A Tradeshow Turnaround Tale

How the Associated General Contractors of America’s annual expo went from the chopping block to exceeding revenue goals in a few years.

Four years ago the Associated General Contractors of America’s annual tradeshow was in a whole different place than it is today. In fact, the word “disaster” was used by staff, exhibitors, and attendees to describe AGC’s 2009 expo—and there were a number of reasons for it.

While AGC’s goal was to sell $250,000 in sponsorships and exhibits, it sold $305,000 and netted $183,000 for the organization—$58,000 more than its net-revenue goal.

One was that the expo generated little revenue for the association, continuing a pattern of decline that started a few years earlier. Two was that there were three blocks that separated the meeting’s education sessions and its expo, which made exhibit-hall traffic sparse at best. Third, it received terrible feedback: Multiple exhibitors and attendees said they would “never do another AGC show.”

Now fast forward to today: AGC’s March 2013 expo generated $183,000 in net revenue for the association. So just how did they get there? AGC’s Chief Marketing Strategist Jeff Wilson and Patrick Wilson, president of The Profitable Association, Inc., shared the turnaround story earlier this week at ASAE’s 2013 Annual Meeting & Expo.

Here are three lessons from them that you may be able to apply to your own expo:

  1. Set goals for change, but know your limits. After a “disaster” of a meeting in 2009, AGC considered whether to hold the expo in 2010. Some reasons it had for not having the meeting: lack of nondues revenue the prior year as well as limited staff resources and a lack of customer engagement. And the reasons why it should hold it? The possibility for nondues revenue growth, potential exhibitor engagement, and the opportunity to carve out a spot in the marketplace.

In the end, AGC decided to hold it, with the main goal being to gain traction in the marketplace. But knowing that it didn’t have the resources to handle 100 or 200 exhibitors at its tradeshow, it decided to go with European-style hard-wall booths that would make it easy for the 35 to 50 exhibitors it anticipated. All exhibitors had to do was show up; no booth setup was involved, and exhibitor “pods” were scalable and flexible.

As for financials, it was hoping to generate a net profit of $50,000 that year. It exceeded that, bringing in 78 exhibitors and $130,000 in net revenue.

2. Don’t be afraid to change again. With a slower year in 2011 and the decision made to not hold its show in 2012, AGC started thinking about what to do in 2013. While the meeting’s location in Palm Springs didn’t provide a large tradeshow facility, it did provide plenty of opportunities for golf.

To play off of this and the fact that a large part of AGC’s members are men who are 55-plus who like to play golf, it decided to change the expo’s format again and hold a golf-inspired expo called Back in Swing [PDF]. The idea was to build an 18-hole miniature golf course on the expo floor, where each hole was sponsored by an exhibitor. In addition, there were two anchor opportunities for exhibitors to buy into either a golf simulator or swing analyzer and eight spots in the 19th Hole Lounge, which was home to the AGC Store, its foundation, and its political action committee. While these unique opportunities asked sponsors for more money to participate, it did create an environment where exhibitors could engage with attendees for 20 to 40 minutes at a time. Exhibitors could also signup early for extras opportunities, like the chance to do product demonstrations on the show floor. While AGC’s goal was to sell $250,000 in sponsorships and exhibits, it sold $305,000 and netted $183,000 for the organization—$58,000 more than its net-revenue goal.

3. Create an expo brand. With two successful shows—and rave review from attendees and sponsors—behind them, AGC is looking toward 2014. The 2014 show has the double the 2011 space and is already close to selling out. In fact, the majority of exhibitors from 2013 signed up to be part of the show. Both presenters credited this to the fact the AGC was able to create a brand around its expo.

“We went from having an event that lacked customer and exhibitor trust to one that has people eager to sign up thanks to some innovative and unique ideas that we weren’t afraid to try out,” said Patrick Wilson. “Imagine what would have happened had we not decided to take that leap.”

What strategies have you either considered or implemented to reinvent your tradeshow or expo? Let us know in the comments.


Samantha Whitehorne

By Samantha Whitehorne

Samantha Whitehorne is editor-in-chief of Associations Now. MORE

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