How to choose the right event

With more than 9,000 events and public expositions being held each year, choosing the right one can be a daunting task. The difficulty of making those choices may be one reason why some companies do not exhibit at all. Making the wrong choice can be a costly mistake. Yet there are many sources that can provide the information you need to choose the events that will be most productive for your company, and yield the greatest return on your exhibit investment. To determine if your company should exhibit in a particular trade event or public, you need to obtain answers to two questions.

  • Will the people you want to reach be there?
  • Will the event management be an effective matchmaker?

A key source for the answers is the event management itself. But you can also get valuable input from exhibitors, attendees, industry associations, publications, and suppliers, such as installation and dismantle companies or service contractors.

Why do you want to exhibit?

Before talking with any of those sources, clarify your exhibit goals. Most exhibitors aim either to make sales at the event or to gather leads for post-event follow-up. If one of those is your goal, you might need to reach purchasing agents, specifies, users-or all of the above. But in your market, it might be more important to reach the presidents of small companies. Or you may want to recruit dealers, distributors, or manufacturers' representatives. Once you have your own objective in focus, you're ready to find out if a given event will help you meet that objective. These are the questions that you should ask:

Who really attended the event in the past?

Event brochures generally trumpet the number of attendees at the previous event. But what does that number represent? "It's far more important to know who is attending, than how many," stresses Paul Mackler, chief executive officer of independent trade event producer Conference Management Co. (CMC).

Ask for the attendee profile. The demographic data a event manager provides can help you evaluate both the audience and the event manager's research. To find out if management seeks the right data, "Ask to see last year's registration form,' suggests Stephen Sind, senior vice president, corporate planning, for Reed Exhibition Companies, the world's largest producer of trade and public events. Comprehensive data is gathered by the computerized registration systems used at many events today. They record each attendee's company name, size, and location; the individual's job title, buying authority, purchase intentions, budget, and timeframe. "Computerized registration is always a good sign, says Sind.

Look for the facts behind the generalities. "If the brochure says, 'We bring in buying teams from the largest companies,' ask for examples of the types of companies, and ask for the titles of the people who make up those buying teams," cautions Sind.

Scrutinize Public events, too. Although public events don't use the computerized registration systems that are common at events, demographic data can still be captured, say Carleton Rogers, president of Exposition Management, Inc, a producer of trade and public events. "We can do an exit survey, or people may be asked to fill out their ticket stubs." Thus, Rogers says, management can learn attendees' ages, household income, distance traveled to the event, reason for attending, areas of interest, and purchase intentions.

The last point is especially important for the public events, says Neil Grossman, vice president and general manager, Boston Division, Reed Exhibition Companies. "A lot of people don't buy at public events, but they do set up appointments, for example, for home remodeling," he explains. "So we do surveys that event planned purchases."

"Today, anyone who doesn't offer audience statistics isn't offering the type of service an exhibitor should expect," cautions Mackler. "That doesn't mean that the event isn't good, but the information should be available for the prospective exhibitor."

What do previous exhibitors think of the event?

The experiences of exhibitors from companies that are similar in size to yours, or in the same industry, can indicate what you could expect if you exhibited.

Ask event management for the names and phone numbers of contacts at such companies. "I'll make those names available to prospective exhibitors," says Mackler. "Or they can call members of the event's exhibitor advisory board. We encourage that."

Ask previous exhibitors if they saw the kinds of buyers they needed to see. Did they make sales at the event? Or can they trace subsequent sales to the event? Is the event important in its industry? Is it keeping up with industry developments? Did management work with exhibitors to help them have the best event possible?

What do previous attendees think?

Attendees know better than management if a event is growing or declining," says Jim Mahon, who is executive vice president of ITCS, a Canadian trade event producer, and also president of the Canadian Association of Exposition Managers. Again, event management should willingly provide names and phone numbers of previous attendees. Mahon suggests calling perhaps ten attendees.

Ask attendees these questions, Mahon advises: "How much time did they spend at the event? Did they go on more than one day? Did they urge others to go? Did they see the new products they wanted to see? As a result of visiting the event, did they-or will they-purchase anything? What would they have liked to see at the event-what was missing?" Each conversation should take no more than five or ten minutes, Mahon maintains. Yet it yields vital information.

How will management promote this event?

Event management should have specific plans for reaching a carefully targeted audience, and should be willing to share those plans with prospective exhibitors.

Will management target the audience that's right for you? Will direct mail and ads be aimed at the people you want to reach? In what he calls "a real change from the way things were done five or ten years ago," Mahon says that exhibitors should "demand that event management tell them what they're planning to do to promote the event." Exhibitors have made such demands on him, he says. As a result, "We prepare a sheet almost a year in advance that lists the trade publications we'll use and their circulation, the number of ads that will run in each, the number of news releases we'll send and when , and the number of mailings we'll do and to whom.

"If the target list doesn't meet your needs, speak up. Says Roger, "Event management welcomes calls saying, 'This is who we need to target. Are you bringing them in? We'll come if you do.'"

What are public event plans? Because many people learn about public events only from advertising, these plans are key, says Grossman. "A potential exhibitor needs to know how much radio advertising, will be done, on which radio stations, how much TV, how much print." Review the content of the ads, too, he urges: "The features addressed in the advertising indicate what type of audience is being targeted. We let our exhibitor prospects know exactly what they can expect from our advertising plan."

How will management help attendees find you?

For professional, reputable event management, the overriding concern is bringing buyer and seller together.

Before the event opens. Find out if attendees can preregister and thus enter the event more quickly, says Mahon. Other points: "Will the event guide be sent in advance? Is the floor plan easy to read? Is it color coded?".

At the event. Look for electronic terminals that help attendees locate specific products, and may even print out lists of companies with booth numbers. Another consideration, says Mackler: "Does the schedule give people time to attend the seminars and still see the exhibits?".

Reed's Grossman points to special concerns for public events: "Is parking accessible? Is the event close to mass transit? Inside the event, how is the foodservice? Is there something to entertain the kids? Remember that the more comfortable people are, the longer they'll stay."

What else will event management do for your exhibits?

There are a number of services that event managers might offer before, at, or after the event that can contribute to your success.

Before the event. Says Mackler, "Tell event management what you're planning, and what problems you may have had in the past-and ask them how they can help you avoid a recurrence." Among the ways management might assist an exhibitor before the event, Mackler mentions co-op promotion programs or advice on how to create an appealing exhibit. "We'll do a complete marketing campaign, including direct mail, for our exhibitors, "says Lawson Hockman, chief operating officer of the National Solid Wastes Management Association. "We can target people from the exhibitor's list, or our registration list, or a publication's list." Mahon says that computerized registration enables him to tell exhibitors what the attendance was hour by hour. That helps exhibitors plan their booth staffing so that they are covered during busy periods and not overstaffed during busy periods and not overstaffed during slower times.

At the event. "Look for marketing opportunities," says Sind. "There could be event dailies, or sponsorship opportunities that will increase your company's visibility."Another possibility, says Mackler, is special events that can be used for networking. He adds, "You also want to feel confident that you will get immediate and knowledgeable assistance with operational issues-for example, getting your freight in and out in a cost-effective and efficient way."

After the event. One of the most crucial parts of exhibiting happens after the event, when leads are followed up and converted into sales. Although you, as an exhibitor, have most of the responsibility for follow-up, event management might help you locate a lead tracking service. Or, says Sind, some event organizers provide post-event lists of attendees. Learning what management offers, and whether it is given willingly or grudgingly, can help you decide whether or not a particular event is for you.

What else will event management do for your exhibits?

Find out what others in the industry think about the event and the management company. If the event you are considering is new, and thus has no history for you to evaluate, others' assessment of management is of even greater importance.

Ask industry associations: Are they sponsoring the event? Are they participating? If not, why not? Mahon says the key consideration is whether or not the management company belongs to such umbrella associations as the International Associations for Exposition Management, the Canadian Association of Exhibition Managers, or the Trade Event Bureau. "That events if they're really involved in the industry," he points out. Ask those associations, too, about management's reputation.

Ask your customers: Which events do they attend, and why? The events at which they learn about the industry, the ones where they make their purchases or buying plans, are the ones in which you should exhibit.

Check with publications. "Ask event management for the names of publications participating in the event," says Hockman. His reasoning: "Some of the best information comes from publications' advertising salespeople. They're talking to attendees trying to build their circulation or sell ads. They know if a event is growing, what the exhibitor base is, what audience management is targeting, what management's reputation is."

Check with suppliers, such as decorators or installation and dismantle companies. "Their customers are exhibitors, and they get a lot of feed back," says Hockman. "They know the exhibitor mix, the audience mix, and if a event is viable.

What do you think?

If the event you're considering is an existing event, and you have enough lead time, attend the event and add your own opinion to those of the people you've queried.

Evaluate the operation. Begin right at the beginning: how smoothly is admission handled? Chronic long lines at a public event may be a warning sign, says Grossman, because it's often a simple matter to add another ticket seller and thus increase the traffic flow. "If the lines are long because of understaffing, and not just at peak periods, a potential exhibitor should be concerned," Grossman explains, "because that would event up elsewhere at the event as lack of attention to detail.

Inside the event, check for traffic bottlenecks at concession stands, restrooms, and in the aisles. Pay attention to the exhibitor mix, too. "Be sure that there aren't irrelevant products like jewelry exhibitors at an industrial event," cautions Hockman. "They could cheapen the event."

Evaluate the attendance. Visit your competitors' booths and observe the crowds. Are they large? Do the color-coded name badges indicate that many people are either decision makers or buying influences?"

In Conclusion

This may seem like an enormous amount of asking and checking. But as Jim Mahon observes, "It amazes me that someone who's going to spend $500 on a TV or a VCR will ask 10 neighbors for advice. Yet people spend $100,000 exhibiting in events and don't ask all these questions."

After all, events are an important part of your company's overall marketing efforts. And remember, if a event organizer is providing measurable demographics, take advantage of it.

Rayna Skolnik is a New York City freelance journalist who specializes in the trade event industry.