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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2 Ways Event Organizers Can Outperform GDP

The recent CEIR Index report on 2016 exhibition industry report was…meh.

The overall tradeshow industry growth for the year was 1.2 percent, down from 2.3 percent the year before. Gross domestic product growth for 2016, on the other hand, was 1.6 percent. The most discouraging analysis of this indicates it has been more than a decade since the factors measured by the CEIR Index routinely outperformed GDP. Meanwhile, marketing channels that directly compete with events continue to enter the arena.

CEIR economists predict stronger growth for the CEIR Index this year (2.5 percent) and even stronger growth in 2019 (2.8 percent). Their explanation is that they anticipate tradeshows in the heavy equipment and raw materials sectors will pick up – although I’m not sure I understand why they would.

At some point, event organizers will have to understand they are on their own when it comes to competing with digital marketing channels and they must offer both buyers and sellers something different than in the past – and many organizers are catching on.

The first element, for attendees, is engagement. Face it – if you haven’t already – your show is no longer the one place in the world where the industry professionals you serve can get information they need to do their jobs or news about new products. That’s what the Internet is for.

What the Internet cannot offer them is the ability to engage with each other in a meaningful way. The first time several years ago I saw a B-to-B event create a time slot for roundtables where attendees could sit down wherever they want and talk to each other, it sounded like a waste of time in a valuable event schedule. Who would just sit down and talk to a stranger?

And yet today you would be hard-pressed to find an organizer who’s thinking about the future of their show who doesn’t include a space for these roundtable discussions in their event.

The second element, for exhibitors, is more data on who is coming to your event. With enhanced data analytics, choosing a marketing channel to communicate with potential buyers is increasingly being commoditized. Marketers have the means to use numbers to find the most effective way to reach the people they want to communicate with.

So, do your part. Give them the attendee information you have; collect more of it if you need to; and make sure exhibitors and sponsors understand they can count on you to deliver to them the leads they want.

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

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Abandon the ‘Old Think’ in Attendee Marketing

In his CEIR blog post earlier this week, “At Last Penny-Pitching Catches Up With Association Organizers,” Bob James notes that event marketers on the for-profit side of the industry seem to know a few tricks their peers on the association side have not caught on to yet.

You can look at Bob’s post yourself for specifics, but he attributes the fact that the typical association has unique problems with event attendance to “old think” beliefs about why people go to the trouble of traveling to a show or conference: The associations are still counting on member loyalty.

Association members are true believers, they think, who wouldn’t dare miss their industry’s most important event of the year.

We live in an era in which consumers not only can scan a website to get the best price on just about anything, they can choose from multiple websites to do their scanning!

Value and convenience trump loyalty, and you deny that fact at your own peril.

You must make the case every single year that your event is the one place that a person can go to:

  • Get the information they need to improve their bottom line or boost their career – right now.
  • Learn about the newest products and services that will make the difference to their company.
  • Meet the people that will be their future partners.

I have said this before, but it bears repeating: If, at the conclusion of an event, an attendee can say, “I did not meet one person I didn’t already know or learn anything I hadn’t heard before,” they’re not coming back.

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

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Did You Extend Your Early-Bird Deadline Again?

Putting aside for a moment the symbolism associated with growth in the CEIR Index finally coming to an end after 25 quarters (all good things must pass), the fourth-quarter numbers for tradeshow performance indicate some of the phenomena I have seen with event organizers truly do represent a trend.
Here’s hoping it’s only a blip.
Certainly, over recent years we have all seen exhibitors signing up and attendees registering for events later and later.
It is a serious, sometimes frightening, problem that, I find, is not getting better. Either traditional early-bird programs no longer work, or potential exhibitors and attendees have learned that we will extend them or find some other way to give them discounts when they finally do sign on.
The evidence that this is more than just a here-and-there phenomenon is illustrated by the over-all decline in number of exhibitors (down 0.8 percent) and attendees (0.6 percent) in the fourth quarter of last year.
The reason this matters is also demonstrated in another number in the CEIR fourth-quarter index: a 1.8-percent decline in revenue. Cash flow is becoming an issue as event organizers work their way through event cycles as they always have (with bills coming due at the same time they always did) while the money to pay them comes in later and later.
The fact that net square footage was up in the fourth quarter (1.3 percent) could be because, in the face of exhibitors signing up later, organizers are giving them breaks in the form of additional space on the floor.
It is true that the economy seems to have solidified since the beginning of the year. While some of us remain suspicious about any “Trump bump” explanation to the rise of the stock market, other more substantial measures – GDP, low unemployment, steady inflation rates – indicate the economy is on firmer ground than it has been in 10 years.
If the 2017 first-quarter CEIR Index turns around, we’ll know that’s the case.
If it doesn’t, we must accept that giving away space on the showfloor and extending early-bird deadlines are not going to be enough to salvage our upcoming events. A more thoughtful remedy will be required for a deeper dilemma.
Michael Hart is a business consultant and writer who focuses on the events industry. He can be reached at michaelhart@michaelgenehart.com.

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Emerald Expositions’ decision to move the Outdoor Retailer events out of Salt Lake City, accompanied almost simultaneously by a similar decision by the organizers of the North American Handmade Bicycle Show, because of the Utah state governor’s environmental politics seems a bit too convenient.

It reminds me of the commercials earlier this week during the Academy Awards by companies like Revlon, General Motors and Cadillac trying to suggest they share the same social justice values as their customers, when the fact is they are trying their best to sell their products.

The reality is that Outdoor Retailer’s organizers have wanted to move out of the Salt Palace Convention Center to a city with a venue large enough to accommodate a fast-growing show for 20 years. It’s been hampered by the fact that Outdoor Retailer’s attendees and exhibitors simply like Salt Lake and Utah. The convention center and local authorities called its bluff about 10 years ago with a venue expansion, primarily to accommodate Outdoor Retailer.

The expansion, a decade along, still isn’t enough to accommodate the show. Good for Emerald Expositions! It’s built a successful event. But its motives in justifying a move out of Salt Lake are a little transparent.

The company made it clear not long ago it was looking at other cities for the show, even before it announced that Gov. Gary Herbert’s efforts to limit federal protection of the Bears Ear National Monument (please tell me you’ve heard of it) was their line in the sand.

The draconian measures being taken by the Trump administration that are contrary to the values many of us share are bad enough.  Now companies are taking advantage of the 1984-like atmosphere we are in to justify business decisions they know will be unpopular with their customers.

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

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Is Your Show Transactional or Transformational?

In a recent CEIR Blog post, Robert Hughes noted that, after interviewing hundreds of exhibitors, he found that more than 90 percent of them thought the general contractor owned the tradeshow they were exhibiting in.

What is wrong with this picture?

The evidence for this revelation is clear: The biggest check an exhibitor writes is to the general contractor, not the show manager. The general contractors often represent the only human beings exhibitors meet, the ones they know to go to if they have problems.

Apparently, most exhibitors only talk to show management when they’re booking their space – and who among us has not made preselling the next year’s show our top onsite goal?

This may be efficient on the part of the show manager, but it’s no way to grow an event. It’s no way to worm your way into the heart of a community, which is exactly what events must do in the future if they are going to remain competitive with digital marketing vehicles.

The successful relationship between a show manager and an exhibitor (or an attendee, for that matter) cannot be transactional. It cannot simply be the exchange of something perceived to be of value, money in exchange for a booth in the exhibit hall.

A successful relationship between an event and its participants must be transformational. It must be more than the hackneyed “place where buyers meet sellers.” A transformational event is one that puts itself at the center of an industry’s community, the place where that community comes together from time to time to meet itself.

You certainly don’t want participants calling it the “contractor’s show,” or even the “show manager’s show.”

You want them to say, “This is our show.”

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

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Is E3’s New Attendance Policy Right for Your Show?

Last week’s news that E3, the Electronic Entertainment Expo, would open wide its doors this year to any gamer who can afford a ticket is startling to somebody who has watched the video game show over the last 12 or 14 years.

A decade or so ago, E3 was one of the most highly restricted tradeshows in the industry, keeping a close watch to make sure only those with tight links to the electronic gaming industry got inside the Los Angeles Convention Center. Even then, I saw plenty of people absorbed in games on the showfloor who I didn’t imagine were old enough to be involved with any industry.

According to show organizers, last year when E3 still set a high bar for access to the showfloor, 20,000 people participated in a companion E3 Live outside the convention center and 50,000 more watched via live streaming or social media.

The explanation for the changes over time is simple: Distribution patterns in the gaming industry have changed. Gamers no longer go to a brick-and-mortar store to buy a product. They primarily download them to devices.

They also learn about new games via their devices as well, with the help of bloggers and sophisticated marketing campaigns that incorporate social media. An exhibitor’s target audience is not a retailer attendee, but the end user.

Certainly, organizers of events serving industries other than electronic gaming would say, “But that’s not us. That’s not how our industry works.”

Still, I defy any show organizer to say the industry they serve hasn’t changed its relationships with its customers over the last 10 years or so.

How have the relationships between your exhibitors and their customers changed? And what are you doing to make sure you give your exhibitors and sponsors the greatest access possible to their customers?

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

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4 Hacks Donald Trump Has for the Event Organizer

trump-imageClosing in on a month after the election, I thought by now half of us would have gone back to making their own pesto, collecting butterflies and sitting alone in a dark room listening to “Pagliacci,” while the other half would have returned to their hootenannies, bearing profane messages on their T-shirts and racing their RVs.

But, alas, election fever isn’t over quite yet. However, the result is in: Like it or not, Donald Trump won, and he did it in the most untraditional of ways.

What means did he use that event organizers can hack?

First, they can abandon their faith in traditional communication channels and find the most direct way to reach potential attendees. Throughout the election, pundits declared there was no way Trump could compete in this or that state without buying more television air time.

Instead, he famously took to Twitter and put on daily over-the-edge performances in locations that didn’t seem to make sense politically. Yet his message resonated with a certain voter in a way that Hillary Clinton’s didn’t.

Is it time for you to drop those tired e-mail and direct mail campaigns and find a channel to communicate directly with your audience?

Second, he worried less about “getting out the vote” on Election Day and more about creating a brand that somebody who might potentially vote for him could identify with.

It’s a scary proposition but, given the limited resources you have available, are you still better of fretting about where your registration numbers are compared to last year? Or would you be smarter to focus more on simply getting your message out to everybody who might be intrigued?

Third, about the nonstop questionable “facts” Trump blurted out: Even though much of what he said could not get past the media’s fact checkers, enough voters in the right states didn’t care. Post-election analysts have it right. Media watchers tried to take him literally, but not seriously. Exactly the opposite with his voters. They cared less about the details and more about Trump’s underlying message to them.

Do you spend your time telling potential attendees how your event will help their businesses and their careers? Or are you busy making sure they know what time the opening reception starts?

Finally, Trump reached those on the margins, people who in many cases had not voted in years, and converted them into loyal brand followers.

Does your marketing target those who attended your event last year? Or are you looking for a way to reach those who don’t even know about you yet, but who could benefit if they did? And how do you reach them?

Michael Hart is a business consultant and writer who focuses on the events industry. He will participate in a webinar Dec. 16 entitled “Keep Your Attendees from Cheating on You.” Hart can be reached at michaelhart@michaelgenehart.com.

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Assume Nothing About the Global Events Industry

shanghai-tradeshow-imagdeI certainly expected to hear some opposing voices in response to my Oct. 19 post remarking that forces at play in the world are likely to cause at least a stutter for the global exhibitions industry.

Some of those who wrote quite reasonable responses not only have every right to object to my view, but almost a responsibility to signal to their clients, “Don’t worry, everything’s fine.”

However, even those of us who live within the cocoon of American culture cannot ignore the reality that, all over the world, nationalism is on the rise and free trade has become one of its adherents’ easiest targets. We see it here as the U.S. presidential election campaign staggers to an end.

So, those who are most entrenched in the international exhibitions industry, as they gather next week for the UFI Global Congress in Shanghai, can’t take much comfort in the recently released American Express Global Meetings and Events Forecast citing “political and economic uncertainty coupled with safety concerns in some countries.” The report from one company that has something to lose as a result admits, “we are seeing some hesitancy in our industry.”

The report, though, goes beyond the current international political and economic climate to cite three factors that could have a longer, more serious impact on the global meetings industry:

  • Hotel consolidation
  • Security and safety concerns
  • Confusion about the proliferation of event technology

All of which the beleaguered international event organizer has little or no control over.

There are a couple of things you can control, like that growing proliferation of technology. Organizers are starting to take advantage of data accumulation and analysis tools to better identify the needs of potential attendees and then share that information with exhibitors.

There is no reason to assume traditional marketplaces will remain static as the forces American Express suggests come into play. Instead, you can probably expect them to disrupt the conventional patterns of buyer-seller interactions. However, armed with real information, regardless of where you are, you can communicate the value of your event and the urgency with which potential attendees and exhibitors should approach it.

Assume nothing.

Michael Hart is a business consultant and writer who focuses on the events industry. He can be reached at michaelhrt3@gmail.com. Hart will moderate a webinar Nov. 30 for association executives entitled, “4 Easy Ways to Generate Non-Dues Revenue.”

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Why Association Show Organizers Are So Frustrated

cropped-OTC-image.pngI spoke this week to the organizer of one association show who knows why his show is declining in revenue, attendance and significance to its industry. He knows why a for-profit upstart could come in and steal whatever enthusiasm is left in his industry for an event – and there’s nothing he can do about it.

Many association managers today find themselves stuck between the proverbial stone and a hard place. They recognize the realities of the events industry today. They know that overall association membership is declining because its relevance to members is dwindling.

They understand their faithful audiences have many more ways to connect with potential partners and learn what they need to know to do their jobs better. They also understand how more nimble players can swoop in and launch a competing “pop-up,” worrying little about legacy issues and more about profits.

That’s their stone. Their hard place is a board of directors that doesn’t get it, the board that’s a legacy itself and doesn’t understand why attendance at the show and revenue are declining – when, from their point of view, nothing else has changed.

We all know how hard it can be to tell a boss he or she doesn’t know how much they don’t know.

Start this way: Ask your board to review its event goals. And don’t let them say, “That’s your problem.”

Is their primary goal to make money with the annual show? Is their No. 1 priority to get as many members there as possible? Do they want to use the annual event as a vehicle to deliver messages to a larger audience about the industry?

Is their best answer, “Because the bylaws say we have to have to”? (If it is their answer, you’re really in trouble.)

To a certain extent, it doesn’t matter what their answer is, as long as it gives you an opportunity to explain why you’re not accomplishing their goal now – and what you’ll have to change to do so.

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

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