How to Personalize Even the Smallest of Events

When HIMSS19 opens in Orlando next February. It will be with a new twist…one that event innovators are constantly telling you to add to your own shows. 

The massive event focused on the healthcare information world will have nine distinct communities, each with its own programming, pre-event marketing, networking activities and even exhibit areas.

The initiative speaks to the trend toward personalization, the realization that the one-size-fits-all annual industry convention-slash-tradeshow is quickly losing its relevance. 

Fine, you say. HIMSS is a massive trade association serving a red-hot industry with an annual event that attracts 18,000 attendees with more than 300 various workshops, conference sessions, panels and plenary speakers. Its exhibit hall sprawls out over nearly 600,000 square feet, providing it a budget in the tens of millions of dollars to work with.

How could those of you who manage your own modest niche event and struggle to attract a few hundred attendees at most do anything close to this?

By remembering the keyword here is personalization. By reminding yourself the goal is to make sure every attendee walks away having accomplished the one or two specific goals they came to your event with.

HIMMS’ “communities” are defined roughly by job titles (not exactly a groundbreaking concept): IT executives, security executives, physicians, investors….whatever.

How many ways can you slice and dice the job titles you have in your database? Even if it’s just two or three, that’s a start.

And, when it comes to personalizing your event, you should start small because delivering on the promise you make your first year out is the most important thing you will accomplish.

Once you’ve decided how to segment your potential audience, what are the two or three changes you can successfully make in the first year to focus on them?

Start with segmented pre-event marketing. Maybe add a few pre-conference webinars targeting the different opportunities available at the event for each group.

Think of a small handful of distinct conference tracks, networking events or roundtable discussion opportunities. 

No matter what, remember the whole point is, first, to make it easy for people with similar interests to meet each other and, second, to allow every single attendee to accomplish their own personal goals for the event.

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 Do You Manage Unrealistic Event Sponsor Expectations?

Here’s a quandary for many conference organizers: How do you manage sponsors when you’re trying to put together a credible, authentic conference program that doesn’t leave attendees rolling their eyes at the thinly disguised sales pitches?

It’s a never-ending struggle and, of all the things that keep me awake in the nights leading up to an event, my most extreme anxieties are over any potential outlaw sponsor who has paid for a keynote spot and may decide to ignore everything they promised me they’d do to keep their content sales pitch-free.

We’ve all dealt with this dilemma. A company is willing to buy a hefty sponsorship package that includes some combination of opportunities to interface with your attendees: a keynote speaker position, roles as session moderators or speakers, maybe even an entire session or track that they take responsibility for themselves – and they have different ideas than you have about the definition of unbiased, neutral content.

Your first line of defense is always your own sales force. You have to make it clear to your salespeople that “no sales pitches” means “no sales pitches.” 

They have to communicate to the potential sponsor that it is in their best interest to have attendees walk away from the event with the idea that they just got some sound information from a smart speaker representing a credible company, that they did not pay their registration fee to sit through a canned presentation. You do not want your own salesperson making promises you aren’t willing to keep.

Next, as early in the planning process as possible, you must develop a rapport with the sponsor’s speakers and marketing staff. Schedule routine phone calls and meetings well in advance of the event during which you reiterate your event’s policies on conference content, get a better idea of what their goals-slash-motives are, and learn as much as you can about what they want to communicate.

Then you set some simple ground rules to make it clear that you’re serious. You insist on the opportunity to review their slide presentations in advance. You establish a limit on how many references they can make or slides they can use to hawk their own products and services. And you enforce these rules.

Creating quality conference content is as much an art as a science, but nowhere is that more true than in the care and handling of sponsors.

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Where Do You Find the Best Speakers?

Happily, I had a large number of responses to my last blog post regarding the challenge of coming up with a conference program that would be so exciting potential attendees would sign up early for your event.

I left off with this question: Where do you find that scintillating only-available-at-your-conference content?

It’s both easier and harder than you think.

I spent much of my working life as a newspaper reporter, so I know what it’s like to start out with the least bit of information (often wrong) about something that has happened or might happen and then work methodically to create a breaking news article that thousands of people will read.

You start with a list of names of people who “might” know something about what you’re writing. You call them and simply say, “Talk to me.”

Along the way, you’ll get advice like “You should call so-and-so and ask her.” So your list of potential sources grows and, eventually, you have enough people telling you enough facts to weave together a credible, true story.

The same thing with creating a conference program. You start with a short list. If you’re fortunate and smart enough to think of it, you’ve got a conference advisory committee who you can ask what’s going to be important to their community by the time the event rolls around and who else you should talk to.

But you also talk to last year’s speakers, names you come across in the media, attendees at previous conferences, strangers you overhear and, before you know it, you’ve got some good ideas.

That’s the easy part: You talk to people.

The hard part is doing it. We have all lived long enough now with digital technologies to have the impulse to reach for ways that will automate processes. But this is one case where you must spend the time to talk to people on the phone and in person if you are going to get a sense of what’s important to the community they are part of and what they will care about 10 months or a year down the road.

And you must do it with a sense of urgency that others will not be sharing, since it is not their responsibility to create a marketing calendar – filled with timely news about exciting conference speakers and sessions – far enough in advance to be successful.

But that’s not all you have to do. While you’re doing your job of putting a relevant conference program together, somebody on your team is also selling sponsorship packages to companies who have their own ideas about how your event should be programmed – and are willing to pay for the opportunity.

How does the conference content professional manage that wasp nest?

Once more, I’ll be back.

How Big Do You Want Your Show to Be?

How big is big enough? How much larger do you want your showfloor to be? How many attendees would be optimum?

If your answer is, “Nothing is ever enough,” you might still be living in a previous Golden Age of the Tradeshow Industry.

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

I think about these questions every time I read a slightly reworded, albeit breathless, press release in the tradeshow press about yet ANOTHER show that broke a record for attendance and showfloor size.

The question of whether size matters has bugged me ever since I first became editor-in-chief of Tradeshow Week more than 15 years ago and was suddenly responsible for the TSW 200 and the TSW Fastest 50, lists of shows that measured success by the number of square feet and registered attendees they had.

The question bugs me even more now since the events industry has changed so drastically. Those metrics, still taken seriously 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 buy big things – machines, equipment, giant servers, furniture, etc. – and the more space you took up, the better you were.

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 tradeshow booth to demonstrate something that nobody can see or hold in their hands.

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

That is no longer the case either. 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.

Stop me one more time if you’ve heard this one too: 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 those tired aisles.

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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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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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