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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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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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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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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