How do exhibitors decide which exhibitions to attend? With big budgets at stake and jobs on the line, this is not a decision to be taken lightly.
Yet many marketers are failing to do their homework when it comes to choosing the right show.
When results are not up to scratch, it is all too easy to blame the exhibition.
But Peter Heath, managing director of events analyst Peak, believes it is incumbent upon marketers to ask themselves why they are attending in the first place. 'I have held workshops with companies where somebody somewhere has made the decision to go to an event and that decision does not bear scrutiny,' he says.
'The process of analysing the event can expose the reckless process that people go through in choosing exhibitions.'
There is no need for guesswork when planning an exhibition strategy.
Instead, marketers should do a little research and use a disciplined approach.
'Exhibitors must set their objectives, then assess the exhibition data to find a match,' Heath explains. 'The data that show organisers provide is often not detailed enough - it is never sliced in the way you want it and usually only the good figures are given. You need to request more in-depth information from the organiser.'
The data might say that 30% of visitors are finance directors and 25% of visitors are from the financial services industry. If you want to target financial directors from the financial services industry, your prospects look good. But cross-reference the data and the statistics could look very different - the finance directors may be predominantly from another sector. 'When you ask the organiser to slice and dice the data in a different way, the landscape can look very different,' says Heath.
Marketers must also be honest about what they expect from an event by setting realistic targets. 'Often, the marketer will make absurd justifications to their boss, predicting huge sales to ensure the company goes to the show,' argues Heath. 'Then the exhibitors complain that shows don't work because they don't reach this unrealistic target.'
Once you have made your selection, the organisers' data can continue to make the exhibition work for you. 'Again, it's a number-crunching game. At every step of your event process, you should be able to dip into a report and have a justification for your decision,' advises Heath.
The first step for exhibitors looking for accurate, independent data is to ask organisers whether they are audited by the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC), which offers two audit schemes for trade exhibitions and one for consumer events. 'The standard audit for trade shows gives a basic entry level of reassurance as to the number of people who went to an exhibition,' says ABC sales and exhibition manager Chris Skeith. 'We check the actual attendance list - as opposed to the pre-registration list - and write to a sample to ensure they were there.'
The 'profile audit' is what Skeith calls the 'gold standard of geodemographics'. Every certificate gives a geographical breakdown, job title and function, industry and business sector. It can also include purchasing authority and the number of employees. 'The profile audit gives the buyer an awful lot of information and a lot of clarity,' adds Skeith.
'These audits enable you to compare like with like. The data has always been there, but now it's completely accessible.'
ABC audits more than 170 trade shows and 54 consumer events, including the Ideal Home Exhibition and the Motor Show. The cost of these audits is not prohibitive - about £650 for a standard audit and £1300 for a profile audit - so there is no excuse for an exhibitor not to have one done.
'The exhibition industry has a professional and independent way of auditing events, so why don't more organisers make use of this and have their shows ABC profile-audited?' asks Jessica Blue, event director of International Confex, a show for the corporate hospitality sector. 'We are ABC profile-audited, which means both the quantity and, more importantly, the quality of the audience is examined and verified by an independent body. Even our own on-site research is conducted by an independent company to guarantee authenticity.'
Blue argues that the standard audit is not enough, since it states only the total number of attendees at a show - a figure that can include exhibiting personnel. As a result, potential exhibitors could be impressed by a large attendance without knowing whether visitors actually have purchasing power or are interested in their products.
She recommends that potential exhibitors talk to existing exhibitors and co-operate with the organisers. 'For the 2004 show, we worked closely with many of our exhibitors. We helped the Netherlands Board of Tourism & Conventions to devise and promote a diamond giveaway to draw more visitors to their stand.'
Austen Hawkins, commercial director of the Association of Exhibition Organisers, agrees that working with the exhibition organiser is vital.
'There's a lot of data available to help marketers select the right show,' he says. 'Have a list of questions and ask for a breakdown. Many organisers do their own research. You should also know the organiser's marketing strategy for the show, as that will help you see who it is targeting.'
According to Angelique Martin, marketing executive at display products manufacturer Clip Display Services, the presence of your rivals is no bad thing. 'It is likely that your competitors will be present at every exhibition related to your industry and you shouldn't be put off by this,' she argues. 'They will probably be doing their own promotion, which will increase numbers of target visitors through the door. See which of your competitors will be attending and which exhibition's visitor profile best suits your target market.'
Once marketers have identified the show that delivers the right visitor profile, there is still plenty of work to be done. Marketers must understand their visitors so that they can provide the right type of service on the day. 'They need to look at the psychological angle,' says Sarah Farrugia, managing director of exhibition research specialist Farrugia Leo. 'People who go to exhibitions are in the vanguard of change in their industry. These people are actively seeking exciting things. It's a very rich audience, so once they've chosen their show, they go with the view that it's all there for the taking.'
Farrugia conducted visitor research for Volvo at the Motor Show to improve the car company's exhibition strategy. 'We looked at the propensity of visitors to buy,' she says. 'We found that 60% of people had planned to visit the Volvo stand. But the expectations and satisfaction of those who planned to visit were radically different from those that who visited by chance.' The research identified and profiled two types of visitor: precision shoppers and browsers. As a result, Volvo can now target its stand and service at both groups.
This type of research and data enables exhibitors to operate on a more strategic level. 'Trade shows are a battleground for attention,' explains Ingrid Brown, director of corporate communications specialist The George P Johnson Company. 'We are encouraging clients to be more strategic.' For example, brand leaders do not necessarily need the biggest stand to get noticed. Exhibitors that use sponsorship, branding and speaker slots at conferences, rather than spending the entire budget on their stand, tend to be the companies with the biggest presence at shows.
Those organising exhibitions also need to raise their game. 'Organisers tend to offer standard packages,' adds Brown. 'They need to be more imaginative, more creative and consultative. They should be asking exhibitors what they really want.'
Above all, though, exhibitors need to push organisers for as much information as possible. Dig a little more deeply and the data you find could make the difference between exhibition success and failure.
WHAT TO ASK
1. Do you have partnerships with relevant industry associations and
2. Is the show ABC-audited? If not, why not?
3. What other data can you provide about the show?
4. Do some exhibitors get special treatment?
5. What is the visitor profile, including title, sector and purchasing
6. What types of visitor are being targeted and how?
7. Which other exhibitors are attending and how many have made a firm
8. What is the marketing campaign for the event and how can I tap into
9. Which of my competitors are attending?
10. Is there compensation if attendance is low?
CASE STUDY - PANASONIC UK
Panasonic UK has a packed annual trade exhibition schedule. Events include BAPCO, the public safety communications exhibition, and The Production Show for the television broadcast market.
'When it comes to selecting exhibitions, we want to know whether the show is reputable and credible, and that is usually defined by its ABC certificate,' says exhibition and event manager Alexis Osada. 'The show has to have relevance to our product range and the visitor profile is absolutely key.'
Osada is a member of the ABC Trade Committee and argues that the body is the best source of in-depth information. 'There aren't many other options in terms of getting independent exhibition data. You can't always rely on what organisers tell you - their job is to promote the show, and while they may not be massaging the figures, there are always ways of using statistics to their advantage.'
Panasonic uses data and research to plan and execute its exhibition strategy, and also tries to measure the return on its investment in shows. 'It can be difficult, as you seldom attend an event where you walk away with millions of pounds of orders at the end of the show,' says Osada. 'But we research events and follow them up so that we can track back orders to the events we attend.'
PREVIEW THE EXHIBITING SHOW
Dates: 30 June-1 July.
Venue: ExCeL London.
Tickets: Entry is free. Register at www.exhibitingshow.co.uk.
Visitor profile: Anyone who plans and manages events.
More than 100 exhibitors, including exhibition consultants, display services, ancillary services and training, evaluation and research firms.
Sessions on event evaluation, delivering your message, how to achieve significant ROI, extending your brand at exhibitions and making exhibition data work.
Seminar tickets £45 a session or £100 for three sessions. Sessions can be pre-booked on the website.
Speakers Include Julian Agostini (Mash Media), David Bittleston (DJB Exhibitions), Sarah Farrugia (Farrugia Leo), Peter Heath (Peak), Chris Skeith (ABC), David Wilson (Mayridge Group).