Exhibition Executives See Opportunities in Unconventional Places

Trade show leaders discussed ways to grow business at the Exhibition and Convention Executives Forum.

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Sam Lippman, president of Lippman Connects and creator of ECEF, kicked off the event by outlining "5 Key Data Points in 5 Minutes."

The trade show industry offers some rich opportunities for those willing to think creatively. That was one of the main takeaways from the annual Exhibition and Convention Executives Forum, a gathering of approximately 200 leaders of associations and independent organizations as well as trade show solutions providers. The all-day event, taking place at the JW Marriott Washington, DC, was full of education, networking sessions and tech demos aimed at offering ways to elevate exhibitions.

The show's creator, Sam Lippman, president of Lippman Connects, kicked off the event with a session outlining "5 Key Data Points in 5 Minutes," summarizing the just-released 2019 ECEF Pulse report. That survey of 201 convention executives offered a peek at the state of the industry with the observation that growth expectations, which had continually increased since the 2008 recession, were levelling out. On almost all significant metrics — with net square feet, numbers of exhibiting companies and attendees, and sponsorship sales all on a decline — fewer respondents expected to see growth in the year ahead than had in previous years. 

Lippmann also pointed out that attendee acquisition remains steady, with 45 percent of respondents investing more that realm. Profit expectations were evenly split between growth and no change, with slightly more respondents expressing pessimism about next year's growth than those on the optimistic side.

To broaden the focus, Kai Hattendorf, managing director and CEO of UFI, the Global Association of the Exhibition Industry, shared findings from its UFI Global Exhibition Barometer, released last month. He outlined the state of the global market, with 4.5 million exhibiting companies and 303 million visitors generating $137 billion in direct spending and $81 billion in direct GDP in 2018.

Kai Hattendorf, managing director/CEO of UFI, the Global Association of the Exhibition Industry, shared findings from its "UFI Global Exhibition Barometer."
Kai Hattendorf, managing director/CEO of UFI, the Global Association of the Exhibition Industry, shared findings from its "UFI Global Exhibition Barometer."

UFI's findings also reflected how the world's exhibition market is expected to change, with China and India overtaking the U.S. as the biggest drivers of growth (reiterated by an audience poll, in which the top two destinations where attendees said they would like to bring a show were China, at 30 percent, and India, at 17 percent). UFI compared the number of trade show organizers looking to expand to new global destinations, finding that two-thirds of those in the Asia-Pacific region are looking to operate in new countries, compared to 59 percent of organizers in the Americas and 49 percent in Europe.

New Ways to Approach Trade Shows

In addition to shifting geographical markets, ECEF offered a case study of Cassandra Farrington, CEO of Marijuana Business Daily, which produces the MJBizCon convention for the marijuana industry. Attendees learned the story of how she and her business partner spotted an opportunity back in 2011, as states began legalizing medical and recreational marijuana, and interest began growing around federal legislation. The two wound up launching the Marijuana Business Daily newsletter and then a B2B trade show, MJBizCon. 

The vision of the gathering was to give members of the industry not a festival or recreational event, but a true business gathering and a place where newcomers to the industry could meet with experts in the field. It launched in 2012, with 400 attendees in a masonic lodge in Denver, then graduated to a 700-person gathering at a racetrack in 2013, and by 2017 was hosted at the Las Vegas Convention Center, with 11,000 attendees. 

"What folks saw when they came to MJBizCon were 11,000 business professionals who were ready to move this business forward," said Farrington, emphasizing that the show had only grown further since. "The industry was able to imagine itself there and feel like it belonged in that environment."

Another session took a deep dive into a different kind of out-of-the-box thinking: the passing of operational ownership of the National Restaurant Association's annual exhibition to B2B market intelligence firm Winsight, LLC. The main decision makers in the deal discussed the unconventional partnership, in which instead of selling the show outright, the NRA also became an equity partner of Winsight and gained an advisory seat on its board of directors. 

Mary Pat Heftman, EVP of convention and strategic alliances for the NRA prior to the deal, and now Winsight restaurant show-group president, explained that it came down to the association's evolving priorities, as its leadership felt it needed to act "more like a media company" than a trade organization to keep up with the marketplace.

"I felt we were not able to keep up with digital transformations with where we were at. During that time, Winsight was adding properties in the food business that would be incredibly accretive to trade show business," explained Heftman, pointing especially to the speed to market with which Winsight could move. She emphasized that this allowed them to maintain the touch of an association with the quick-to-market capabilities of a fast-paced media organization.

This year, the 100th show exceeded expectations, and Dawn Sweeney, CEO of the NRA, noted it was "...creativity and openness to exploring…that allowed us to create something that I don't think either one of us could have envisioned when we started."

Innovative Best Practices for Exhibitions

ECEF's Power Panel featured (from left) moderator Rick McConnell, president, North America, for Informa Markets; Linda Gray Martin, director/COO for RSA Conference; and Dennis Smith, president and CEO of Messe Frankfurt Inc.
ECEF's Power Panel featured (from left) moderator Rick McConnell, president, North America, for Informa Markets; Linda Gray Martin, director/COO for RSA Conference; and Dennis Smith, president and CEO of Messe Frankfurt Inc.

The event featured a number of other sessions offering best practices for exhibitors, such as a panel on the "Brave New World in the Event Business." Rick McConnell, president, North America, for Informa Markets moderated a conversation between Dennis Smith, president and CEO of Messe Frankfurt Inc., and Linda Gray Martin, director and chief of operations for cybersecurity event company RSA Conference, as well as a number of audience members who chimed in with questions and comments.

Martin cited a lack of diversity and inclusion, noting only 11 percent of roles in the cybersecurity industry are filled by women. She said RSA has worked to increase female speakers and education, instituted a "no booth babe" policy as well as gender-neutral bathrooms. 

"Events need to be more relatable and contextual for the attendees," said Smith, offering his own key takeaway. "It all comes down to ROI for the attendees. We need to make sure we're still generating the arguments and statistics to show these exhibitors and attendees that they are going to generate ROI at these events."

The event's closing keynote was delivered by Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Technology Association, which oversees CES, and author of Ninja Future. He tackled topics such as finding/retaining "a ninja staff" (which included investing in diversity when seeking new hires: "Don't interview people who look and act like you"), keeping a mega show relevant and efficient (having a governing structure and board to help come up with good ideas) and the future of digital/connected health. Shapiro also touched on GDPR, privacy, innovation and the advantages of face-to-face events.

"I'm the paid cheerleader for the technology industry, but nothing is better than that live experience where you can see, smell, sense, feel, touch, hear, and evaluate people and new products and services," said Shapiro. "Your mind just can't do that with the Internet or technology."

Yet exhibition technology was showcased throughout the show, such as a "second screen" at each seat from PSAV whereby attendees could ask or answer questions, request PDFs of presentations or chat with one another. Attendees  also could use an ECEF app from core-apps or an ECEF Eve N.T. Bot from EventBots by Sciensio, which provided customer service and answered questions about the agenda.

Following the day's program, attendees attended a mini trade show about trade shows — including a TechDemo of new exhibition solutions from Aventri, Freeman, Concise (a PSAV company), Eventbots by Sciensio, GES, Map Your Show, MDG, Personify A2Z Events and Ungerboeck Software International.