Attract Smaller Companies and Startups to Your Tradeshows

Could exhibiting costs be keeping smaller companies and startups from your tradeshow? Some thoughts on wooing these exhibitors, who may offer ideas and innovations that your members need to be successful long term.

Even though some associations are assessing whether hosting large-scale tradeshows with aisles of booths is the right strategy to serve their members, the traditional expo floor is a staple that is likely to stay around for a while for many organizations.

After all, tradeshows are a huge source of nondues revenue. According to the latest edition of ASAE’s Association Operating Ratio Report, exhibit and tradeshow booth fees account for 14.5 percent of nondues revenue at trade associations, while professional organizations receive 7.8 percent from booth fees.

Even though those fees mean profits for associations, they could be keeping companies from exhibiting—particularly startups or other small businesses that don’t have extra money on hand to send staff to tradeshows or to pay for space.

In an article posted on Defense One earlier this month, writer Caroline Houck noted the lack of startups on the exhibit floors of some of the largest military conferences.

“Pentagon leaders regularly laud Silicon Valley-esque companies and have repeatedly said that harnessing entrepreneurs’ innovative ideas is crucial to the U.S. military’s qualitative edge,” she wrote.

But despite interest from military staff and leaders to interact with these entrepreneurs and explore their innovations, these companies are missing from defense conference expo halls. Houck used the Air Force Association’s September Air, Space & Cyber Conference as an example. “[N]one of the 120-plus exhibitors were what might conventionally be called a startup,” she wrote.

Houck attributed that to factors like cost and lead time. For instance, larger companies and defense contractors can more easily spend money to build and staff a tradeshow booth. Also, they’re more likely to be able to shell out thousands of dollars to secure booth space. On top of financial factors, many startups and small businesses aren’t in a position to buy space nearly a year in advance—a timeline many military-related conferences work on.

However, there are groups within the defense industry working to alleviate the financial burden for small companies. At its annual meeting earlier this month, the Association of the United States Army had an area on its show floor called the Small Business Pavilion.

“For only $65.00 a square foot, you can now showcase your products and services to over 26,000 people from around the world, including senior leaders from the Army, DoD, and Congress,” said AUSA on its webpage. “And as a small business, we will waive our membership fee requirement during the first year, saving you $6,000.00.”

AUSA Industry Affairs Director Michael Scanlan told Defense One the program accounted for more than 80 of AUSA’s 600-plus exhibitors. “We’ve had a steady stream of interest from smaller, more nimble companies,” he said. “We try to provide the Army with an opportunity to talk to small businesses and learn from them.”

Defense industry associations aren’t the only groups to encourage startups and small businesses to exhibit. The National Restaurant Associations hosts a Startup Alley. At its 2016 show, NRA selected 14 companies to take part. To be eligible, companies must meet a number of requirements, including being less than three years old and having an annual sales volume of less than $5 million. Selected companies also pay a reduced rate of $2,500 to exhibit.

In announcing Startup Alley’s launch in 2015, NRA’s former chief innovation and member advancement officer, Phil Kafarakis, said: “We embrace the fact that there are a large number of startups popping up in the restaurant technology space, and we want to give them the opportunity to work with us and our restaurant members.”

The International Association of Exhibitions and Events’ annual meeting in December will once again include a Tech Startup Pavilion. Companies that meet the criteria—those less than four years old with a product that’s launched in the last 12 months—can exhibit for a discounted price of $1,950, which includes a one-year membership valued at $549. Non-pavilion space is priced at $3,400 and does not include membership.

No matter your association’s industry, there are likely small businesses and startups that would like to reach your attendees but stay away from your events due to costs or logistics. What have you done to encourage startups, small businesses, or companies new to your industry to exhibit? Please share in the comments.


Samantha Whitehorne

By Samantha Whitehorne

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

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