EN hosts a roundtable with Freeman EMEA titled The Exhibitor Experience; how are we working to understand our customer needs to improve both growth and retention?
Understanding the customer journey and the ‘after-sales’ experience seems a relatively simple subject to discuss, but in reality, it’s far more complicated than it first appears. There are quite a few procedures the 180,000 exhibitors in the UK must go through before they can begin selling their products and services on a show floor. Understanding the exhibitor experience and how we can improve on it formed the foundations for the latest EN roundtable, in association with Freeman.
New kid on the block Mike Sealey, customer experience director at Informa, is in the fortunate position of being able to look at the problem with a fresh set of eyes. He says: “We have to think about what experience they are having with that show. It can be very chaotic from beginning to end. We have some very talented people at Informa but the processes, from organiser to the show, are disconnected and you end up having a group of people that just know how to get things done and this isn’t sustainable long-term.
“The big challenge we have is that most of our shows operate in their own silos and what I’m trying to do is understand where best practice is and look at how we can drive more consistency across our shows, particularly when we talk about using certain suppliers. As a result, we are building a preferred supplier list where the exhibitor will get some kind of discount and this avoids them using their own supplier who may farm out some of their work to a third party, creating a lot of touch points.”
Getting exhibitors together
Messe Frankfurt UK MD, Simon Albert, has a well-oiled machine at Automechanika. He adds: “We are extremely focused on delivering a professional experience for the exhibitors and our customers want to be handled in a professional way. As soon as the booking is made, we have a dedicated member of our team, an account manager, who immediately informs the exhibitor of their next steps within 24 hours. To make things as simple as possible, we give them just one point of contact.
“We also have an exhibitor day which we do three months before the show to make sure the exhibitor is prepared for the show. We also invite all of our suppliers, our stand contractors, freight etc. so they can meet everyone they need prior to the event. We also provide them with training by getting an exhibition industry expert who will share top strategies for making the most out of their experience at the show.”
Media 10 director on construction and optical portfolio, Nathan Garnett, also follows a similar pattern. He says: “Our exhibitor day runs in June and we ask Freeman to come along and help design stands and put together packages for our customers. It’s about 50% marketing, 50% operational, and we see a direct correlation between the people that come to our exhibitor day and the ones that do well, and they all rebooked on site. We also have stand awards to encourage our customers to build better stands and we present them with an award during the show.”
Albert believes bringing everyone together in one place can have a huge impact on outcomes: “Exhibitors that attend our training days can also organise special discounts from suppliers and we also push our customers to promote the event to their customers as this is a huge area. We also get the press along to these days so they can talk about their products. We have a really good turn out, we get about 80 exhibitors out of 300 turn up, with amazing feedback.
“By the time they are at the show we generally don’t have any issues because we do much of the work in advance. Of course, this has a great impact on our rebook at about 70%, despite the event being two years away. Post event, everyone gets a review call or face-to-face meeting to review their objectives and find out how they got on. Having a contact strategy is really important, ensuring that the right people are connected across the organisations.”
Change how we communicate
Freeman EMEA head of customer experience Angela Smith sees a change in the way exhibitors want and choose to communicate. She says: “We are definitely seeing a shift in contact plans with exhibitor plans being more personalised to fit in with their timescales and not just everyone fitting in when the exhibitor manual goes live four months out from the show. For us at Freeman, It’s about 365-day contact now. We might go live with the manual as part of phase one at our end but in the mind of the exhibitor who rebooked a year ago, that was phase one and they are now on phase four or five.
“So how do you match your plan with their planning stages? For me it’s about understanding this and where those exhibitors are in their journey and we need to match the right level of communication at the right time. They are all at different stages in the process and now more than ever, exhibitors need a more personalised approach. What we want to do is understand what they want out of the event experience and maximise on this, and that’s a big piece of work we’ve been doing with our exhibitor team.” Farnborough International venue director, Michael Watton, explains that venues also play an important part in the journey: “The one thing that strikes me is the amount of risk organisers have through so many different agencies that everyone uses. Where I think venues come in is trying to make it as smooth as it can be. The first person an exhibitor may meet is someone at the venue and we want to ensure that they arrive or leave in the right frame of mind. There are a lot of complicated parts to the jigsaw, but we all play a part in improving the experience. I think exhibitor days, particularly at the venues where they’ll be exhibiting can dramatically improve the experience and help exhibitors imagine where they will be in a few months.”
Smart ways to engage
Freeman EMEA MD Chris Preston explained that finding more comfortable, convenient and clever ways to engage with different exhibitors across varying generations dramatically improves engagement. He says: “One of the things we are doing in our digital teams and it is very much for younger generations we are dealing with, is that our online chat and second screen questions elicits a far higher degree of engagement and participation than the old-fashioned approach.
“Even in the face to face meetings we are finding that if you have a screen where you can type in your question and that feeds through to the stage, you get a much higher level of interaction because we’re removing that whole self-conscious feeling and people are no longer afraid to ask a question, no matter how silly they think it is.”
Smith mirrors the general sentiment around doing more to engage millennials on their ‘home turf’. She says: “We recently did a webinar event for the exhibitors, mainly because they were scattered around the globe, and it’s the first time we’ve done it for a particular event. We had a really good attendance as there were 85 new exhibitors at this event and we had around 60 engaged within the webinar. It was 45 mins and it allowed us to get to those exhibitors in their own environment where they do their planning. It’s where they have their information and we can get more from them. Out of those that attended the webinar, we were amazed to discover that 70% of them hadn’t done anything in preparation for the event.
“The exhibitor manual is also a huge help but it’s a hinderance too, and it’s about how we feed them information that’s really relevant at a time they need it.”
Sealey believes an overhaul on how we measure exhibitor success is paramount: “We love to do surveys and we have a ton of data but I honestly believe that we are not truly turning that data into real insights, which doesn’t allow you to address the right things in the long-term. One of our key metrics is Net Promoter Scores (NPS) but even then, we’re not looking at it in the right way. I think a lot of the show teams use it as a leading indicator to decide what they are going to do at the next show.
“What I’m trying to do with NPS is take it down another level, so that we are understanding and seeing where there are common themes, I think in the long-term we move away from NPS and look at some sort of UX index score. We can basically look at six things like; were we easy to do business with? Did the quality of the show meet your satisfaction? We want try to find some sort of algorithm that looks at those things in combination, so you get a more balanced index score that you can correlate to your revenue.”
Sealey continues: “The thing that worries me the most is that engagement only seems to be over a three-four month period leading up to the show and then there’s nothing, so how do you maintain engagement across the whole year, how do you ensure that even if you’ve done the rebooking? How can you provide valuable insight and information that really helps to prepare that exhibitor for the next time? There’s no point in trying to compare us to other event businesses if you know that the experience you’re delivering isn’t where it should be. It’s about trying to understand where you really need to aim for because each event is different.”
What improvements can we make to improve the exhibitor experience?
Albert believes there needs to be a fundamental shift in attitude between organisers and exhibitors. He says: “The basics are on an operational level and everything else need to be seamless. Utopia is where our customers see as more of a strategic support and we add value. The exhibitors are interested in how to book and operationally get to the show, it’s quite transactional. I think that what we want is our exhibitors to see beyond this and for me this is a big challenge in the industry.
“I think our customers see us as one of many marketing spends but then on our side, we struggle to find how to add value. We mentioned 365 contact, but I don’t think we’re there yet as an industry, because when we go and have those meetings, their reaction is ‘what are you selling to me?’
Commercial Vehicle Show director, Murray Ellis, says we need to understand more about the level of exhibitors experience: “The focus for an organiser has to be on the exhibitor (not forgetting also the visitor) and requires an understanding of exhibitors objectives and experience in exhibiting in order to deliver a successful event.
That often relies upon a venue or contractor to also collectively perform to deliver.”
Sealey explains: “If you look at that journey it has to be seamless and there aren’t any areas that you are having any difficulty. Whether it’s using technology or improved customer service. A lot of this can be resolved using AI chat and most of all making sure you have the right technology to do this. Having worked at Microsoft, I know a lot of this technology already exists, so we don’t have to go and develop it.
“We also need to have events that are 100% sustainable and leave stands that can be used over and over again. This is going to be become much more important going forward.”
Garnett agrees that sustainability is important, he adds: “We need to use modular stand systems using aluminium frame and pop in fabric, they can be re-designed and reused.”
Preston is already using some of these products at Freeman: “Things like beMatrix products is about creating bespoke stands from genuinely reusable materials because one of the key strengths of the industry is that exhibitors get value and it is bespoke for them. Addressing their needs and their objectives with a bespoke solution is very relevant and we can’t lose that. On the other hand, we have to address all sorts of things, including cost. One of the challenges that we’ve got is getting an exhibition delivered, ensuring we get an exhibitor on their stand and it is working and being successful requires a whole myriad of different services or products that have to come together to make that happen.
“I think we have got a challenge to become an end to end partner, working more hand in glove with the organiser and more with the venue but also focus on how are we going to make this easier for the exhibitor?
“Everyone knows what they do and how to do it but we are on a journey to improve how we all connect and evolve so we don’t end up with an organiser communication followed by a Freeman communication, we’re getting better at that but we need to look at the whole ‘end to end’ experience and how we bring all of that into a one stop shop with the technology that makes it more tailored and easier for people to follow.”
Mila Yankulova, operations manager at CloserStill Media adds: “Current technology gives us opportunities to streamline exhibitor experiences which we have never had before. For this to work however, we need to spend more time together, discussing and implementing new standards in the industry, rather than working only on individual developments. Roundtable discussions, which include organiser, venue and contractor representatives is the best start! We can’t do it without each other’s support.”
Smith concludes: “It is imperative that we treat exhibitors as individuals. We have to get to know them, their businesses, and really understand their event objectives. It is only by doing this that we can provide them with the right solutions to help them achieve their goals and make exhibiting a positive experience for them.”