A Profile in Courage: Detroit’s Iconic Auto Show

It would have been so easy for the Detroit Auto Dealers Assn. to say of the North American International Auto Show that it owns, “We’re the big dogs here, you meet our terms.”

But they didn’t. Instead, last month they announced major changes to what is arguably the best known car show in the world

  • The show will move its dates from late January, when it has been held for decades, to June.
  • It will expand beyond the confines of Cobo Center to a number of venues, both inside and outside, throughout Detroit.
  • The show will now include a number of interactive and immersive activities intended to engage the public, moving away from a traditional show where attendees simply walk around and look at cars.
  • It will reduce costs to exhibitors by eliminating overtime labor charges during a move-in that now stretches from November through January and by simplifying exhibit builds.

Some organizers of the country’s handful of most iconic events occasionally look up and ask themselves, “How could we ever turn this ship around?”

The Detroit Auto Show has done it and there are four important lessons any event organizer – big or small – can learn from their experience.

First, do what the industry you serve wants, not what makes you the most money.

It’s no secret that the auto industry is in transition with consumer demands changing faster than it can keep up with and economic realities bearing down on it: Just days after the announcement of changes to the event, all the Big 3 Detroit carmakers issued statements pointing out their financial forecasts for the year would be worse than previously indicated.

The exhibitors are more than happy to stop spending millions of dollars on ultra-customized booths that they then shoehorn into a relatively small Cobo Center, and only Cobo Center.

Second, the car show acknowledges that the industry’s marketing calendar has changed and nobody waits for the late January event to introduce their newest models. There is nothing sacrosanct about late January in Detroit.

Third, they recognize there have been drastic and swift changes in how companies – all companies – communicate with their consumers and they now need to be part of the solution, not the problem.

Finally, they don’t fall for their own hype. Iconic as it may have been for so many years, the Detroit Auto Show is there to serve the automotive industry, not the other way around.

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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How Hard Could It Be to Build an Event Brand?

It shouldn’t be that hard, and yet I know that many of you have spent thousands of dollars going to conferences and workshops to learn what you think is the secret.

In fact, the secret equation is simple: The promise + delivery on the promise = an event brand.

The promise is whatever you tell the community you serve that you’re going to deliver to them with your event. 

What have you promised? Is it to deliver to sponsors and exhibitors the people they may want to do business with? Is it the information potential attendees can’t find anywhere else? Is it the chance to meet people with similar interests?

Whatever the promise is, deliver on it. Do what you said you would.

This is uppermost in my mind because of circumstances I have become aware of with two completely different event organizers in which they recently made a decision to not deliver on their promises at virtually the last minute. One of these cases could be considered unethical.

In the first case, an organizer decided a couple weeks out to cancel an off-site networking event that had been mentioned in marketing materials for months. Perhaps more egregiously, another organizer canceled the order for a branded lanyard when it was learned the sponsor would not be present and would not learn about it.

It may be these two different organizers get away with what they consider strategies to save some money on event expenses at the last minute, but what if they don’t?

What do their event brands become then?

The promise + delivery on the promise = an event brand.

Michael Hart is an event consultant and conference content professional. He can be reached at michaelhart@michaelgenehart.com, @michaelgenehart or 323-441-9654.

What Publishers and Event Organizers Can Learn From the PennWell Acquisition

In a recent Forbes article, Tony Silber notes how the recent acquisition of PennWell by Blackstone, via Clarion Events, is unlike other recent event-related acquisitions over the last few years

First, of course, is the reported price. While it has not been confirmed, sources say it is in the area of $300 million.

More importantly, PennWell is not just an event company, as has been the case with other major acquisitions lately, like that of Informa acquiring UBM in January.

PennWell, a family-owned business, has a number of events, but most are linked to strong decades-old digital and print products that serve a number of industries – and, in my experience, it is one of the few that has been able to effectively use events, magazines and websites in a collaborative way.

And that has always been the dream of digital and print publishers, hasn’t it? To capitalize on its relationship with an audience with event brand extensions, and vice versa.

Yet it never seems to really work quite right. Too often I see publishers with digital and print products come up with the brilliant idea of launching an event for their primary audience – and then act as if they have forgotten they even owned a newsletter or a magazine.

The justification often is that there is so much work to do that the harried event organizer can’t be bothered with coordinating with editors and publishers, and vice versa.

But if the editors and publishers could be engaged in the event business, a community that is created by either an event or a publication could be enhanced and the event-slash-publication brand could be extended.

Here are a few mistakes I see event organizers with deep connections to publications making:

  • Not involving editors in content creation for their conferences. Who knows the topics the audience cares about most and the big players in the industry better than the editors?
  • Not showcasing editors and publishers at the event. This is a great opportunity to turn the faceless worker bees behind a publication into human beings that an audience can identify with.
  • Not engaging the community that it aspires to serve beyond the event and the publication. Here is where PennWell has done well for decades with strong links to trade associations in the industries in which it has events.
  • Not keeping the event uppermost in the audience’s mind once it’s over by repackaging content from the conference for the publication with interviews, podcasts and streaming video.

Certainly, deriving a profit from every facet of a b2b business is the ultimate goal, but often money is left on the table when the business does not take advantage of every access point it has to a community.

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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Show Managers, Be Honest

A few days ago I was speaking with a potential attendee to an event I’m helping with, describing some of the people planning to speak at the conference.

The potential attendee asked, “But how do we know they’ll really show up?”

That’s the point where I realized that the growing obsession with “fake news” in the media, which has already drawn into question the public’s confidence in some of its most trusted institutions, may have reached the point where nobody fully trusts anything anybody says to them anymore.

You will find plenty of bloggers to lament what this atmosphere has done to civil discourse. 

I worry about what this overwhelming mistrust of everything is doing to undermine the social contract that is the backbone of every single business community.

If somebody is suspicious I’m lying to them about whether a certain speaker will appear at a conference, what does that tell us about the confidence we can have in the simplest business transactions?

I worry that the impact on the events industry will be that people simply decide not to go anywhere.

Perhaps the best deterrent here is the same simple advice being given to responsible journalists whose reputations are under threat: Redouble your efforts to be honest.

Now is the time to focus on the fact that your events are community builders, venues where people of like interest – be it business or otherwise – come together. If that is the promise you make to your stakeholders, deliver on it.

This moment in history, this too will pass. Meanwhile, now is the time to follow through on every single promise you make to your sponsors, exhibitors and attendees.

 

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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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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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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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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