Conference expos are major revenue generators, but the standard booth-maze model is past its prime. Today, both exhibitors and attendees expect associations to offer something better.
If your conference includes an expo, here’s some good news: Globally, attendee satisfaction with conference shows has remained stable in recent years, according to a survey by UFI, the global exhibition industry association. In 2016, 67 percent of attendees were very or fairly satisfied, and that rose to 71 percent last year.
The top reasons that attendees go to shows are “to source products, to find new ideas, to network, to learn, to stay up to date with the industry— all of this is not changing,” says Kai Hattendorf, UFI’s managing director and CEO. But to keep people coming back, “the ways you deliver that—they have to change to stay fresh.”
The critical challenge is making your expo one that your attendees actually want to show up for, says John Toner, vice president of convention and industry collaboration at the United Fresh Produce Association.
“We used to view it as a need—people need to attend conventions, people need to attend tradeshows to grow their business. Yeah, they might need to, but they have to want to first,” he says.
Shaking Up the Layout
A little redesign can improve the expo experience. Some associations have redrawn their show floor based on a townscape or Main Street concept, organizing exhibitors into neighborhoods or streets and adding parks and other elements that fit the theme.
The Special Libraries Association created Main Street SLA two years ago as the primary engagement hub of the expo at its annual conference. To better connect members and drive traffic to Main Street, SLA invited its 82 components (chapters and special interest groups) to showcase their activities there. Volunteers from the components staffed the kiosks.There’s much more of a sense of community than there has been in the past, because it is more open and inviting.
Main Street’s “park” featured games and a competition complete with team names and flags. Main Street also hosted live music, and attendees broke into impromptu karaoke.
“All of this goes to creating a more inclusive, welcoming experience,” says Executive Director Amy Lestition Burke, CAE. “There’s an energy now that permeates the entire conference.” SLA rebooked a greater percentage of exhibitors onsite than it has in the past, which she attributes to the new exhibit hall experience.
The Orthopaedic Research Society changed the layout of its expo after hearing exhibitors’ frustrations about not getting enough attendee traffic. Because the ORS conference is a scientific meeting, “our participants are there to see the scientific posters that are in the exhibit and poster hall,” not to visit exhibitors’ booths, says meeting planner Natalie Hinman, CMP.
So Hinman and her team redesigned the space so that the exhibitors are more centrally located and arranged in a diamond shape that attendees must pass through to get to the posters. ORS also added a lounge area where people could gather, as well as an innovation theater where exhibitors could present new techniques, software, and services to attendees. These changes created a more informal networking space, so that the expo hall is “not quite as stuffy and formal as it used to be,” Hinman says.
Feedback from exhibitors has been positive. “There’s much more of a sense of community than there has been in the past, because it is more open and inviting,” she says.
For United Fresh, a major goal of its expo revamp was to create valuable connections among attendees and exhibitors. The floor now includes a food court called EATS, a FutureTEC Zone, and a Marketing Solutions Zone, all of which are intended to “make sure people can dwell in the right space,” Toner says.
For example, the food court made it easier for people to connect. “In the two hours that the food court was open, hundreds of conversations were happening over a shared meal,” he says. “Not that you have to break bread with everyone, but when you break bread with someone, it’s a shared experience, and it tears down walls.”
United Fresh also hosted a B2B matchmaking program called Partner X-Change on the expo floor. It brought 25 retailers and 25 suppliers together for one-on-one meetings that lasted 10 to 15 minutes each. The participants knew in advance whom they would meet.
“The intent was to bring companies together that might not otherwise come together,” Toner says.
In the same spirit of improving the value of the conversations that happen in the expo hall, SLA is reimagining its exhibitor theater for 2020. The Solutions Showcase will allow participants to share their expertise through TED Talk-style presentations, vendor demos, and speed-dating-style conversations that are less like sales pitches and more like discussions about trends and challenges, Burke says.
SLA also brought its exhibitors out from the show floor and into the rest of the conference, where they serve as speakers and attend education sessions.
UFI’s Hattendorf points out that this is a trend: blurring the lines between the expo hall and the conference.
“You have more overlap between the exhibition floor and the conference stage,” with some shows moving the stage onto the show floor itself. This allows the opportunity to exchange knowledge, as well as to sell sponsored slots for companies to present themselves, as an alternative to selling booth space, he says.
Introducing New Elements
The United Motorcoach Association’s tradeshow includes two competitions—one for drivers and one focused on safety and maintenance—but both had been held offsite, so attendees had to leave the show floor to watch them. Last year, for the first time, UMA brought buses onto the floor for the maintenance competition and hired a camera crew and emcee to livestream the drivers competition back to the expo, where it hosted a watch party.
“It created different levels of energy on our tradeshow floor,” says President and CEO Stacy Tetschner, FASAE, CAE.
It also expanded the event’s reach: People tuned in to the drivers competition from around the country. However, the association hadn’t anticipated the internet bandwidth that would be required for the livestream, so the connection was a little spotty, Tetschner says. Lesson learned.
The safety and maintenance competition involved putting two buses up on jacks in the expo hall, so that everyone could see the mechanics working. The day after the competition, UMA used the buses to provide an education session by representatives of a regulatory agency. Attendees could walk under the buses as the regulators pointed out what they look for in inspections.
“All of a sudden, our tradeshow floor wasn’t just about the products. It became about the experience and the education,” Tetschner says.
One simple addition that can encourage conversations and let people relax is comfortable, high-quality furniture. Fifteen years ago, United Fresh didn’t spend any money on furniture in the expo, but that’s changed, Toner says. “You let somebody sit for five minutes, and it changes their whole next hour.”
Toner goes to malls, city parks, hotel lobbies, and other public spaces to observe how people interact. “Our convention floor is the public space where the industry gathers,” he says. “The onus is on us to create the right experience that people want to dwell in.”
“The experience is, to a surprisingly large degree, driven by what you eat and which part of your body is aching at the end of the day,” Hattendorf says. He advises providing carpeting when possible, as well as the chance to see some daylight, such as putting the catering outside if weather allows.
Some expos are moving toward “festivalization,” Hattendorf notes, and immersive events like SXSW show what’s possible.
Attendees want to be entertained. In UFI’s survey, 88 percent of CEOs who were 34 or younger said that both business objectives and entertainment are important to them when they attend tradeshows, and they are much more likely to spend more time at shows that are entertaining.
“So there’s a clear marching order for organizers of all kinds to look into engagement through entertainment,” Hattendorf says. “Engagement, interaction, and entertainment elements are a must-have part of a show floor that is to be future-proof for the next five to 10 years.”
Associations can learn from large corporate events and sporting events, United Fresh’s Toner says. “We want to be in the business of creating fans of our industry, creating fans of our association, and creating fans of our member companies.”
A bit of music changed the experience at his association’s expo. A DJ was booked to play in the lobby for two hours, but when the United Fresh team noticed that the music was boosting attendees’ mood, they negotiated with him on the spot to stay the full 12 hours of the show.
Regardless of the form your expo reinvention takes, it’s important to be reasonable about what you hope to achieve early on. “Results might not come immediately, so associations should be realistic in setting goals,” says Burke.
But that doesn’t mean you should stick with an expo that no longer measures up to attendee and exhibitor expectations. “It’s really key not to fear change,” she says.
Allison Torres Burtka, a longtime association journalist, is a freelance writer and editor in West Bloomfield, Michigan. Email: [email protected]