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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Events Done the Nordstrom Way

For years, consultants have asked organizers about their events, “Do exhibitors buy space at your show because they want to take orders from customers, or because they feel “they have to be there”?

Today, many perceptive organizers would say, “Neither.”

Now, the booth on the showfloor is rarely the first point of contact between a buyer and seller. It has never been the last, and that is even more the case recently because of the habits we are picking up as consumers.

Why, attendees are asking, should the experience I have when I buy something for myself be that different from the experience I have when I make a purchase for my company? Consumer retailing is leading the way when it comes to how marketers use events.

Look at what Nordstrom – legendary for its customer service, known as the Nordstrom Way – is doing with the store it opened Oct. 3 in West Hollywood, Calif. Called Nordstrom Local, it takes up about 3,000 square feet, much smaller than more traditional Nordstrom department stores that span closer to 140,000 sq. ft.

It has plenty of dressing rooms, but very little inventory on display. Personal stylists are onsite to help shoppers digitally create their own unique “look.” Orders are delivered to customers’ homes later in the day. They can return them any time to the brick-and-mortar store, or they can come back to meet with tailors who will be available to make alterations.

While at Nordstrom Local, shoppers can enjoy a glass of wine or a cup of espresso at the in-store bar.

A recent study on brand experience by Freeman demonstrates that, just as retailers are changing the ways they connect with customers, companies are looking to events to accomplish different goals as well.

Freeman’s report concludes the events that can offer sponsors and exhibitors brand experiences are more valuable than traditional buyer-meets-seller events.

After interviewing more than 1,000 marketing executives around the world, the study found that 58 percent of chief marketing officers look to events to increase their advocacy. In other words, they’re looking to meet influencers who can spread the word on their brand. Just under half of CMOs (48 percent) said they want to use events to demonstrate thought leadership.

Selling products on a showfloor, it would seem, is so very 1995-ish.

This is not to suggest that the conventional trade show turn itself into the equivalent of a trendy Southern California boutique. But it is clear that exhibitors and attendees expect more than they did 20 years ago.

How much are you prepared to disrupt your event to accommodate them?

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 If Your Show Dates Coincided With Hurricane Irma?

As events unfolded ever so slowly in the Caribbean and Florida, who among event organizers didn’t think, “There, but for the grace of God, go…”?

The organizers of the Miami International Auto Show postponed their event. Surf Expo in Orlando closed a day early.

Shortly before Hurricane Sandy a few years ago, I was headed to a long-planned event in New York, only to be stopped just minutes before I was to get on the plane. Most attendees for this particular show were traveling from the Northeast and had not yet left their homes when the decision was made to cancel, but a few dozen who didn’t get the message in time spent several days cooped up in a mid-Manhattan hotel.

What would you do if your show had the unfortunate pleasure of sitting right in the eye of a potential major natural disaster?

First off, don’t pretend — at least to yourself and your team — that it’s not about the money, because it is.

The better angel hovering just beyond your right shoulder is worried about people’s safety. But the realistic business person hovers over your left shoulder fretting about refunds, cancellation fees and busted budgets.

Even though you don’t want to, think about this ahead of time. Have a plan that, if you’re fortunate, you never have to execute regarding what you’ll do if you find yourself a few days out from the event and you — along with your sponsors and attendees — are learning about an impending disaster.

What would or could you do about rescheduling if necessary? What does the fine print in your contracts with vendors say about the financial implications of a sudden cancellation or an “act of God”? How far are the bulk of your attendees traveling and what does that tell you about how much time you have to make a final decision to go forward or cancel?

Thinking about all this in advance means you can save time changing plans on the spot at the last tension-filled minute.

Do your best during the registration process to assure you have reliable contact information for attendees and exhibitors if and when you need to get in touch with them immediately. Start communicating with them even before you’ve made your final decision about what to do.

Then be available when they start calling, texting and e-mailing you in those days when you’ve got a million other things to think about at the same time.

Do these simple things and when you make your decision about which path to take in the face of a potential disaster — cancel, reschedule, fly blind — you’ll do so with the confidence that will compel your event participants to trust you did the right thing for them.

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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SSmall Event Organizer, Meet the Micro-Influencer

If you’re the organizer of a 50- or 60-booth trade show, what do you say when an exhibitor asks you what kind of media attention you’ll be able to get them?

Typically, there’s a lot of clearing the throat and changing the subject. After all, this is not International Comic-Con you’re running here.

You don’t have the star power to attract the attention of television and newspaper reporters. There will be no reality TV stars making show floor appearances. You don’t have anything a blogger would want to write about.

Or do you?

It’s true that the digital age of marketing has given rise to the celebrity blogger, the person who wanders around the world writing about what he or she observes for millions of faithful readers.

But the evolution of social media, with its infinite diversity, has introduced us to the “micro-influencer,” the blogger who has earned the trust of a small but passionate audience, the writer who can draw that audience’s attention to your event, and who would be flattered by an invitation.

Here’s what micro-influencers can offer even the smallest event and what they can do to deliver your event’s message to a further-flung audience.

First, engagement. Studies – and common sense — tell us that as a blogger’s number of followers rises, the likes and comments, the number of people paying close attention to what they’re writing, diminishes.

On the other hand, the micro-influencer of a smaller niche audience is “just like one of us,” can make a deeper personal connection and engage in a conversation with his or her followers, not just make readers aware of a brand.

Second, authenticity. Readers know when a message is insincere and are quick to reject it. The micro-influencer, who is on the ground writing, has that authentic voice. He or she is “just like one of us” and their insights can be trusted.

Third, affordability! How much would it cost you to get a celebrity or a high-profile speaker that you hope would draw some media attention to your show? And how many free passes to the show could you give to micro-influencers for the same amount of money?

Fine, you say, but where do these micro-influencers come from?

Look at your own social media activity. Who’s following you closely and frequently posting insightful comments?

In your own social media messages, use hashtags and keywords related to your industry. If you run a plastics show, for instance, try “#plasticsblogger” or “#plasticsgeek.” See who you hear from.

Roam around Google and look for the niche bloggers who are covering your show’s field of interest and your exhibiting companies.

Finally, there are influence-marketing tools and blogger networks out there. I’ll leave it to you to find the most responsible vendors you know to find them.

We all know digital tools can enhance events. We also know some of the technology with the greatest “wow” factor is not accessible to the smallest of shows.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t find a way to, here and there, take advantage of the ever-changing digital age.

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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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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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