's annual Insights conference since the event's birth, when it attracted only 100 attendees and sales conversations came easy, without any creativity or gimmick.

Now some 3,000 software resellers show up, and HighTower's marketing staff spends 6 months-the latter three doing nothing but preparing preshow communications and a booth theme-for its biggest event of the year, at which it sells its own products to other Best Software resellers.

"The event just keeps getting bigger, drawing a broader group of people," said Brian Dunn, VP-sales and marketing. "You used to be able to get people with just a card table in a corner."

The show within the show

In 2003, HighTower arrived at the show with a show of its own, complete with costumed employees. It screened five movies that featured HighTower products in spoofs of box-office hits. For example, "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" became "P.2.: The Extra-professional in His Retail Adventure," the story of a point-of-sale software with tight integration to inventory and accounts receivable.

A pre-event direct mail piece advertising HighTower's booth included 3-D glasses. A newsletter that focused entirely on the products the company would tout at the conference followed and included a 3-D poster for one of the phony flicks.

Because HighTower sells products at the shows, it measures its success not only with a tally of booth visitors but with sales revenue. (Success is defined by booth sales that equal or exceed its overhead investment in the show.)

"We want to know if what we're doing is working or not," Dunn said. Metrics provide a reality check.

For example, in 2002, the company did a lot more in sales at the show than it scored in 2003. "Last year we had a lot of traffic through the booth," Dunn said, but it did not result in a lot of closed business.

An examination of pre-event marketing materials revealed that 2002 communications stressed the special prices that would be offered only at the event.

The 2003 copy focused more on the movie theme. A shift back to messages about discounts available during the conference brought sales back and sent them even higher at the June 2004 event.

HighTower also exhibits at smaller events that unite several small software resellers in a relaxed setting that allows for more face time with prospective clients and end users and more product demonstrations at a lower cost. M

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