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STUDENTS: PESTS OR GUESTS?

by Nicola Macdonald

It’s a question all organisers have to address – what should my show’s relationship with students look like?

Your attitude to students can depend on a number of things.

 

As an exhibitor at a trade show, you might want to avoid them like the plague and focus on buyers, or you might be interested in talking to the type of keen, proactive individuals who’ve shown enough initiative to attend a trade show.

As an organiser, you might be desperate for students to turn up, and grow into the next generation of buyers, or you might be worried about how best to deal with the high number of students clamouring to attend your event.

 

There’s no right or wrong attitude, but it’s important for organisers and exhibitors to have a coherent idea of the role students have at a specific event, and how they can best be encouraged to have a productive experience.

 

“Students are a really important part of our landscape,” Liz Agostini, event director of International Confex, tells EN. “We consciously try to look at the next generation coming into the industry, to support them as much as we can.

 

“We have a responsibility as an industry to bring in talent, and it’s important that Confex reflects that.”

 

International Confex, as an event for the events industry, is naturally a popular event with students.

 

The show attracts a high number of students each year, looking to learn from the sessions, take advantage of opportunities at the show and meet with exhibitors.

 

“We’re possibly over-welcoming to students,” admits Agostini. “We have a responsibility to our exhibitors, who’ve invested in exhibiting, to ensure that we manage the student participation.”

 

Clearly, having too many students trying to attend an event is a nice problem to have, as many trade shows focused on less glamorous industries struggle to attract significant numbers.

 

“We’ve found it quite hard getting students,” admits James Prosser, MD of Front Events, which organises five Financial Services Expo events across the UK. “We ran a campaign on the Milkround website but found it quite hard to get them registered.”

 

Ironically, it is often these industries that are most in need of a new generation of students, and which work hardest to appeal to them.

 

As an event director at Media 10, Nathan Garnett organises UK Construction Week and 100% Optical, both industries which are eager to welcome visitors in higher education. UK Construction Week brings together nine shows under one roof, one of which is Timber Expo.

 

“We had a steering group, where we asked exhibitors about what direction the show should take in the future,” Garnett tells EN. “One of the exhibitors, completely unprompted, said, ‘I think we need to get more students to the show’.

“That was music to our ears, because we have quite a lot of students at UK Construction Week already and it’s always a worry that the exhibitors might see too many students and complain about it, or that there would be a perception that the show is full of students.”

 

In the construction industry, adds Garnett, there is a real skill shortage, with the industry desperately needing to attract more graduate architects and engineers.

 

“It’s in everyone’s interest to get it fixed, otherwise the whole construction industry could come grinding to a halt,” he explains. “For exhibitors who have products to sell, it would affect them as well, so they’ve always said to us that we need to engage with students. We need to be seen to be the kind of showpiece show that gets people involved in that industry.”

 

The pressure to be seen as a showcase event, selling a wider industry to student attendees, is also felt by Prosser and his team.

 

The mission statement of the Financial Services Expo as a brand is ‘Shaping the Future of Financial Services’, and a big part of that, says Prosser, is attracting students to the show.

 

“If we can showcase what the industry is about, provide seminar content for them and give them a chance to meet some of the exhibitors, then that’s a good thing,” he says.

 

Prosser and his colleagues attempt to avoid unhappy exhibitors by working out in advance of a show who would be open to having conversations with student attendees.

 

“It depends on the exhibitors,” he explains. “We tend to kite mark certain exhibitions who will deal with students. The idea was to have stands clearly marked which were happy to have students approach them.

 

“It’s a good way to differentiate the exhibitors who don’t want to be bombarded from the ones who are interested and looking to attract students.”

 

When it comes to preventing students from bombarding exhibitors, the organisers of Conference and Hospitality Show (CHS) had a fairly drastic solution.

 

“At first exhibitors said they didn’t want students, so I said we’d not let them in,” explains Emma Cartmell, CEO of CHS Group. “But then we decided if they want to come then they can work at the show.”

 

Eight years later, CHS Group runs a successful student volunteer programme, allowing students to apply for voluntary positions and gain practical experience of working on a trade show, with the added bonus of gaining access to the exhibitors.

 

“I always say to the exhibitors, these guys have worked hard to be here,” adds Cartmell. “They’re definitely interested in events, if they’ve gone through this process.”

 

When it comes to students, all the organisers who spoke to EN agree that engagement is a two-way street. If organisers are going to spend time and money supporting students, then students should be willing to put in the time.

 

“I don’t think they derive a whole heap of value from wafting around, grabbing a muffin,” says Agostini. “Everyone’s interests are best served by working more closely with the educational establishments. You’ve got to go into a show with clear objectives, with an agenda and a plan for yourself.”

 

Before the show, adds Garnett, it’s worth engaging with tutors to find out what they’re coming for.

 

“There are some colleges and tutors – and this is a minority – who just see it as a day out,” he explains. “That’s not the right kind of college for us. We want tutors who are going to spend the time with their students and make sure they’re learning from the show.”

 

Whether or not an organiser wants to actively appeal to students, at the end of the day the issue always comes back to the exhibitors who’ve paid to attend a show.

 

One argument from exhibitors is that they come to shows to meet buyers, and that while students might be buyers one day, they aren’t today.

 

“I hope that most people can see the long term gain,” says Garnett. “That’s the game we’re in with exhibitions.

 

“I remember going to Confex when I’d only been in the industry a couple of months. I wasn’t a buyer then, but now I am, and I still remember some of the people I met. The best example I can give is my own experience.”

 

So, exhibitors, take heed. While students might not be the visitors you want to meet now, one day in the future they could be. And they have long memories.

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