Phil Soar: Ego-gratification – the key to awards

Phil Soar hears from Robert Weissman, president of Alliance Media Strategies, about how running awards is now the central theme of the trade show model in the US and how techniques for launches vary there. 

My recent piece on awards garnered an unusual number of responses – not all of them friendly. Robert Weissman, a good friend of EN, gave me a follow up perspective from the USA. So I asked him how techniques for launches vary in the US and also how running awards has become central to the trade show model there.

Robert Weissman is the most respected observer on the USA Trade Show industry. We discussed the issue of Awards after my recent article and I asked him for a US view on how shows first developed and then started using Awards as a draw for their audiences. We started with how you get a show off the ground in the first place.

Back to basics  – how do you start with a launch?

PS: Where do we start on a launch?

RW: When I first started out in the tradeshow/conference business, one of the first questions any potential exhibitor would ask was (sing it with me gang) “Who else is exhibiting?”, “Is IBM exhibiting?, etc, etc…not “who is attending.” The problem would be exacerbated in the case of new shows with blank floor plans.

PS: How do you get the first name on the floor plan?

RW:  Simple, put the president, c-level exec, etc. of the bellwether firm on the conference program; who would then ideally inform his marketing department to buy exhibit space. How could they not have a presence if he was speaking? And put the bellwether firm exec on the show advisory board (often in conjunction with the previous point – get their egos involved in the event, with the same desired result).

PS: What about putting names on the plan?

RW: Another good angle is to tell a bellwether firm that you’ll “hold a large booth for them with no deposit or binding commitment required so that they could take their time to decide, and still not miss out on a prime location, should they decide to exhibit.” Of course, their name would be shown in the booth when selling space to other bellwethers, who ideally would pay full rate based on the belief that bellwether #1 was exhibiting. At some point, bellwether #1 would be shown a floor plan with bell’s # 2 through #10 in paid booths, and would ideally then purchase the reserved space.

And what about when all else has failed?

PS: And when all else failed?

RW: Well, some firms would offer severely discounted (or even totally free space) to secure bellwether participation. I don’t advocate it…

PS: So what are the obvious drawbacks?

RW:  Other exhibitors would find out about discount/comp given to their competitors in the course of general peer to peer conversation; or simply due to getting these same sorts of offers from other events. They would expect the same treatment. Once discounted/free space is received by an exhibitor, it becomes expected for subsequent events. Interestingly, this has not been a problem with airlines offering varied seat pricing.

PS: But don’t you have finite bellwethers?

RW: Discount/free space can get quite expensive for show management; no so much for the cost of the free space being given away, but for the opportunity costs. There are a finite number of bellwether firms in any industry that are capable of taking mega booths. Once a few are “out of the inventory” they can’t easily be replaced. There are some organisers (your CloserStill is one) which just don’t go for discounted space at all – as a principle. My argument is that there cannot be any absolutes in trying to launch a trade show.

Talking about tethered lamb techniques

PS You often talk about “tethered lamb” techniques of enticing exhibitors and sponsors – these have gained tremendous popularity over the last decade or so; for good reason; and the awards program is a vital part of this.

RW: Yes, is a vital component of that method. In essence, instead of using bellwether exhibitors as bait for other exhibitors, use bellwether buyers…a far more cost-effective choice.

PS: What about the hosted buyer model?

RW: Yes, permutations include:

  1. Overt: Show management subsidizes airfare, hotel, registration, meals, parties, gifts etc. in return for some guarantee that the buyer will meet with a required number of sponsors or exhibitors during the event. In some cases, buyers have to provide a credit card and if their meeting commitment is not fulfilled, the buyer will be charged for the event.
  2. Convert: Show management advertises a significant conference registration fee for attendees, but concurrently gives the event sponsors passes to invite their key buyers to the conference; including meals, receptions, etc. free of charge, with the number of passes based on their sponsorship contribution level. Attendees typically pay for travel in this model, but are usually able to bill that back to their corporation or association, especially if they a true executive-level bellwethers.

Additional benefit: The advertised presence of bellwether attendees, regardless of model utilized, is actually an excellent draw for the non-hosted or sponsored buyers to pay the full registration fee and associated travel expenses to participate in an event. Bellwether attendees are perceived to be important contacts to foster a professional network; and often employ/hire large staffs.

Didn’t you start the free conference content model in the US?

PS: Weren’t you central to the development of free conference content as a means of attracting the buyer audience? (Something which was also crucial to CloserStill’s development)

RW: Yes, I was somewhat complicit in these sorts of developments. In 1990 I created Affordable Meetings Conference & Expo (yes, an event about events; mea culpa). I had originally planned to have expo-only attendance free of charge; and charge below the market prices for a very good conference program. The exhibit fee pricing was a slightly higher than market, since the show was much larger in scope and duration that the competition.

After crunching the numbers, I decided to go all in and make the full conference free of charge to all qualified attendees as well. I believe this was the first show to do this, though it has since been adopted by many events. I actually started the event based on complaints from exhibitors and attendees about the existing events in the field, and wanted to differentiate the event, and provide exhibitors with the maximum amount of buyers possible. The event quickly grew to a 3 x per year cycle, with a total of 150,000 of 100 square feet booth sales. I believe much of that was based of the free conference and the initial success it created.

Playing on the ego-gratification of awards at events

PS: And now to the meat – how do Awards fit in?

RW: Yes, this is how Awards have developed in the industry in the US. Awards for Buyers: It’s really a classic example of business evolution. And it’s actually more cost-effective than the simple hosted-buyer models (of course, it can also include certain elements of those). In its purest iteration, simply use the ego-gratification that comes with receiving an award to get bellwether attendees to the event; with the attendees actually paying their way in most cases. The more awards and categories, the more attendees; along with all of the benefits those bellwether attendees bestow as far as attracting sponsors, and non-winning attendees.

RW: Awards for Suppliers: It gets even better with this permutation. Suppliers view awards as an excellent promo tool for the products and services (true value notwithstanding). They will post the award in their PR and promo materials, and use their acceptance speech and presence as a bully pulpit for a captive audience of buyers and trade press. They will bring staff and buy tables; and buy booths and sponsorships, for that matter. Heck, we might even see a time where suppliers actually pay for the actual awards!

Speaking of pay for play; a quick digression to an earlier point regarding bellwether suppliers on the conference program: There are some large tradeshows that have achieved a presence that allows them to actually charge a supplier a significant fee to present a keynote speech. Talk about having your cake and eating it…with ice cream on top! I’m surprised Comdex didn’t think of think of this; in fact maybe they did at a later date, but the following is a true story; which helps to illustrate how techniques evolve over time:

PS: We are talking here of the enormous benefits of tying an Awards Ceremony to an existing event – not of a stand alone Awards (which tends to be the UK model but not the US model)

RW: Yes, absolutely – the people are already there and looking for something to do in the evenings – so why not?

PS: Ok, a tricky question – have you ever seen the actual Awards “slated” towards the big guys? Or perhaps slated to avoid an obvious run of Awards which don’t include any of the big guys, and thus discourages them from participating?

RW: Not in my experience…

Waiting for windows to crash in Bill Gates’ presentation

RW: How Bill Gates stymied Comdex. Bill Gates was set to give a keynote at Comdex during its heyday that was free and open to all attendees. At that time, there were dozens of major computing events in the US, and securing Gates was always a big deal and big draw. The press had to be there, and everyone else wanted to hear about the latest Windows developments, brag that they were there, and also see how long it took before Windows crashed during his presentation (usually not too long) and hear how he would respond to the mandatory insults from Larry Ellison, Scott McNealy et al. Unbeknownst to Gates, Sheldon Adelson (the owner of Comdex) came up with the idea to charge a “donation” fee to those wishing to attend the free keynote. At the eleventh hour, Gates learned of this ploy, and forced it to be free of charge or he would not speak. How things have changed since then!

RW:  Additional Benefit of Awards Program: They provide “content” or “feature” filler to help expand an expo or conference program and help to justify the length of a three or four day event. In fact, the combined attributes of the awards program format has created conditions in the US where the model has become so successful that there are events about events where the awards are not just a feature, but the actual focus, title, and raison d’etre of the event. I’m not talking about one-night dinner programs; these events run four days in five-star properties. I know a few people have mentioned that award programs are expensive to produce. In the greater scheme of things, they really are not, once the attendant subsidies and benefits are calculated. There is a somewhat analogous situation with the proliferation of film and music awards. The TV networks love them because they are far less expensive than original, scripted programming. And the film and music industries love them because they help sell product to the viewers. The recipients  love, or pretend to love, them. (PS: The losers arguably don’t)

The world still shows up for awards ceremonies

RW:  In short, if an organization or association is not generating profits, direct and/or indirect, from a B2B awards program, they are not doing it properly. (PS: It is easier to have Awards in a three/four day show in Vegas or Orlando where the audience has already committed to staying for 3 or 4 days – doesn’t quite work the same with a domestic audience travelling to Birmingham).

 RW: But despite the almost bewildering number of overlapping awards programs (as exemplified by the events industry itself) as long as people are willing to show up and accept the awards and as long as exhibitors and sponsors are willing to pay to mingle with them, (as well as accept supplier awards) the trend will continue.

Will changes in this behaviour ever occur? We’ll know in the fullness of time. But until that time comes; pass the envelope please…

Rob Weissman is president of Alliance Media Strategies which provides bespoke consulting services to the exhibition, conference, and events industries, utilizing the best practices of observational analysis and social, behavioral, group psychology; combined with more than two decades of hands-on event creation and management. 

He can be contacted at

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