The exhibition model hasn’t changed in decades, so they say. But while photographs of trade shows now may look the same as they did way back when, what has changed is the audience.
Fifteen years ago the audiences we sought to attract didn’t have the access to information sources they do now. They travelled to a trade show to exchange and learn about the development of our industries. Today a company can’t wait for an annual event to accomplish this (that is, not a successful company); they get that information more simply online.
Instead stands have evolved into more than a simple display area and many shows operate on an even more subtle level than that. Organisers need to present an enriched proposition to our audience, and one compelling way to do this is through the digitalisation of our businesses.
Organisers currently make around 80 per cent of their money from space sales, but more and more of their revenues can now be derived from non-traditional areas. Digitalisation affects how exhibitors want to spend their money and will change the dynamic for organisers. Exhibitors are increasingly using sophisticated CRM and digital marketing tools and will start to expect tradeshows to provide similar customer insight, ROI measurement, follow-up and so on.
Messing with tradition
The problem we face as an industry is that organisers busy making money are disinclined to mess with a traditional expo model that still seems to be working. But in today’s market, this is certain to be short-termism, or so argues Kim Myhre, MD at brand experience agency MCI Experience.
“Organisers need to think beyond their current success to the next evolution of their events, and this means revisiting the traditional expo model. We need to be sure we aren’t attempting to digitalise an ageing and potentially obsolete model,” he says. “Companies should reinvent themselves while at the top of their game. Your proposition doesn’t have to be malfunctioning before you think about redefining it.”
So how do we make the change? Non-traditional organisers launching events already operate according to new business models, but this will be a slow process for traditional organisers. What do you monetise and what are the risks associated with inactivity? Other industries evolve according to need, but while there is a real threat posed by these new models, it remains on the periphery.
Myhre points to Theodore Levitt’s book Marketing Myopia, published by the Harvard Business Review, which highlights the propensity of companies to define themselves by their product, rather than by the value they provide.
Organisers must become more self-aware. What business are they really in? The goal isn’t to sell space, but to deliver value to customers and ensure participation. They need to accept that the existing business models are destined to be replaced as alternative ways for their audiences to meet, learn and do business continue to emerge. They need to identify new offerings that meet their audience’s needs sooner than their competitors do.
“The railroads were a good example of this,” says Myhre, referring again to Levitt. “The owners fought so hard to keep the railroads alive that they didn’t realise they were in the transportation business. Organisers will need to embrace the changes taking place on our industry and reinvent how they deliver value in the future.”
By adopting this value-first approach, organisers can more easily see the proposition they present to the market, making it easier to see the breadth of service they could potentially provide. And much of this can be achieved through the digitalisation of their businesses.
Savings now, revenue in the future
Digitalisation directly addresses efficiency in many ways, one of which is communication, says AMR International’s digital chief Ailis McKernan. Through digitalisation an organiser – and therefore exhibitor – can preclude conversations running cold as a result of communication tailing off a few weeks after an event, aiding dialogue throughout the 360 days of the year the show is not underway.
“Exhibitors are already starting to see that as a more efficient approach,” she says. “All over the world they are losing many leads simply by not having the digital infrastructure required to make the most of them.” The technology exists to enable organisers to resolve this problem.
Digitalisation also enables an organiser to assess and present return on investment in a way that traditional data cannot. For example, it enables an organiser to provide evidence as to why a visitor attended your event, how they came across it, and to pay the company or companies responsible for providing that engagement accordingly. In doing so the organiser can then decide which is the most useful partner for them to achieve that goal.
At present, most digital investment is about saving costs, they are not yet revenue-generative. But this will change. As an industry we may not yet realise the full potential of adopting a digital component for our businesses, and there is much speculation as to where we will end up, but we can’t even a take a swing if the ball is not on the tee.
“Organisers are awakening to the fact that there are several ways to make leveraging data revenue-generative,” explains McKernan. “For example, these companies are creating a lot of data and they can drive revenue from this. Organisers can leverage data to people that they aren’t able to gather themselves, or who don’t have anything like the access that event organisers have; people in charge of events and exhibitions have great scope for insight and huge opportunities with data.
“Leveraging data outside of the event shores up revenue beyond the traditionally lumpy event cycle.”
Change is coming
Myhre makes an interesting analogy that back when television first emerged, everyone listening to radio said it wouldn’t take off – who wants to see someone speak into a microphone?
But new audiences emerge, needs and preferences change, and today the digitalisation of experience will continue to challenge traditional event business models.
“Radio still exists, but television has had a greater impact on advertising, marketing and the world in general than they could have possibly imagined, explains Myhre. “We are dealing with a new audience, one that is technology-enabled with shorter attention spans and the desire and ability to communicate digitally in addition to physically.
“It would be foolish for the trade show industry not to realise that change is coming, and it will have an impact on the future of how we design and deliver events.”