The exhibitor experience - EN Roundtable

September 19, 2017

Originally published in Exhibition News

On 8 August, nine top industry organisers joined EN at K-West Hotel in West London for the latest in the EN Roundtable series. This month we covered exhibitors, and how to please them.

  • David Brown, joint managing director, Broden Media
  • Jonathan Gordon, sales director, Exhibition News
  • Dominique Gill, founder, Story Events
  • Lori Hoinkes, managing director, Fresh Montgomery
  • Nicola Macdonald, acting editor, Exhibition News
  • Paddy McConway, PR and communications manager, GES
  • Rob Nathan, group marketing director, Media 10
  • Kylie Peavoy, senior sales manager, GES
  • Nick Powell, divisional director, Artexis Easyfairs
  • Rommon Thompson, marketing manager, UBM
  • Ed Tranter, managing director, MA Exhibitions
  • Tom Treverton, UK portfolio director, F2F Events
  • Thomas Stanley, managing director — technology, CloserStill Media
  • Jason Stead, managing director (UK), GES


A Word from Jason Stead, Managing Director UK, GES:

Hosting this EN Roundtable session was a pleasure for us, with a collection of strong characters from the event organiser world. It w as a knowledgeable, opinionated and open forum where we could take a moment to discuss how we can work together to enhance the exhibitor experience – what more could you want!

We found it to be a great way of tackling some of the thornier questions that arise. For example, where does the responsibility for a successful show sit between the various parties involved, including exhibitors? Are sales teams truly capable of giving great customer service given their target-driven environment? What are the challenges of customer engagement post GDPR?

The value of the roundtable sessions for me is getting a clear run at a hot-button topic in today’s time constrained world. Dedicating a session in this manner, and doing so with our peers from the industry, is an effective way to share with and learn from one another. We are all busy day to day – delivering shows and working with exhibitors – and only by taking a step backwards, and having a closer look at what makes an exhibitor tick, what are their pain points, and why they choose to exhibit in the first place, will we learn and help to drive our events forward.


NM: So… what are the non-negotiables? What do exhibitors fundamentally deserve from organisers?

ET: First and foremost, there’s what they deserve and what they want, which is not always the same thing. They want to interact with people who are going to improve their business. That is the be-all and end-all of why they’re there. They’re not there just because they like hanging out with us (although I’m sure they do). What we find is that it’s no different from what we expect when we’re working with a supplier or a venue, which is that we want good communication, we want to feel like you’re trying to help our business and not just stripping us for parts with every conceivable thing that we ever ask for. It’s a partnership, in the same way that every event serves two audiences: you have to serve the visitors and you have to serve the exhibitors. Without each one, nothing exists.

NP: Client management throughout the cycle is important, but it’s also fundamentally about not being lied to at the beginning. A lot of our sales guys are desperate to hit targets, desperate to get exhibitors in, but it’s important to be honest from the outset about visitor numbers. Exhibitors don’t care about numbers if the return on investment is there. It’s about getting their trust from the outset, and making sure that they’re seeing the right visitors. If you do so, you’ve managed them correctly and they’re not going to be angry onsite if we aren’t delivering the numbers, because you’ve managed that expectation.

DB: You’re reliant on the venue as well. Exhibitors don’t give a toss if something is the venue or the supplier. They’ve paid you the money, and you’ve got to deal with it.

ET: They’re all you at the end of the day. Whatever venue it is, on the build-up day and on the show days they are all MA Exhibitions. You could be at the hotel, working in the restaurant or cleaning the toilets, you are all us. That needs to be properly briefed in. 

RN: No one is going to disagree that that’s the case, and that we all have to act as one, but we do have different exhibitors with different objectives. We run B2B and B2C events, and we have to be realistic. At the Ideal Home Show, for example, we have people selling mops, and they don’t care about anything apart from selling mops. They’ve paid you ‘x’ and they need to take ‘y’ and then they go home. Not everyone is there for flag-waving or data capture. We need to know what their objectives are one year to the next; we can’t just rely on assuming that everyone’s objective is the same. We need to get the venue and the facilities right, but we also have to look at every exhibitor. And that’s where it comes down to clever event directors and clever salespeople.

TS: It’s a career-defining moment when a marketeer books an exhibition. We’re finding in our markets that even with our major tech event in London – 600 exhibitors – it’s seen as a tactical piece of marketing. It’s all about how we can make things easier, otherwise we’re tarnished against some other form of media, and that’s what we’re valued against. If we don’t deliver ROI and we make it complicated then we’re seen as the channel no one wants to touch in the marketing world. It’s so crucial for us to change that as an industry, all of us together.

The D word

DB: I have exhibitors who get absolutely inundated with people trying to sell them stuff. And they put our address on things, so we then get all the phone calls and have to field those. It’s a nightmare.

ET: I got an email the other day selling me my own data.

RN: It’s frightening when you think you might have thousands of people at big shows all getting hit like that. Can you make that easier? GDPR might stop them from blind contacting people.

RT: It’s about assumed consent and actual consent. For us, as B2B, it will be so difficult in terms of doing the right thing by the customer. There will be so many people that will try and find their own way around it, because they’ll say, ‘they downloaded this from us so the two brands are linked’, or something like that. At the end of the day we all know that often when we get marketing it’s annoying.

TT: If you do it from the start, and say, ‘you have to order your electrics by this point, and your furniture at this point’, you’re actually offering them a service in a sense, and acting as a reminder. Some people like it, some people don’t; it’s not going to suit everyone. You need to be honest and say, ‘we will email you, but it won’t just be a load of newsletters and spam’.

TS: The exhibitor is always going to want their contact details and listing on the website, so there’s no way to hide it.

DG: We’ve taken it all in-house. All the forms come back to us. Absolutely everything. Our suppliers send us all the information and when they want it back. The loop is completely closed. It’s made it a lot more painful but our exhibitors are an awful lot happier. We’re treating them like human beings; they’re not going into a call centre and they’re not being lost anywhere. I don’t want to make a phone call to someone I don’t know and who cannot answer my question. I’m not prepared for that, so why should my clients be? Slightly controversial maybe, but that’s what we’ve done.

RT: So none of your suppliers are able to contact your exhibitors at all?

DG: Correct.

LH: I think the moral of the story comes down to the salespeople and how they’re trained. We do B2B, and I’ve only been in this industry four months now (so I figure I’ve nailed it). One of the things I noticed right away was, sitting and listening in on the calls that my salespeople were making, that they really have a lot to learn in terms of building relationships and making sure that they truly understand why someone has decided to exhibit with us. I think in a lot of cases they make the decision quite easily and the salesperson says, ‘yes, come on board’. What we didn’t do was really dig down and try to understand what they are trying to get out of the experience. So if a year or two, or so many cycles later, they pull out, we don’t understand why. It’s a balance between managing a great relationship with my exhibitor, and building that, together with just telemarketing, hitting the phones and doing whatever you need to do. We all need to be a bit more savvy in how we sell, and that comes down to having the salespeople who understand the nuances of everything they need to do. 

When exhibitors leave

NP: It comes back to what I try and instil in my salespeople, which is monthly calls. The more you see an exhibitor, the more you speak to an exhibitor and they know you, the more they will answer the phone to you. It’s about understanding what they’re trying to achieve from the exhibition, then you can have that open conversation post-show. If someone is trying to cancel, or doesn’t want to come back, then go and see them face-to-face, show you care.

TS: If you don’t move with your market and your clients, and understand what they want, then you can’t really go back to them with a good story if they’ve left. We’ve put a huge amount of focus in business plans on talking to VIPs, to exhibitors, to partners, to customers, going out with all the teams to get an understanding of what is going on, and crystallising our thoughts into the process. Sometimes if the show isn’t working then it’s just gone off track from what they want. You shouldn’t be scared to ask the question ‘why?’  It’s about getting that understanding of what went wrong and really digging deep.

DG: Or nothing went wrong, and their objectives changed. Their marketing plan is different and they’re going to try something different. It’s not necessarily your fault. There’s sometimes that syndrome of ‘my predecessor has done that for years and now I’m going to do everything but’. You can’t necessarily combat that, you just have to make friends with them and stay with them.

TS: You do have to probe. We had a big client and we were trying to find out why they didn’t come back, and we found out six months later that the branding of their diamond sponsorship wasn’t large enough. That was the main thing, but it was too late by that point to get them in for the next cycle. It can be something as small as that.

RT: Some people will say, ‘we don’t have the budget for it’, well, what is the real reason? You did before and I can’t imagine that your budget has been cut by that much. For some people it’s just a case of going a different route, and some people run conferences themselves.

RN: Proprietary events are a real factor. Many years ago the launch of the new dishwasher would be at Ideal Home Show, but it doesn’t happen now. It’s a symptom of the success of exhibitions. 

Representing the industry

TT: We run a show in Germany and there was another show in Paris that one of our exhibitors was at, in a similar space. I went out to have a look and the show was going badly, and she looked at me and said ‘please God tell me your show is going to work’. My show had suddenly become a career-defining moment for her, based on two decisions she’d made, and one of them had nothing to do with our business. There’s an industry responsibility to deliver, which individually we have very little control over. You have to put yourself in the seat of the person who is saying yes or no. It’s their career, [You need to be] giving them the tools to justify their decisions.

ET: Markets can get coloured by your competitors. It comes back to over-promising and under-delivering.

TT: If we’re behaving like a competitive, effective, unique marketing opportunity then that experience has to happen.

TS: One thing we’ve got to try and build is the spirit of us all being in it together. Especially with GDPR coming and things like that. If it does have a massive impact on exhibitions then we all have to work together to make sure that everyone is doing well and everyone is getting a slice of the action. We have to do that more and I don’t think we do it enough because everyone is arguing about pounds and pence, rather than looking for solutions.

ET: I agree; it impacts on everybody. The market changes, it shifts backwards and forwards, and working together gives you much more power in that.

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