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Dirk Dusharme @ Quality Digest

Quality Insider

Suit Up, Show Up, Give Up

Are e-marketing techniques killing trade shows?

Published: Thursday, May 24, 2012 - 10:11

It’s show time. That time of year when people with products to sell and people looking for products to buy hit the trade show trail. For quality pros and test and measurement folks, the lineup is daunting: Quality Expo, ASQ World Conference, CMSC, and of course IMTS, among many others. But are they worth it?

If you’re an exhibitor, you have airfare, hotel, shipping, meals, booth space expenses, contractor expenses, union labor expenses, lost manpower. For attendees, at a minimum, it’s lost manpower as companies send their people to walk the show—and more expense if they put them up in hotels, and pay airfare and per diems. Does anybody really get anything out of trade shows anymore? Do exhibitors get new leads at a reasonable cost per lead? Do attendees get anything they couldn’t get simply by doing a Google search, visiting their favorite vendors’ websites, downloading PDF spec sheets, or watching video product demos from the comfort of their cubicles? Are trade shows on the road to extinction?

In this column I’ll discuss some of the complaints that Quality Digest has heard from trade show exhibitors, as well as the upside from representatives from the International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS), the largest annual manufacturing event in the United States.

By the way, IMTS wanted me to write a column for its newsletter. I sent them this one. Understandably, they were a bit... chagrined, and politely declined. Hey, I can’t blame them. No one likes critical comments about his industry. Before we switched to e-media only, Quality Digest had to endure plenty of critiques of how a print publishing model just wasn’t cutting it in a world that no longer values print publishing. On the other hand, we all want trade shows to work, and an open discussion is a step in that direction.

The Internet elephant in the room

During the past several years, exhibitors have complained to us that the return on investment (ROI) for attending large trade shows is so low, it’s hardly worth showing up—except that they would be conspicuous by their absence.

They wouldn’t give us exact figures, but one large exhibitor told us that, all expenses considered (including employee costs), a 30 × 30 ft or a 40 × 40 ft booth might range from $100,000 to $250,000. Much of the variance depends on what you spend on drayage, booth upgrades, and on-site contractor help.

A key metric that all exhibitors look at is the cost per qualified lead. According to another large exhibitor we spoke with, “The cost for us to acquire one ‘lead’ at IMTS (i.e., a scanned badge, and we’re picky about whom we scan) is between $300 and $350 per lead. That is considering both the cost of the booth and everything in it, plus all the travel expenses.”

Compare that ROI to another measurable lead-collection method: advertising on Google. “It is far more cost-effective [to use Google] than go to go a show,” explains the same exhibitor. “We measure an ‘inquiry’ from Google advertising as someone who fills out an inquiry form on our website. This costs, on average over the course of a year, $76 per inquiry. To put it another way, in a year we get the equivalent of about 60 percent of the inquiries we get at a large trade show for the equivalent of less than one-sixth of the total cost.”

Your mileage may vary.

Regional shows, on the other hand, are getting more traction, according to many we’ve talked to among our audience. Large shows will need to work hard to wrest attendees and exhibitors away from shows that often offer a higher ROI and more user interaction.

Large shows such as IMTS aren’t blind to this. They know they must, and are financially motivated to, deliver high-quality attendees in order to keep exhibitor ROI and attendee interaction up. They are constantly fighting year-to-year attendee turnover. According to an IMTS exhibitor workshop, 50 percent of the people who registered for IMTS 2008 didn’t return in 2010, and that’s considered a decent percentage. Our advertisers have told us that IMTS is better than most shows in terms of bringing in good leads, but if a 50-percent churn is considered pretty good, imagine what kind of turnover the not-so-good trade shows are getting.

According to Danica Tormohlen’s April 2012 article in Trade Show Executive magazine (“Survey Reveals Attendee-Acquisition Challenges and Practices”), attendee retention and acquisition is writ large at the top of show producers’ to-do lists. More than half of show producers increased their attendee marketing promotions budgets in 2012.

In fact, “57-percent of show producers are spending 10 percent or more of their overall event acquisition budget on attendee acquisition,” writes Tormohlen, referencing data from the “Attendee Acquisition Challenges and Practices” survey, conducted by marketing and research consultants Jacobs, Jenner & Kent. Our IMTS contact supports these data, telling us that IMTS has considerably increased its marketing budget and efforts.

Stone axes vs. Twitter

On the one hand, exhibitors should be pleased to hear that trade shows are allocating more money to attendee acquisition. On the other hand, when it comes to spending that money, trade shows in general seem to have one foot in the stone age. Although mobile marketing, market segmentation, and social media marketing are the top three attendance acquisition challenges, according to the attendee acquisition survey, the lion’s share (19%) of trade show attendee marketing budget goes to direct mail marketing. Maybe direct mail works differently for trade show organizers than for the rest of us. Quality Digest is all electronic, so take what I say with a grain of salt, but personally, I think some of that 19 percent should be shifted to addressing their top three issues, which are largely electronic-media problems.

By the way, IMTS may not be one of the flint-and-stone wielders. IMTS representatives assured us that, along with a full print advertising schedule, they are pursuing “a more aggressive than ever online advertising and outreach program.” Judging by my email inbox, they’re right (that’s my applause you hear).

They also pointed out that they are doing everything possible to make sure they deliver 90,000 qualified attendees who want to buy something from the show’s 1,500 exhibitors: More money on marketing, putting pressure on Chicago to resolve union and contractor issues at McCormick, trying to get costs down, introducing live video and other electronic outlets, and so forth, all help exhibitors have a better experience.

Speaking of contractor fees, union issues, and the like, here are two very good articles that shed a bit of light on where your money goes (Crane’s), and how recent changes at McCormick Center in particular have lightened that load a bit (Chicago Sun Times). All exhibitors I spoke to did say they saw quite a difference at the last IMTS in terms of cost and ease of working with contractors, and hope to see that repeated this year. So yes, Chicago and IMTS hear you and are trying to make exhibitors’ show experience better.

To add even more attendee value (thus attendee acquisition and retention), the show has reinforced its international nature by teaming up with Deutsche Messe to co-locate the first-ever Industrial Automation North America (IANA) with IMTS. This is a “major step in expanding and strengthening the range of solutions available to IMTS visitors,” according to IMTS.

Education is also a highlight: “We are seeing a hunger for education in the industry, and we are answering that with an increased offering of educational opportunities in conjunction with the show,” an IMTS rep tells me. “It’s ironic because in the early years, IMTS was actually an educational event and only turned into a buying/selling forum after World War II.”

All of this makes the show more attractive, and perhaps more of a draw, for visitors. But is it enough? Maybe. According to IMTS survey data, exhibitors attributed $2.4 billion in closed sales between 2008 and 2010 to the 2008 IMTS. However, without knowing the distribution of that $2.4 billion, it’s easy to hypothesize that certain industries may be doing very well at the show, and some not so much.

In the immortal words of Pogo

It’s our opinion that the Internet has turned show marketing, show attendance, and show exhibiting on its head. Shows like IMTS are scrambling, like of all us, to keep up. But—and this is critically important to understand—there is only so much a show organizer can do. If some trade shows are operating in the stone age, many exhibitors are in the Paleolithic, expecting that all they have to do is show up. For all the reasons listed above, unless you are aggressive in modern e-marketing techniques, and give show attendees something more than they can get from a Google search, why should they pay attention to your booth? “Yep, son, we have met the enemy and he is us,” said Pogo.

Exhibitors should be looking at further ways to leverage their presence: actively scheduling face-to-face meetings with existing or prospective clients, at-venue or in-city user-group meetings; live video broadcasts of new-product rollouts from the show floor; using social media like Twitter or Facebook for live show-floor updates to involve those people who aren’t attending (use your phone’s camera and video capabilities for Pete’s sake); and probably a dozen ideas I haven’t thought of. In other words, extend the reach of your booth beyond the venue; extend the buzz around your live show booth to your virtual audience.

Finally, the single most important thing an exhibitor can do to get the most value from future shows is to tell show organizers what they need. And tell it loudly. It’s the exhibitors that foot the bill. Large show organizers must listen or lose their exhibitors to their regional counterparts.


About The Author

Dirk Dusharme @ Quality Digest’s picture

Dirk Dusharme @ Quality Digest

Dirk Dusharme is Quality Digest’s editor in chief.