What Publishers and Event Organizers Can Learn From the PennWell Acquisition

In a recent Forbes article, Tony Silber notes how the recent acquisition of PennWell by Blackstone, via Clarion Events, is unlike other recent event-related acquisitions over the last few years

First, of course, is the reported price. While it has not been confirmed, sources say it is in the area of $300 million.

More importantly, PennWell is not just an event company, as has been the case with other major acquisitions lately, like that of Informa acquiring UBM in January.

PennWell, a family-owned business, has a number of events, but most are linked to strong decades-old digital and print products that serve a number of industries – and, in my experience, it is one of the few that has been able to effectively use events, magazines and websites in a collaborative way.

And that has always been the dream of digital and print publishers, hasn’t it? To capitalize on its relationship with an audience with event brand extensions, and vice versa.

Yet it never seems to really work quite right. Too often I see publishers with digital and print products come up with the brilliant idea of launching an event for their primary audience – and then act as if they have forgotten they even owned a newsletter or a magazine.

The justification often is that there is so much work to do that the harried event organizer can’t be bothered with coordinating with editors and publishers, and vice versa.

But if the editors and publishers could be engaged in the event business, a community that is created by either an event or a publication could be enhanced and the event-slash-publication brand could be extended.

Here are a few mistakes I see event organizers with deep connections to publications making:

  • Not involving editors in content creation for their conferences. Who knows the topics the audience cares about most and the big players in the industry better than the editors?
  • Not showcasing editors and publishers at the event. This is a great opportunity to turn the faceless worker bees behind a publication into human beings that an audience can identify with.
  • Not engaging the community that it aspires to serve beyond the event and the publication. Here is where PennWell has done well for decades with strong links to trade associations in the industries in which it has events.
  • Not keeping the event uppermost in the audience’s mind once it’s over by repackaging content from the conference for the publication with interviews, podcasts and streaming video.

Certainly, deriving a profit from every facet of a b2b business is the ultimate goal, but often money is left on the table when the business does not take advantage of every access point it has to a community.

Michael Hart is an event consultant and conference content professional. He can be reached at michaelhart@michaelgenehart.com, @michaelgenehart or 323-441-9654.

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Show Managers, Be Honest

A few days ago I was speaking with a potential attendee to an event I’m helping with, describing some of the people planning to speak at the conference.

The potential attendee asked, “But how do we know they’ll really show up?”

That’s the point where I realized that the growing obsession with “fake news” in the media, which has already drawn into question the public’s confidence in some of its most trusted institutions, may have reached the point where nobody fully trusts anything anybody says to them anymore.

You will find plenty of bloggers to lament what this atmosphere has done to civil discourse. 

I worry about what this overwhelming mistrust of everything is doing to undermine the social contract that is the backbone of every single business community.

If somebody is suspicious I’m lying to them about whether a certain speaker will appear at a conference, what does that tell us about the confidence we can have in the simplest business transactions?

I worry that the impact on the events industry will be that people simply decide not to go anywhere.

Perhaps the best deterrent here is the same simple advice being given to responsible journalists whose reputations are under threat: Redouble your efforts to be honest.

Now is the time to focus on the fact that your events are community builders, venues where people of like interest – be it business or otherwise – come together. If that is the promise you make to your stakeholders, deliver on it.

This moment in history, this too will pass. Meanwhile, now is the time to follow through on every single promise you make to your sponsors, exhibitors and attendees.

 

Michael Hart is an event consultant and conference content professional. He can be reached at michaelhart@michaelgenehart.com, @michaelgenehart or 323-441-9654.

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What Any Show Organizer Can Learn From SXSW’s Mistakes

AUSTIN, TX – MARCH 10: <> on March 10, 2018 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by FilmMagic/FilmMagic for HBO)

Huh? The organizers of SXSW make mistakes? Well, once in a while.

As the event that has become all things to all people wrapped up its 31st edition last week, Adweek asked its advisory board what it thought of one annual event that every show organizer wishes they had launched.

Interestingly, the advisory board’s consensus was that the event’s two greatest assets were inextricably linked to its two greatest faults. Their discussion might offer some wisdom for those of us whose event goals are a bit less ambitious.

First, the Adweek advisory board noted that, while SXSW offers attendees the opportunity to network across a wide cross-section of industries, the atmosphere is sometimes so chaotic it is logistically difficult to connect with specific individuals one may want to meet with.

One of the first impulses of anybody looking to grow a new show is to find new categories and interests that might not be central to the original purpose of the event. The rationale is that it gives more people and companies a reason to sign on. However, doing so too quickly can dilute the original community that gathered around the event in its earliest days and cause first-time attendees or exhibitors to say to themselves, whether it’s true or not, “I can’t find anybody I was hoping to meet here.”

Next, the group Adweek surveyed found that while SXSW remains an excellent venue for an established player to activate a new brand (like this year’s high-profile introduction of HBO’s Westworld), to some extent the event’s original desire to be the place to find next-generation innovations has dissipated. (Who remembers now that Twitter was introduced to the world at SXSW?)

If you’re running an event that, after a few years, is just starting to take its rightful place in the consciousness of the industry it serves, you’re thinking, “I want to be both the show where the biggest players introduce their new products AND the one where the newest start-ups can find their first big deal.”

But are you quite ready to pull that off yet? Maybe your confident answer is yes, but there will be trade-offs to consider.

Everybody wants their event to grow, but the key to doing it successfully is remembering why sponsors, exhibitors and attendees were so excited about what you were doing in the earliest years. Find new ways to serve more of those people successfully, and they’ll bring their peers and colleagues along with them.

Don’t ever put a long-time fan of your event in the situation where they look up from the showfloor one day and say, “I can’t see anybody that I care enough about to meet.”

Michael Hart is an event consultant and conference content professional. He can be reached at michaelhart@michaelgenehart.com, @michaelgenehart or 323-441-9654.

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How Tribalism Can Work for Your Event

We hear “tribalism” blamed for much of the political and cultural dysfunction in the world today – and probably rightly so.

By tribalism, I mean the attitude or behavior exhibited when loyalty to a certain social group represents a higher value than other values, i.e., truth, facts, what’s right for the country.

There are many explanations for why this drive toward tribalism is sweeping, not just the United States, but the entire world. Among them are the advent of social media and, with it, the accompanying ability to only receive messages that affirm your views and ignore those that contradict what you already believe.

However, a Nielsen Global Trust in Advertising report indicates a few truths associated with tribalism that could work to the event organizers’ advantage as they compete against other forms of marketing – if they are willing to change.

After surveying 28,000 Internet users in 56 countries, the report found that consumers trust recommendations from families and friends above all other forms of advertising. And 70 percent trust consumer opinions posted online by people they don’t know.

That is in contrast to the 29 percent who trust text ads on mobile phones, the 33 percent who trust online banner ads and the 40 percent who trust ads served in search engine results.

So, who would be the best person to promote your event – the blogger with a small but avid audience who has been to, trusts and loves your show, or the high-profile speaker you try so hard to get but for whom your show is just one of many he or she will speak at this year? The Nielsen report indicates it might be the former rather than the latter.

The Nielsen report, I think, has one more lesson for event organizers, this one dealing with conference content. I have been working with one fairly young – albeit so far successful – conference that adopted and stuck with a philosophy that conference speakers should be practitioners in the field itself rather than high-priced third-party experts, consultants or, heaven forbid, motivational speakers.

The attendees at the conference have spoken with their registration fees: They want to hear from people like themselves – whose experience they trust – as opposed to advice or sage wisdom from somebody with celebrity status but who is disconnected from their own profession.

Yes, it could be the world is becoming more tribal, but that might offer new opportunities to event organizers who have the courage to adopt new ways of doing things.

Michael Hart is an event consultant and conference content professional. He can be reached at michaelhart@michaelgenehart.com, @michaelgenehart or 323-441-9654.

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The Event Organizer and the New Commodity Economy

If you run a small state association trade show, or if you’re a for-profit player nurturing a show launch along to what you hope will be the size at which you can sell it to a bigger player, what does the impending $5.5 billion sale of UBM to Informa mean to you?

Were you listening when Informa Group Chief Executive Stephen Carter said of the then-potential Informa-UBM hookup, “It is clear the b-to-b market is moving to operating scale and industry specialization”?

Are you concerned that Walmart is pushing its suppliers for deeper discounts because of competitive pressure from Amazon?

Does it matter to you that last year the price of Kimberly-Clark’s paper towels dropped 2.7 percent? Or that its disposable diapers became 0.8 percent cheaper?

The commoditization of almost everything consumer related seems to be leading to a point where two companies, Walmart and Amazon, sell everything to everyone – and compete with each other for the lowest price.

That couldn’t happen to the events industry, right? That’s what you’re saying to yourself, isn’t it? Face-to-face is different!…Right?

Or is it?

Keep in mind that this is only the latest mega-acquisition involving these two companies over the last eight years: UBM acquired Canon Communications in 2010 and then Advanstar Communications in 2014. Informa bought Hanley Wood Exhibitions in 2014 and Penton in 2016.

Is this just interesting but ultimately irrelevant news for the small event organizer? Or should we take Stephen Carter’s predication that “the b-to-b market is moving to operation scale and industry specialization” as a threat that smaller players could be steamrolled out of business?

Will the ability of larger event companies to take advantage of economies of scale dictate a decline in the value of smaller events? Will the larger event companies’ ability to implement industry specialization, as Carter suggests, dictate the demise of niche organizers who launch one-of-a-kind conferences and trade shows and nurture them until they can hand them off to larger players?

Maybe not. Take a look at another example from the world of consumer products.

While Kimberly-Clark is trying to find the bottom of the market for things like paper towels and disposable razors, competitor Proctor & Gamble is seeing growth in its higher-priced niche organic beauty and health care products categories – 9-percent growth for organic beauty products in the last quarter alone, 4 percent for organic health care.

P&G made the decision to go upscale, to personalize and to pay attention to a market – in this case, the one for higher-priced organic products – that repels commodification.

There is hardly an event entrepreneur who does not want to build their young show just to the point where they can sell it for the highest price possible.

But first you have to build it. And, in this new commodity economy, you’ve got to do so in a way that returns to the true meaning of face-to-face: One attendee and one exhibitor at a time.

Michael Hart is an event consultant and conference content professional. He can be reached at michaelhart@michaelgenehart.com, @michaelgenehart or 323-441-9654.

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So You Want to Be Gary Shapiro

If you are not the president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Assn., now is the hour of your discontent.

You are looking at all the media attention driven by International CES last week, watching the news reports telling you that the show drew 180,000 people and wishing that was you and your show everybody was talking about.

You’ll keep wishing that until July, when International Comic Con will capture the public’s imagination. Then you’ll be asking yourself why you couldn’t have been the one who thought of that.

Why do we wish it was us running those mega-shows?

If your show was as big as CES or drew as many celebrities as Comic Con, would you be accomplishing the goals your stakeholders have set for you?

And, while we’re talking here, what are the goals your stakeholders have set for your event? Do you even have any?

Certainly, you’re looking to the metrics: How can you make more money with this year’s show than last? What can you do to grow attendance? To get all of last year’s exhibitors to re-sign?

Other than revenue and profit goals, do you have any other clear idea of your event’s purpose, its reason for existing?

Here’s what I see too often in the association event world: After the event, the staff member charged with running it gives a report to the association board, which feels it has more important things to worry about and really doesn’t want to devote too much time to the annual show that took place last month.

If the report is rosy, they say, “Keep doing what you’re doing.” If it’s a little less than rosy, they say, “Try harder next time,” and move on with their agenda.

But do they ever ask themselves what the purpose of their event really is?

Is it to get as many of those associated with an industry together at one time? If so, are you doing everything you can to make it both attractive and easy for as many people as possible?

Or is it your idea to reach the influencers and thought leaders who will then spread the messages you and your exhibitors offer them? If so, what are you doing to achieve that goal?

Or do you want to be – as is the case with CES and Comic Con – a venue for your speakers, sponsors and exhibitors to reach the larger public? And, if that is the case, what are you doing to make sure that happens?

By the way, these are not questions for the event organizer alone, unless that happens to be the person who actually owns the show. They are fundamental questions that your organization’s governing authority – be it a board or a single individual – must seriously consider and then answer.

Once you do figure out what your event’s real purpose is, and then execute a strategy to fulfill it, you’ll feel just like Gary Shapiro does right now.

Michael Hart is an event consultant and conference content professional. He can be reached at michaelhart@michaelgenehart.com, @michaelgenehart or 323-441-9654.

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Why Are Event Organizers So Anxious?

We should all be diving into this new year with enthusiasm.

The stock market is reaching record highs. Unemployment is at its lowest level in a decade. GDP growth is consistent. Presumably, the new tax cuts will give companies more money to work with – and to spend with you!

All good reasons, under ordinary circumstances, for a show organizer to be optimistic.

So why are so many tradeshow organizers and conference planners I talk to worried?

Granted, CEIR’s third-quarter report on tradeshow industry performance was down 0.7 percent. But, if you remove two industry sectors from the total equation, performance was up 2.8 percent.

So what’s wrong? Why are so many organizers reporting that registrations for shows in the first or second quarters are down compared to previous years?

Event organizers are anxious because their potential attendees are anxious. Today, we live in a world in which people have no confidence their leaders can assure them that “everything will be OK.” They worry that things beyond their control will spiral into chaos.

Those of us who were around following Sept. 11, 2001, remember the impact the terrorist attacks had on shows that had nothing to do with what happened in New York, Washington, D.C., or Pennsylvania.

So what can you do if you feel you may suffer the consequences of the vague sense of dread that is blanketing the world?

Reinforce the value of your event. If your potential attendees decide they’ll only travel to one conference this year, make sure it’s yours.

Create content that will make it so much easier for your attendees to do their jobs and increase their bottom lines. Give them the most urgent information they need to navigate troubled waters. Make sure they will connect with the people who can help them the most.

And then be sure your potential attendees get the message that you have the information and connections they desperately want.

Make this the year you defy and exceed expectations!

Michael Hart is an event consultant and conference content professional. He can be reached at michaelhart@michaelgenehart.com, @michaelgenehart or 323-441-9654.

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Do You Have an Event Brand?

Last weekend I visited our local Whole Foods and saw some big changes underway: Temporary walls were placed around a large portion of the main floor with signs making it clear that renovations are underway behind those walls and that “The Amazon Store Is Coming!”

With its acquisition of Whole Foods, the company that started out a mere 23 years ago selling books online will now have a brick-and-mortar presence a mile or two from my house. This week, Amazon also announced a new technology it’s experimenting with that will allow them to enter your house when you’re not there to deliver packages in a secure place, all the while videotaping the visit for your safety.

In other words, the Amazon brand now permeates most parts of our lives as consumers. Can you say the same for your event and the lives of the people who might and should attend it?

Looking back, for Amazon it all started out so quietly. The online book seller took more than a decade before it was the technology disruptor that would destroy most of the book store chains once in existence.

Eventually, it would become one of the first companies to make cloud computing accessible to large numbers of small companies and now has its own branded apparel labels, snack foods, consumer electronics, television shows and movies.

Amazon has taken another step with this next phase, moving beyond online retailing, “back to the future” and an earlier era of retailing that involves personalized, face-to-face customer service with live employees in its own stores.

So, it has come full circle, from offering an alternative to the traditional book store, to practically destroying that entire business model, to a new version of the old-fashioned book store down the street.

Jeff Bezos is always looking for the next opportunity to extend the Amazon brand; this time, it just happens to be back to the past.

Let’s say you started out with a single trade show in 1994 and, even though you might not have known what you were talking about, you called it a brand. Twenty-two years later, how far have you extended that event brand?

There are ways to do it, starting today.

Jeff Bezos is no smarter than you and, if he can do it, so can you. Besides, if you don’t extend your event brand, and fast, somebody else will read this, do it for you, and make it their brand.

Michael Hart is an event consultant and conference content professional. He can be reached at michaelhart@michaelgenehart.com, @michaelgenehart or 323-441-9654.

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Does Event Size Still Matter?

Cathy Breden of IAEE “took me to the woodshed” because of my recent comments on the accuracy of the CEIR Index.

So be it. I can take criticism, I welcome contrary views, and I ordinarily would not even revisit the issue.

However, I want to reiterate that the ultimate point of that blog post was not the challenges that CEIR faces with its Index, but the reluctance of the events industry to share accurate information…with anybody. The fact that there are perceived problems with the CEIR Index is just one symptom of an industry-wide conundrum.

With the opportunities provided today by data analytics, it is so much easier for show organizers to make the case for themselves with potential attendees, sponsors and exhibitors. And the opportunities have little to do with who has the biggest showfloor, the most attendees or even the most revenue.

They have to do with whether a particular event is the one that will benefit a specific attendee or exhibitor.

Does size matter in the events industry? Is it really important to have more square feet of exhibit space or more attendees than any other trade show in your industry sector?

Probably not.

The events industry has changed drastically in recent years. Those metrics, still in favor by many, were significant in an age when the value of a product was directly proportional to its size. Trade shows were where people went to sell big things – machines, tractors, giant servers, furniture, etc. – and the more space you took up, the more effective you were at selling those things.

Things of value today…not so big. In fact, there are products of great value that have almost no physical presence at all! At best, those trying to pitch them can use their trade show booth to demonstrate something that nobody can see or hold in their hands.

Those old metrics also stem from a time when the trade show floor was – and stop me if you’ve heard this one before – the best place for buyers and sellers to connect.

It is no longer the “best” place in every case. People with stories to tell and products to sell have many, many ways to communicate with potential audiences. The event is just one of many marketing channels available to them.

The opportunities for engagement and community are what makes an event valuable today, not the size of its exhibit hall or the number of people in the aisles.

Michael Hart is an event consultant and conference content professional. He can be reached at michaelhart@michaelgenehart.com, @michaelgenehart or 323-441-9654.

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How Accurate Is the CEIR Index?

A recent press release from UFI, the Global Assn. of the Exhibition Industry, announcing that it now has 2,590 “certified” member exhibitions reminded me of the nearly forgotten debate among American trade show organizers 10 or 15 years ago about auditing shows.

The question that was discussed way too often (in my opinion) was whether shows would have more credibility if they allowed independent third parties to verify the number of attendees who were in attendance.

(UFI has long made this a requirement for membership.)

It seems as if the nays eventually wore out the yeas because it’s not discussed much any more, which is probably just as well.

As we have all learned in the aftermath of the Great Recession of nearly 10 years ago, simply getting a large number of people to a show doesn’t guarantee success for anybody. It’s the quality of the attendee/buyer that now matters most

However, lurking somewhere just out of sight is the reality that this is an industry that doesn’t particularly like to share information. This tendency, of course, flies in the face of the advice writers like me are always giving people about using data to make the case for their events.

Certainly, there is nothing wrong with supplying competitors with as little information as possible about your operations. But what I perceive as an industry-wide aversion to sharing data can lead to inaccurate perceptions that will eventually harm everybody.

Case in point: Shows voluntarily submit information to CEIR in order for it to create its quarterly index reports. Since both the identities and the data on individual shows are kept confidential, there is no way to hold event organizers accountable, i.e., make sure they’re telling the truth.

At the same time, CEIR typically does not reveal how many shows it collects data from each quarter in order to construct the CEIR Index. I have been told by multiple sources who, for obvious reasons, do not want their identities revealed either, that some of the 14 industry sectors represented in the quarterly survey have as few as two shows in them.

That means, in some cases, readers of the Index are drawing conclusions about the health of events in a particular industry sector based on the questionable performance of two unnamed shows.

Apparently, the industry is OK with this, but it should not be surprised if it wakes up one morning and discovers all those consecutive quarters of growth were just phantoms.

Michael Hart is an event consultant and conference content professional. He can be reached at michaelhart@michaelgenehart.com, @michaelgenehart or 323-441-9654.

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