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Face-to-Face Essentials

Four Tactics for Improving the Expo Experience for Exhibitors and Attendees

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Going back to in-person events while still following COVID-19 health and safety protocols will surely feel different, including in your exhibit hall. To make the most of the expo experience, start early, create a comfort zone, use technology and data, and try new things.

With safety protocols such as masking and social distancing currently in place, exhibit halls may not have the same feel as they did before. But that doesn’t mean that attendees and exhibitors can’t have meaningful experiences, say experts.

“After these last 20 months and many surveys that have been done, we know that both exhibitors and attendees are craving to get back to face to face,” said Cathy Breden, CMP, CAE, executive vice president and COO at the International Association of Exhibitions and Events and CEO of the Center for Exhibition Industry Research. “It’s all about that one-on-one, being able to see, touch, meet, build relationships—those engaging experiences that are created on the show floor.”

Start Early

Here’s the million-dollar question: How do you make the expo experience engaging? One thing exhibitors can do is start marketing their booth and other expo experiences early, said Robyn Davis, CEO of tradeshow consulting firm Exhibitors WINH.

“People aren’t taking advantage of the time before the event. I recommend at least two months of pre-show marketing,” she said. “If you’re not doing your pre-efforts, you won’t have the momentum to be successful during the show.”

Pre-show engagement communication can vary, but the goal is to make sure attendees feel respected and valued. “I like to encourage exhibitors to use multiple communication methods,” Davis said. “It’s not just email, or just direct mail, or just phone, but incorporate as many different communication methods as you can so that your audience feels like you’re targeting them where they are comfortable.”

Plus, when pre-show engagement is good, attendees are more invested when the event takes place. “People are having a hard time doing more with less,” Davis said. “So, if you can prove that you have value to share with them, that you are actually actively trying to help them—instead of make them sort through all your marketing speak—people are receptive to that.”

Now is a perfect time to try new and different things to make attendees and exhibitors feel safer about participating in person.

Create a Comfort Zone

As long as COVID-19 persists and hybrid offerings are available, some tradeshows will probably have fewer attendees. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because it allows more high-quality interactions.

“In exhibitions, we always talk about the number of attendees, rather than the quality of buyer,” Breden said. “I believe that in the short term, we need to focus really on that quality of buyer that’s there. If the exhibitors are able to connect with the true buyers, and they have a successful event, then I think that that helps with the long term.”

Be mindful of accommodating attendees’ comfort level when interacting with them. “Knowing your audience—that’s key,” Breden said. “Some shows and some sectors, the attendees there may feel 100 percent comfortable walking around without masks. Other events that I’ve been to, everybody for the most part is wearing masks.”

Leverage Technology and Data

Using technology to match attendees and exhibitors can help create a richer experience too.

“Even pre-pandemic, the technology was allowing us to be able to create journeys—journey maps for attendees,” Breden said. “And AI was coming on, where we were able to suggest to attendees the exhibitors that they may want to meet. Or as someone is walking through the tradeshow floor, the exhibitor might be notified that someone that they might want to talk to is nearby and vice versa.”

Davis noted that collecting data about their own success patterns can help exhibitors fine-tune the experiences they’re offering. “Look at some of those specific new components you’ve put in place, in comparison to some of those old components,” she said. “See how those are changing with your goals and how the show is changing and how the audience is changing. That will give you a really good information moving forward.”

Be Innovative

If anything, now is a perfect time to try new and different things to make attendees and exhibitors feel safer about participating in person. For example, Breden has seen exhibit halls without carpet on the show floor, which makes surface cleaning easier and contributes to sustainability. Others have used a phone app for entry, rather than a badge that has be to be handled by staff.

Planners should also think about where to locate their expos.

“[Consider] holding more events outside,” she said. “What type of exhibits can be placed outside? If it’s a larger exhibit, is it possible given weather conditions and things like that? … Is there something that might be done there?”

Rasheeda Childress

Rasheeda Childress is a senior editor at Associations Now. She covers money and business. Email her with story ideas or news tips.

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