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Selling them on success
posted on: 8/8/2011 09:15:43
Blurred person exhibition hall
It can take a lot of work to convince exhibitors that a show will be beneficial, and ROI is notoriously hard to prove. Mike Trudeau looks at ways to address the challenge.

The UK exhibition industry is arguably the country’s most insecure marketing medium. We’re constantly on the defensive. So much energy goes into defending exhibitions and justifying them as a way of doing business, yet many of us refuse to audit our shows. And we put in all this effort only to have an unprepared and uninformed exhibitor cut us down for not being effective enough.

The return on investment (ROI) argument is a well-whipped horse in this country’s exhibition circles. It comes up again and again: How can we best justify this expensive medium? Why, demonstrate its benefits of course.

How do you do that? By proving to exhibitors how much cold, hard cash they made by taking part. But how? What counts and what doesn’t?


There are three tiers of exhibiting and for each progressive tier lead times are longer. It also becomes increasingly difficult to demonstrate ROI.

First-tier exhibitors show up mostly at consumer shows and are the people selling wares from their stands. Joe Bloggs sells pots of huckleberry jam or monkey wrenches. Revenue equals units sold multiplied by the price per unit minus cost of exhibiting. Easy as anything.

The second tier of exhibitors appear at the bigger-ticket consumer shows, which often have a significant if underlying trade aspect. These are your London International Boat Shows, Farnborough International Air Shows and even big home project shows like Grand Designs Live.

Obviously there will be a certain number of on-stand sales, and you’ll have a contingent of first-tier exhibitors, but nobody’s going to sail away from Excel London with a super-yacht they bought on impulse (unless they’re a Russian oligarch).

Lead time for these exhibitors is longer, and while a ‘where-did-you-hear-of-us’ survey of visitors may reveal those that first got the idea to buy at a show, they are far from complete.

Third-tier exhibitors are trade exhibitors. To them, a trade show is probably as much an opportunity to cultivate relationships as it is about qualified sales leads. It’s here where determining ROI from the show itself is a futile exercise.

Fortunately, exhibitors tend to understand this more at a trade show than they might at a consumer show. At this point, making the show about a bottom-line figure actually diminishes its value.

These three categories aren’t clear-cut, of course. Mrs Jam-Jar may sell more products on her website following the show, or may make a good impression with a supplier at an exhibition that leads to a deal a year-and-a-half later. But the primary focus of exhibitors tends to fall into these groups.

Get your trainers on

There are several aspects of business development not strictly associated with actual dotted-line signing. Exhibitors go to trade shows to check out the competition and be seen themselves.

According to John Blaskey, MD of exhibitor training company The Exhibiting Agency, there are at least five things other than direct sales an exhibitor can get from a show. These include showcasing new products to existing clients; generating client meetings on the stand rather than travelling to see them; market research; brand recognition and learning from competitors. At a time when potential exhibitors are under more pressure than ever to justify their attendance, a reminder of these benefits won’t hurt.

“It doesn’t need to cost more money,” Blaskey said. “People employed at an exhibition can do more listening.”

According to Blaskey, determining ROI is something so complex that it has to lie outside the remit of the organiser. However, keep in mind that an exhibition organiser is nothing if not a facilitator.

It is because of this that Farnborough Air Show organiser FIVE recently hired Blaskey to do a workshop with its salespeople on showing exhibitors how to better determine their ROI.

“It is the job of the organiser to have a methodology by which their exhibitors can select a way of deciding how they want to measure ROI,” Blaskey continued. “If you are an organiser or an association and you don’t give your exhibitors these tools, you are failing them. You need to know exactly how to tell the story to your exhibitors about how to measure ROI.”

Another exhibitor trainer Richard John believes there is a formula for ROI and claims the basic calculation for a company’s objectives is simple. The goal for number of leads equals: (number of staff on-stand) x (working hours per day) x (show days) x (leads expected per hour).

For example, three people on a stand seven hours a day for a three-day show, pulling in three leads an hour, should result in almost 200 leads of varying quality. Add to this the average cost of one staff member per 4sqm of space and the number of leads a potential exhibitor wants becomes a powerful selling tool.

According to John, it is the exhibitor’s job to optimise and determine its own ROI, but the organiser has to make that as easy as possible. In other words, the organiser supplies the water and the exhibitor does the drinking.

Reporting the figures

When the task of determining ROI falls at the feet of the exhibitors, who need more and more evidence to justify time out of the office, there is one solution that, bafflingly, has lost its grip on UK exhibitions: Auditing.

How often can it be said? Audit. Audit. Audit. For some reason, the UK is one of the only countries in Europe where the majority of organisers simply refuse to audit their shows. Why? Fear of being exposed as frauds? Being taken to task by exhibitors?

Jane Murphy, exhibitor trainer for The Know It All's Guide to Exhibiting, claimed audited show data is crucial for justifying time out of office for potential exhibitors.

“How can you really decide which exhibitions to attend if they aren’t audited?” she asked. Not only will this help promote a successful show (plain numbers are an easy sell), but it also puts the ball in the exhibitor’s court if they feel the show wasn’t effective. Considering the sluggish uptake at many exhibitor training sessions, this might be the sharp shock companies need to wake up to the importance of exhibitor competence.

“Typically, what will happen is the marketing manager will get enthused about exhibiting and tell salespeople they are needed but they turn up not really knowing what to do or how the results will be measured,” said Murphy. “Often they haven’t even worked out their pitch. For some particular reason salespeople adopt a different approach to how they treat people at an exhibition from how they would if they were out on a sales call. People are walking by and they often just wait for a visitor to approach them."

Murphy also claimed people often underestimate the purposes an exhibition serves.

“They always say sales leads, but exhibitions provide an opportunity for many other things,” she said. For some exhibitors, ‘sales leads’ means a business card in a glass bowl, many of which will not likely lead to any real return.

The problem is a difficult one. Exhibitors aren’t full-time exhibitors, and therefore don’t really know how to do it best. However, no matter how hard organisers try, there is inevitably a low take-up for exhibitor training days.

As with John, Murphy believes that while it is the organiser’s job to provide tools, it is the exhibitor’s responsibility to use them.

“The exhibitor should be much more detailed in preparations. The organiser has to try to encourage ongoing communication between the visitor and exhibitor,” she said. “An organiser’s salespeople need to have a fair understanding of what exhibitors need to go through to get the sign off to book for an exhibition.

“Help the marketing manager build a case for attending your exhibitions.”

Analyse this

Vivid Interface MD Geoffrey Dixon agrees many exhibitors don’t have a clear picture going in to a show of what they want to get out of it, and that this makes it hard for them to measure how effectively the event met their expectations. Not only are individual objectives often blurry, but different companies measure exhibition ROI against to different standards.

As there are so many potential ways for business to come from as a result of an exhibition, this isn’t surprising. However, Dixon believes ROI is an incomplete measurement often given too much weight.

“ROI can be such a misleading term. It suggests it’s purely a financial thing but it isn’t,” he claimed. “Bringing it down to a simple calculation can work for some people but in most cases you end up with a much more qualitative approach of how the show effected business. If anyone thinks ROI is a simple concept then they themselves are too simple.”

Dixon’s company Vivid Interface offers a product called VISOR, standing for Vivid Interface Show Optimisation Research. This information gathering process can literally generate more information than we know what to do with so far.

Using VISOR, each exhibitor fills out a questionnaire before a show that lists a series of goals. These can range from marketing (building the brand or launching products, for example), sales (generating leads or meeting existing customers), human resources (recruiting or educating staff) to strategic (identifying potential partners) objectives. The exhibitor then ranks each of these according to importance on a scale of one to five.

After the show, without letting the exhibitor see what they said pre-show, VISOR asks them to rank the exhibition according to how strongly it performed across the same goals. From this, an organiser can get a picture of what exhibitors are looking for, and what it might be offering that exhibitors aren’t interested in.


What we’ve heard so far suggests that it’s not our fault, it’s our exhibitors who aren’t holding up their end. However, AEO chief executive Austen Hawkins believes organisers can and should do more, especially when it comes to exhibitor training.

“I do think that if organisers apply their marketing talents to their exhibitor training ROI wouldn’t be such a problem,” he said. “It’s hard to get our clients to come but that shouldn’t stop us from rushing to the challenge. Every single exhibitor could learn something that would make their stand more successful. They aren’t exhibitors in their heads, they are widget manufacturers.”

Exhibition organisers are at heart professional business facilitators, and that role has come a long way from someone selling space in a shed. While exhibitors may be infuriatingly reluctant to take advantage of all the training and tools an organiser throws at them to optimise ROI at a trade show, it is our duty to use all the cards in our deck to help them.

In the end however, shows are not simply about sales. More importantly, they are about something that cannot be measured and must be taken on trust: Building relationships.  

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