A few years ago I was asked to put a tender together for an exhibition to be bolted on to a 1,000 attendee conference in the health and fitness sector. I had been adding exhibitions to small 200 attendee conferences in the housing sector, so this seemed like a no brainer.
Initially I was really surprised that the conference had grown to this size without having an exhibition. However, after a conversation with the conference owner I was left in no doubt that the word ‘exhibition’ had vey few positive connotations.
After our first call I cast aside my initial approach which could have been summed up as “why don’t you have an exhibition?” and changed tact. “Here’s how adding an exhibition to your conference can add value to your delegates” was my new approach. I found myself in the unusual position of not quite pitching the idea of adding an exhibition to her conference, but rather justifying the whole idea of exhibitions.
When you do the same thing all the time and you are passionate about what you do it can be a challenge to step back and see things from other people’s perspective. Where I saw extra revenue my client saw extra risk. Where I saw adding something to the event, she saw taking something away. I had to take time and prepare to persuade. The simple sales approach wouldn’t work.
The main thrust of my argument came from my experience running events in the association sector. “If we do this right the exhibition and additional sponsorship can cover the costs of your entire event. Leaving the delegate revenue as profit.” This assured me a second call. And here is – basically – my script from that call.
1. We can limit the risk. You can be confident. You already have commercial companies advertising to your conference attendees in the brochure, so we have evidence an exhibition will attract sponsors.
2. We want to have a good-sized exhibition. I believe benchmarking is important. I have run 200 attendee conferences and we had 10 stands. So we can confidently say that for 1,000 attendees we can look to have over 40, even in the first year.
3. We have to make sure the numbers stack up. We already have a venue so we only need to add a room for the exhibition. As it’s the first year we have to stay totally on top of costs. There is no point adding an exhibition if we can’t make substantial profit.
4. Your audience trusts you. You have 1,000 attendees and a great reputation. They will take this leap with you. The content lends itself to an exhibition. You are in a vey favourable position.
5. We are here to help. We have all the sales and operational skills to add an exhibition and secure the right exhibitors.
6. In now way can we approach this as seeing the exhibition as a ‘necessary evil’. Embrace the exhibition, don’t try and hide the fact you have an exhibition from your delegates. The exhibition will add value to your event, so don’t be scared to shout about it.
7. Having an exhibition will impact your conference: if it doesn’t we’ve probably not given it enough importance. How your exhibitors interact with delegates, the location of lunch and refreshments and the timings of the day have to reflect your new stakeholders.
8. We have to approach the exhibition differently from other exhibitions you may have attended. We have to think about ‘pulling’ attendees into the exhibition space rather than ‘pushing’ them into the hall. We have to make the hall a place people want to spend time in. We know and have done that successfully for other organisations.
It worked. We won the tender and attracted almost 40 exhibitors to exhibit in the first year. The profit covered a large part of the entire event. A few years later the magazine and its event was bought by a large publishing house; I imagine for more money than the magazine and conference alone. We clearly added value to the bottom line and I believe we added value to the exhibitors and the attendees too.
If you have a successful conference adding an exhibition may not be a ‘no brainer’ but it will certainly be worth considering.