Show organizers shift strategies, priorities to help regain pre-recession strength
The exhibitions industry displays signs of a modest recovery, but show organizers who want to regain pre-recession strength face a steep and strategically challenging climb.
“We fell off the cliff,” said Doug Ducate, president of the Center for Exhibitions Industry Research, which released its annual index of event performance in April. “The recovery is not going to come as fast as the decline. It's going to take a long time to get back to 2000 levels.”
Core industry metrics saw moderate gains in the third and fourth quarters of last year, according to the CEIR Index, which is based on an analysis of more than 13,000 events, including about 9,000 in the b-to-b sector. The good news came on the tail of nine straight quarters of dismal performance.
The 2010 study shows that only attendance, long seen as a leading indicator, achieved positive year-over-year growth, gaining 2.4%. Both the number of exhibitors and net square footage fell, and real revenue posted the largest decline of any metric, down more than 8% compared to the year earlier.
The CEIR Index did forecast that the positive growth seen in the last two quarters of 2010 will stretch into the current year. Continued momentum will require show organizers to aggressively promote their events and develop new strategies, Ducate said.
“Exhibition managers are having to shift to a relationship sale from a real-estate transaction,” he said. “You have to build a relationship with exhibitors, and understand their goals and how they can [achieve them]. The answer may not be exhibit space.”
A consultative approach has contributed to the strength of the Licensing International Expo, a Las Vegas show that expects to see double-digit growth in both attendance and square footage this year, said Georgiann Decenzo, exec VP-licensing and market development at Advanstar Communications.
“Gone are the days when you pick up the phone and ask for a contract,” she said. “My reps are out seeing big customers face-to-face. We sit down and share best practices.”
The sales process doesn't end with a contract. After an event, a sales representative helps the customer crunch numbers to demonstrate return on investment. “When we see a weakness, we ask what we can improve,” Decenzo said.
Hanley Wood also emphasizes a solutions-oriented approach to sales. “We don't see ourselves as selling real estate,” said Rick McConnell, president of Hanley Wood Exhibitions. “We're helping folks see new solutions, helping them connect with new industry partners and build their brands.”
Those new solutions include digital sponsorship opportunities that deliver leads and help exhibitors make connections before an event. Hanley Wood has rolled out event-specific sites that host social networking, as well as appointment-setting and other digital interactions.
In addition to developing digital event tools, Hanley Wood has beefed up education and networking opportunities, and also begun to sell shows earlier than before, working to get anchor commitments for a 2012 show before the 2011 show takes place, for example.
Digital revenues and sponsorships have also made an impact in the legal and real estate markets, said Henry Dicker, VP at ALM Events and executive director of its LegalTech event portfolio.
“We sell products that offer potential in lead generation,” he said. “Anything that has the opportunity to deliver quality leads does well.” Cross-selling and bundling of digital and face-to-face opportunities is important, he said.
LegalTech has developed six distinct touch points, via its New York and Los Angeles in-person events, as well as a dedicated virtual environment that provides on-demand content and four live quarterly events.
ALM also introduced a mobile app for LegalTech that gives a sponsor access to the email addresses of people who download the technology, as long as the user opts to allow the address to be sent.
“The more information that can be delivered to the client, the more you can charge for the product,” Dicker said.