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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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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How a Total Eclipse May Have Helped Make Total Store Expo a Success

The National Assn. of Chain Drug Stores shares a few major challenges with other trade associations serving consumer-facing industries: technologies disrupting the traditional brick-and-mortar store model, consolidation and fast-changing consumer preferences.

To say the least, as one trade association executive told me recently, “Our members are grouchy.”

And, when it comes to NACDS’s annual event, apparently getting grouchier. I compared attendance figures reported last year to TSNN on the Total Store Expo with similar figures reported by NACSD to Tradeshow Week eight years earlier: Attendance has declined by two-thirds, from a reported 4,129 in 2008 to 1,336 last year.

Attendance totals for this year’s Total Store Expo, of course, are still to be announced.

Nevertheless, it’s clear that the poor Total Store Expo is suffering the same fate as other association events: The perception it is less and less relevant in meeting the needs of its attendees and members.

One saving grace this year though: NACDS got lucky when it came to the idea that a productive event should create the all-important opportunity for attendees to engage with one another. An unintended (I think) addition to the conference schedule was a total eclipse of the sun, at least some of which could be viewed from San Diego.

Bright and early on the third morning of the annual event, attendees poured out of the San Diego Convention Center in their eclipse-friendly sunglasses to watch the once-in-a-lifetime event unfold in front of them over San Diego Bay.

My guess is there was as much chatter there on the sidewalk by the bay for a few minutes as there had been during all the hours the show floor was opened.

Who knows? Maybe a few new business partnerships were started amidst the chatter.

In a world in which creating opportunities for event attendees to engage with one another is the most important priority, sometimes an event organizer just gets lucky.

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 3 Event Trends That Matter Most

Very few of us, given the time to dawdle, can pass up those titles we run across on LInkedIn that lure us into opening articles like “The 10 Most Important Trends That Will Change Your Show in 2017” or “The 15 Trends Every Event Organizer Must Pay Attention to RIGHT NOW!”

Certainly, it is wrong to stick our heads in the sand about changes impacting the events industry, but constantly creating to-do lists of things we MUST do to keep our event businesses healthy can be exhausting.

I go to events of all sizes that are held for all kinds of reason. In the last two months, among others, I have spoken onsite to an organizer running a show for 60,000 attendees in a dynamic industry with the help of a large staff, and to an organizer of a conference for a nonprofit that attracted 200 at the most.

Both organizers feel they can barely keep up. Both say they have little time to think about introducing innovations into their events before jumping back on the treadmill of looming deadlines they must meet to prepare for the following year’s event.

You know you can’t do everything at once, so allow me to help you simplify. The three most significant trends every organizer, regardless of the size or nature of their event, must pay attention to are:

Engagement. A conference program loaded with three-person panels going through their PowerPoint slides doesn’t get it anymore. A massive exhibit hall with one 10×10 lined up after another will not satisfy either buyers or sellers. You must begin to experiment with new ways that your attendees can engage with your event’s content; with new opportunities for your exhibitors to viscerally demonstrate their products and services.

Personalization: People come to events to meet people who can help them, to find information they need and to see products and services that can improve their businesses or their lives.  But not everyone comes to meet the same people, find the same information or see the same products and services. What can you do to provide more unique opportunities to more subsets of your attendee base?

Technology: This can be and has been a sore point for organizers and in the past many have felt burned by vendors who have sold them on a technology that could either make their operations more efficient or provide a more positive experience for participants, with little or no guidance on how to take advantage of it. That is changing, vendors have begun to get the message, but many event organizers are still gun-shy. Just as is the case with consumer technology, i.e., smartphones, laptops, etc., technology is innovating and simplifying all the time. Don’t be afraid to get back in the game.

Michael Hart is an events consultant and conference content professional. He can be reached at michaelhart@michaelgenehart.com, @michaelgenehart or 323-442-9654.

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Heard Enough Talk About TED Talks?

Even if you’ve never been to a TED conference, if you’re an event organizer, the phenomenon has changed your professional life — sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse — and could change it even more, if you’re willing to risk it.

Having now lived with the TED phenomenon for about 10 years or so, when an attendee at a conference I’m associated with walks up to offer me some advice and starts with, “You know, at TED Talks….” I find it hard to not roll my eyes.

Never have so many had so much to say about an event so few have ever been to.

Still, the concept behind TED is a substantial one that is slowly beginning to transform the conference industry — again, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.

The better: One piece of real information many people have connected to regarding TED is that there is an 18-minute limit on all presentations. That has forced those who organize conferences to realize they can’t sit three or four speakers behind a table in front of an audience, give them an hour and a half and a clicker for their slides, and expect a satisfactory result.

TED has helped many of us realize it doesn’t take that long to tell a good story or deliver a valuable lesson.

The trend is toward shorter conference sessions where fewer speakers — often only one — take a deep dive into a single subject before the attendees move on to their next deep, but quick, dive.

The worse: I can’t count on both hands the number of people in the last few years who have told me, “My goal is to do a TED Talk.”

The well-branded TED phenomenon has pushed us into the era of the “thought leader,” the person who is less interested in giving your conference attendees information they can use and more interested in evangelizing an idea, usually one they alone know can save the world.

It has created the speaker who has a “following,” who moves from conference to conference delivering the same presentation — albeit with a different clever title each time — and whose real ROI is a round of applause at the end and the opportunity to distribute their Twitter handle.

Meanwhile, the conference organizer is stuck with a crowd of attendees filling out post-event surveys a few days later who suddenly realize that, while they enjoyed the speakers’ performances, they can’t remember a single thing they learned at the event that will help their businesses.

The promise: What started out back in 1984 as a single conference for 800 invited guests…remains that, but it has spawned a never-ending string of TED-related channels that constantly reinforce the original brand.

Most of the 18-minute TED Talk presentations are available at ted.org, YouTube and other venues. There are thousands of TEDx Talks held by unaffiliated organizations, but under strict guidelines mandated by the original TED organization.

There are TED Books, TED blogs, TED Prizes, TED Fellows and, yes, countless opportunities to become TED’s marketing partner.

A little more than 10 years ago, after entrepreneur Chris Anderson bought TED from its founder, he declared it no longer a conference, but “ideas worth spreading.”

That’s his brand: “Ideas worth spreading.”

Why doesn’t the average Annual ABC Conference and Trade Show have “ideas worth spreading”? Why is access to ABC followers limited to three or four days the same month every year?

The promise that TED offers the events industry is the opportunity to expand its brands way beyond a mere conference into numerous paths for followers and community members to take that will allow them to spread their own ideas.

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What the Clarion Deal Can Teach Association Event Organizers

The lesson may be

that there is plenty of value in events…but it must be tapped.

Private equity player Blackstone recently paid nearly $780 million for UK-based for-profit Clarion Events. Ten years ago, Veronis Suhler Stevenson bought Clarion for $155 million, then Providence Equity Partners paid $260 million for it two years ago.

Granted, competition in the private equity world is driving multiples up as they continue to take on investors who want to see their money put to work, but there’s a reason why Blackstone, with close to half a billion dollars under management, chose an event company.

Clarion

What’s the reason?

The tide may be turning in the digital assault on the marketing world. While CMOs still like to say they “measure” impact, Ad News recently pointed out that a 2-second view of a video on social media counts as a charge in the same way that a 30-second view of a traditional TV commercial does.

So, measure that.

Exhibit sales people – at least in the for-profit world – know this dirty little secret about social media marketing use it as ammunition.

What do exhibit sales people in the association world know?

That their members are unhappy. That their show floors are shrinking.

That their association boards lack the vision necessary to move their business models into the 21st century.

That they can deliver the content and the networking opportunities that their members and industry associates want…if only their leadership was as nimble as that in the for-profit world.

That they could enhance their events’ value to their association members five times over within 10 years, just as Clarion Events did for its investors.

Michael Hart is a conference content professional and business consultant who focuses on the events industry. He can be reached at michaelhart@michaelgenehart.com or 323-441-9654.

How Events Can Beat Digital Competitors at Their Own Game

You don’t need me to tell you how frustrating it is to have a potential exhibitor tell you they’re putting more of their marketing budget into digital channels and less into events – therefore, “Check with me next year.”
Nevertheless, we all know even a mediocre event can give marketers a few things they will never be able to get from the Googles, LinkedIns, Facebooks and Amazons of the world. Where we have failed is in communicating that value proposition.
Certainly, the ground has shifted over the last 15 or so years. In his July 15 Wall Street Journal article, Jonathan Taplin traces the path some of the mega-tech companies have taken over the past decade and a half and compares it to the paths our best-known creative industries have taken.
Google’s ad revenue has grown from $1.6 billion in 2000 to $79.4 billion last year.
LinkedIn hasn’t been around as long and is not nearly the monster Google is. But it went at lightning speed from generating $155 million in all of 2011 to $975 million in the first quarter of this year (coincidentally, its first full quarter as a Microsoft property).
Conversely, newspaper ad revenue dropped from $65.8 billion in 2000 to $23.6 billion in 2013, the last year figures were available. Sales of recorded music went from approximately $20 billion a year in 2000 to $8 billion last year.
What is the difference between these rising and falling industries?
Google and LinkedIn are technology platforms that collect and sell data. Newspapers and recording companies provide content. If balance sheets send messages, this one is simple: The platform providers, not the content providers, are making the money.
So what can you do to take advantage of this disruption? Make sure your exhibitors know you can provide the buyers they’re looking for in a way that a data-collecting platform can’t. Then secure those buyers by offering them content so compelling buyers-slash-attendees know your event is the only place this year they are going to get everything they need to run their businesses.
Tell everybody this is where they need to be for the latest information on their industry, the products and services they need right now to innovate their businesses, and the connections they must make to be successful.
Don’t be a platform! Be a community builder and content provider…then watch the rest unfold.
Michael Hart is a business consultant and writer who focuses on the events industry. He can be reached at michaelhart@michaelgenehart.com or 323-394-0902.

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This Is What Keeps Trade Show Organizers Up at Night

We know the trade show industry is in great shape because CEIR and the trade show media keeps telling us it is, right?

According to CEIR, the first quarter of 2017 was up 1.6 percent over the same quarter a year ago. Revenue was up even more: 2.3 percent. And almost every week, our industry oracles reprint press releases telling us of another show that broke all previous records.

So why are you so nervous?

Is it because your traditional measurement tools no longer work? Is it because the sponsorship contracts and attendee registrations you used to expect six months out or two months out, or even two weeks out, are no longer there?

Many of you are reaching your attendance or revenue goals – eventually – but why does it seem so much harder than it used to? Why is it that you now only can relax on the last day of your event, take a deep sigh and say, “That was a close one”?

Before I started working with event organizers, I spent many years as a newspaper editor. Whenever we blew a deadline, it was almost always clear to me that it wasn’t because of something that happened in that last hour or two before a paper was supposed to go to press. It was because of something that did NOT happen 24 hours earlier.

Potential sponsors and, especially, potential attendees, have the luxury of time in a way they never have had before. They can wait until the last minute to decide whether they’ll participate in your show.

That doesn’t mean they aren’t paying attention to what you’re doing in the meantime. What you do six months or even 10 months out matters more now than it ever did, even though you don’t have the tangible proof that it does.

Potential attendees are looking at your site to see who your keynote speakers are – so you better have them in place early. They are looking to see who is going to be in the exhibit hall that they want to see.

And, as developments change the focus in their industry, they’re checking back to see if you’ll be there in two months or, sometimes, in two weeks, to explain it all to them.

You know there is an urgent need for your community to be at your event. Now tell your community that – and learn to live with those sleepless nights.

Michael Hart is a business consultant and writer who focuses on the events industry. He can be reached at michaelhart@michaelgenehart.com or 323-394-0902.

 

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8 Ways an Association Event Organizer Can Serve an Industry in Decline

Not every association event organizer gets to run International CES for the consumer technology industry.

Some of us – and you know who you are – manage events for trade associations whose industries have seen better days, industries that have hit an economic rough patch.

Budgets for association member companies are tight, sponsors ignore your voice mails, event attendance drops off and everybody you talk to is grouchy. What’s more, traditionally the annual convention and trade show has been the association’s cash cow and suddenly your president and board are looking to you to do even more to cover the deficit created by declining membership and dues revenue.

And your association has bylaws that say there will be an event every year – no matter what. What’s a flailing association event organizer to do?

  1. Knock off the self-pity. This isn’t about you, it’s about your association and its industry. There may never be a time when your association’s members need a quality event more. Turn your meetings into clearinghouses where attendees can get the information they need to improve their businesses and provide them a venue to interact with each other.
  2. Make your association leaders understand. This is a new paradigm for them too. Association presidents and boards can easily turn a crisis into an opportunity to tell members that “everything will be all right,” when it’s just not true. You must make them understand that this is the time to redouble your efforts to help your membership.
  3. Abandon the annual meeting. Diversification and shifting consumer trends are hitting many industry associations. Maybe a series of smaller events that cater to unique interests will better serve your industry than a one-size-fits-all annual blow-out.
  4. Give your members research they can use. Commission a high-profile industry research company to compile a report on where the industry is headed and what they can do to get there in one piece. Then make the presentation of that report the highlight of your event.
  5. Let people talk to each other. One of the worst parts of an industry downtrend is the feeling that you’re going it alone. Your attendees need those networking events and roundtable discussions now more than ever.
  6. Ditch the motivational keynote speaker. Especially if they’re a hired gun who knows nothing about your business. Instead, recruit one of your highest-profile industry leaders, the CEO of one of your top companies, to talk honestly about the situation and provide some perspective.
  7. Don’t be afraid to cut expenses. Now is not the time for a golf tournament at a PGA course in Arizona or Florida. Even if your attendees can get their bosses to sign off on the expense, it won’t look good to their shareholders. Stick to the low-cost meeting alternatives and, if you can, give your members the steepest discounts you can.
  8. Turn the crisis into a positive. Your industry will survive, in one form or the other, and, if it perceives that you stuck with it through thick and thin, you’ll have their loyalty for life.

Michael Hart is a consultant and business writer who focuses on the events industry. He can be reached at michaelhart@michaelgenehart.com or 323-394-0902.

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