Third-party audits OK'd for Comdex

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Comdex producer MediaLive International will announce in the next few weeks that it will conduct third-party audits of all of its trade shows, beginning with its Comdex 2003 show in Las Vegas, slated for mid-November. In addition, MediaLive is forming an organization of IT trade event producers to create a standard for third-party audits, BtoB has learned.

The move is significant because Comdex is by far the largest IT event in the industry—it typically attracts more than 125,000 attendees and exhibitors per show—but has been a holdout among trade show producers, refusing to reveal its plans for third-party audits. In the last few months, event producers IDG World Expo, the National Association of Broadcasters and TechTarget have said they will offer third-party audits of their shows.

Observers say show producers are moving in this direction in response to the growing demand from advertisers and exhibitors that want to justify the costs associated with event marketing.

"Auditing trade shows is of critical importance to us," said Jeff Singsaas, director of events at Microsoft Corp. "We need to understand who’s there and the quality of attendee. We routinely ask for [third-party auditing]. The problem is, we often don’t get it. All we’re asking for is to be very clear on what we’re buying."

Singsaas said he is aware of MediaLive’s plans and is encouraged by the details.

75% of IT shows audited

Currently, about 75% of IT trade shows are audited, said Kimberly Gishler, president of the Computer Event Marketing Association and business development/marcom manager for Hewlett-Packard Co.’s ProCurve Networking Group.

"All show management companies have been doing internal audits," Gishler said. However, she added, "exhibitors never really trusted those numbers. We were frustrated by not having real numbers."

With increased pressure to justify marketing expenditures, advertisers, exhibitors and their agencies have been pushing for third-party trade show audits comparable to audits for print publications.

"Bean counters at Fortune 1000 companies are becoming decision-makers, and they are demanding accountability," said Sam Lippman, president of integrated show management & marketing, an event marketing consultancy.

"Show organizers have to embrace audits," Lippman said. "The sooner the better for the professionalism and accountability for the entire medium."

Of the more than 11,000 trade shows now being produced in North America, fewer than 100 are audited by third-party auditors, said Dan Belmont, president of Carat Business & Technology, the business unit within media-buying agency Carat that handles trade advertising and events.

"Take your head out of the sand," Belmont said, issuing a call to action to event producers that currently do not audit their shows. "Isn’t it loud enough that customers dispute the numbers? We need to actually verify numbers with a third party."

Coalition of show producers

To address these complaints, Media-Live is talking to other trade event producers and associations about creating a coalition that would help set standards for auditing of IT events.

"We will be announcing an organization and a body to create a standard, so everyone has a level playing field," said Melinda Kendall, senior VP-marketing for MediaLive, which produces NetWorld + Interop and Seybold as well as Comdex and other IT events. "We want to start an initiative that will raise the bar on audits."

Kendall said the goal of the initiative is to bring together all the major parties involved in trade show marketing, including trade show producers, trade associations, exhibitors, advertisers and agencies, to make sure relevant information is being included in the auditing process.

"We want to look not just at the number of people [attending shows], but look at buyer qualifications to give our exhibitors better information to make decisions about events," Kendall said, pointing to demographics, purchase influence and other data that might be included in third-party audits.

MediaLive is talking to independent auditor Exhibit Surveys about auditing its shows, although it has not signed a deal yet. Exhibitor Surveys now conducts audits for trade events including IDG World Expo, NAB, TechTarget, CeBIT and SuerComm.

Fewer audit demands

Yet some show producers, particularly those that put on smaller events, say they’re not seeing the demand for third-party audits.

Alan Meckler, chairman-CEO of Jupitermedia Corp., which produces Computer Digital Expo, Wi-Fi Planet and Search Engine Strategies Conferences and Expos, said he has not received a single request for independent audits of his shows, and Jupitermedia has no plans to initiate audits.

"With smaller shows and vertical shows, it’s pretty obvious to the exhibitor if you have a quality show," Meckler said. "The proof of the pudding is whether they come back." He noted that Search Engine Strategies is growing at a rate of 30% a show, and Wi-Fi Planet is growing at a rate of 100% a show.

CEMA’s Gishler said her organization’s focus is on big IT trade shows rather than on small, targeted events.

With smaller events, "you can see who’s coming in, and you pretty much know what you’re spending and what you’re getting out of it," Gishler said. "With bigger shows, you have no clue."

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