"This economy has put a lot of pressure on the industry," said Jonathan "Skip" Cox, president-CEO of Exhibit Surveys, which offers third-party audits. "The recession has had a dampening effect on the [audit] movement."
But the climate in which exhibitors make spending decisions has also changed, and exhibitors are again pressing the issue.
The Trade Show Exhibitors Association (TSEA) formed an advocacy committee to promote the use of audits earlier this year. In October, the organization also joined forces with the Healthcare Convention and Exhibitors Association, the Corporate Event Marketers Association, the Exhibit Designers + Producers Association and the Exhibitor Appointed Contractor Association to create the Exhibit Industry Council (EIC). The council, which will meet quarterly and focus on industry best practices, also will take up the issue of audits.
"Metrics-driven marketing is the new standard," said Eric Allen, exec VP of the Healthcare Convention and Exhibitors Association. "The trade show and convention industry needs to get on board."
Less than 2% of North American trade shows currently offer third-party audits to help exhibitors determine the resources they should allocate to an event, said John Mikstay, events audit manager at BPA Worldwide, a nonprofit organization that offers audited event measurements. However, audits are at the top of exhibitors' wish lists, he said.
"Organizers need to be proactive and not wait for their exhibitors to ask for [audits]," he said. "This is a competitive advantage, and it's an opportunity for salespeople to solidify their partnerships with exhibitors."
Organizers that provide internally generated data often use numbers that are less precise than those generated in a certified audit, he said. "They're using registration numbers that are valid, but not the accurate story."
Audited data can provide a sales tool when selling booth space, even in a down economy that has seen attendance, square footage and exhibitor numbers drop at many shows, he said. "It has become a discussion about quality."
Despite such merits, however, audits remain controversial, said Margaret Pederson, chairwoman of the board of the International Association of Exhibitions and Events.
In the case of a tight budget, every line item receives scrutiny—even those costing between $5,000 and $6,000, the price range for a basic audit.
Shows that have never been audited may be reluctant to provide detailed numbers in what could prove to be a down year, even in exchange for establishing credibility and audience quality.
The bottom line: "It's weighing the value versus the cost," Pederson said.
Show organizers face increasing pressure to demonstrate return on investment for all stakeholders, she said. Audits and detailed analysis of attendees and other show elements can help prove the value of an event over time.
But the need for certified numbers may vary at different events, she said. Exhibitors at order-writing shows, for example, can track sales to determine return on investment, while exhibitors working with a longer buying cycle and multiple touch points may require more complex data.
Also exhibitors often do not make a strong appeal for certified numbers, she said. "In some industries exhibitors say they would like the information," she said, "but they don't demand it. If they don't demand it, is it a critical selling point?"
David Brull, director of marketing and membership at TSEA, said exhibitors are often reluctant to demand audits because they do not want to be labeled troublemakers. The TSEA's audit advocacy group provides them with an anonymous voice, he said.
"[Event organizers] don't feel they need to audit because they feel they give honest numbers to exhibitors," he said. "But the numbers [exhibitors] need to give to their C-level [executives] are much more precise. It's a powerful selling tool for the show itself; [organizers] just don't realize it."