Meetings

Disruption Does a Tradeshow Good

By / May 30, 2014 (iStock/Thinkstock)

The word “disruption” doesn’t always need to have a negative connotation. In fact, disruption can benefit your industry and the tradeshows and meetings your association holds, according to some leading event executives.

On Wednesday I attended the Exhibition and Convention Executives Forum here in DC. The one-day meeting brings together association and independent event executives to discuss meetings and tradeshow strategy with their peers and hear from those inside and outside the meetings space about trends affecting the industry.

You can’t accept the way it’s always been and then expect it to stay the same.

Over the course of the day, I noticed speakers saying one word repeatedly: disruption. Each of them defined it in a different way and provided a distinct example of how his or her tradeshows and events were being affected by it, but all agreed they couldn’t ignore it. In fact, by either embracing it or purposely introducing it, disruption could ultimately lead their organizations and tradeshows to innovation and better engagement with their community. Here’s a closer look at how three execs are making the most of a disruptive environment.

Maintain Your Relevance

Greg Topalian, senior vice president of Reed Exhibitions, knows a thing or two about a successful tradeshow. After all, he was a huge part of the launch and subsequent massive growth of New York Comic Con, which attracted more than 133,000 attendees in 2013. And tomorrow he will use “disruption to create a new opportunity” at BookCon, a consumer-focused book festival being introduced for the first time during the last day of BookExpo America (BEA), the publishers’ annual tradeshow that’s been around since 1901.

Anyone willing to pay $30 a ticket will have the chance to chat with some of their favorite authors, collect autographs, and get a sneak peek at upcoming book releases. (On a separate note, the event has been criticized  over a lack of diversity in its original list of panelists. The event’s organizers have since added panelists for a more diverse lineup of presenters.)

BookCon represents a new direction for BEA, but it’s something Topalian said was necessary given the disruption in the publishing industry.

For example, digital books are changing the landscape and eliminating “middlemen” retailers, similar to what Airbnb has done to travel and Redfin to real estate. This has publishers concerned about how consumers can discover new books. What better way to help with that than to have publishers and authors meet their readers directly and give consumers a one-of-a-kind experience, Topalian said. “You can’t accept the way it’s always been and then expect it to stay the same,” he added.

But the bigger question is whether this new element will be successful. Topalian is optimistic, noting that the event is close to selling out.

Adapt to New Dynamics

Recognizing that the fashion industry’s dynamics were being disrupted was step one for Joe Loggia. As president and CEO of Advanstar, a company that owns of some of the largest fashion tradeshows in the United States, Loggia saw that its revenue-generating, twice-yearly fashion tradeshows weren’t meeting the growing need for constant, year-round communication that brands and retailers were craving. In addition, both were increasingly using technology to build a competitive advantage and enhance their presence.

“So the question soon became this: What opportunities could we create for the fashion industry and our bottom line if we acted on this?” Loggia said. “Our strategy was to embrace this disruption.”

For Advanstar, this meant throwing away the traditional thought that seasonal, in-person meetings were the only way to go and welcoming the disruptive force of 24/7/365 digital commerce and connection. So it launched Shop the Floor, a digital marketplace platform that “facilitates continuous commerce, content, and community.” Today, it features 800 active brands, 30,000 products, and 4,000 active retailers.

“Technology will not replace the human relationship and connection made at face-to-face events—especially not in the fashion industry, which is founded on humanity, passion, and creativity,” said Loggia, in an article announcing Shop the Floor’s launch. “What it will do is help facilitate and extend those relationships online and continue the dialogue, which adds value to the entire community.”

Embrace Integrated Virtual Opportunities

A scientific association that promotes discovery in Earth and space science, with 62,000 members—20 percent of them students—in 138 countries, already has one-third of its members (nearly 23,000) attending its Fall Meeting. Sounds like a rosy picture, doesn’t it?

But for American Geophysical Union Executive Director and CEO Chris McEntee, FASAE, that wasn’t enough. “What about the other two-thirds?” she asked. “How can we make the experience more valuable to them?” Couple those questions with other realities the AGU meeting was facing—including restrictions on government employee travel to industry events and hefty payment-processing costs that were keeping international attendees at home—and you begin to realize, like McEntee, that the time was right for a little disruption.

So, at its 2013 Fall Meeting, AGU introduced a live stream and on-demand option that had three components: streaming of keynotes, named lectures, 500-plus oral presentations, and press conferences; host-site opportunities for scientists and students across the globe; and e-posters.

AGU waited to market the virtual option until two weeks before the show, in an effort to keep it from cannibalizing in-person attendance, and charged no fee, but registration was required. The result: an 18 percent increase in overall attendance.

Although offering the virtual option added about $200, 000 to the meeting’s budget and 40 percent of virtual attendees were not AGU members, McEntee points this out: “If we convert about half—4,000—of those virtual nonmember attendees into members at $50 each, which I definitely think is possible, it more than covers our cost,” she said.

AGU is looking to introduce a pricing structure for this year’s meeting, but McEntee offers this advice to others considering plunging into a disruptive model: “Every organization must figure out what works for them … But you must try new things to stay relevant.”

How is your organization embracing or introducing disruption in your meetings strategy? Share in the comments.

Samantha Whitehorne

Samantha Whitehorne is editorial director of Associations Now. More »

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