Home TopicEvents Why do people go to trade shows?

Why do people go to trade shows?

by EN

In his latest feature, EN guest editor Phil Soar wonders why people visit trade shows, and would they still do so if it wasn’t marketed at all…

Why do people go to trade shows? It’s an interesting question; let me provide you with two cameos:

In the 2000s, Steve Richards and I had shows called the National Incentive Show and The National Venue Show. They were decent sized, but we knew that there was a large body of potential exhibitors whom we simply could not persuade to do the event.

So we picked 20 of those recalcitrant, all of whom we knew, and made them an offer. We would give them a free stand of their choosing, pay for their hotel accommodation, and pay all their travel and food costs. Who could offer fairer than that? Result – none of the 20 took up the offer.

And in the case of another exhibition at roughly the time, we were struggling to get the visitor numbers up year on year. So, what incentives could we offer which would attract attention? Well, what is more attractive than money?

Just offer all your visitors a £10 note; simples

So, we put on the website and on our brochures and other literature (these were the days when there were things called ‘tickets’) – at the door we are going hand out a £10 note to anyone coming into the show (have you ever tried this one?). For lottery rule reasons we had to change the offer to a £10 M&S voucher for everyone – but it was just as valid. Did it change the attendance year on year? Not at all, and it cost us £40,000. At least M&S were very pleased. Quite a lot of people just refused to take the £10 – presumably thinking it was some sort of trick.

Well, you cannot blame us for not trying and being thoughtful about the nature of our events – but what did it teach us?

We considered a lot of hypotheses and discarded most of them. In the end we decided that there was a sort of person who liked trade shows, and then there were other people who just didn’t.

I tried a trade show once – it didn’t work

And that brings me on to another oddity about exhibitions. How often have you been trying to sell a stand only to hear the potential customer say: “No, we tried a trade show once, and it didn’t work.” No matter how hard you try to differentiate your show from others, explaining why the one they attended was a really bad event, you are hitting your head against a brick wall. This is odd is because you never hear anyone saying, “Tried a magazine once, didn’t work – won’t advertise in another,” or “Spent money on AdWords once – poor results. Never bothering with the internet again.”

We are a very holistic industry. Unlike almost all other industries, a product launching against you doesn’t have to succeed to damage your brand – if it fails it can have a ripple effect and cause contagion for you as well.

And going back to visitors and delegates. And I will exclude here events with a very heavy content orientation – such as healthcare events which offer automatic CPD and the like. Looking through a variety of websites devoted to attracting visitors to events, their content was predictable – see new ideas, discover suppliers, find better ways of doing things, buying and selling.  All of which is understandable and valid. But is it why visitors often travel long distances and spend reasonable sums to money to attend?

What does in depth research tell you?

Over many years we conducted a lot of individual, intense and face-to-face interviews with visitors to trade shows. I believe that the techniques were sophisticated and thorough – very unlike the tick box Registration Forms we continue to use online (I often tick the very first box in every section – there’s nothing unusual about me, so I imagine lots of you do the same. It’s quicker.)

And what tends to emerge? With this sort of detailed interrogation, visitors will say that their primary reason for attending a show is social. They are going with friends, they expect to meet old colleagues there, they look forward to nights out with mates. In the US in particular, there are a surprising number who admit to ‘social opportunities’ (necessary to be coy here). They like looking around at what other companies are doing. They are interested in content or about new developments. Getting out of the office for two or three days comes high on the list. But “we are looking for suppliers or to sell/buy” rarely comes at the top. Very often people aren’t clear why they go – it is a good way of perhaps finding “the unexpected.” In other words, they go because they go.

This is interesting. Of course, if someone is put on the spot and asked are they there looking for sales or buying opportunities they will just say yes. They will do the same with tick box analyses of 1 to 5 (if offered) when they just want to get away (and this ignores the strong self-selection issue in such research as well).

What is really happening with retention rates?

The industry has long operated on an average of 50% of registrants turning up. Since the beginning of September, the average across the board has been lower (I would guess circa 35%). This doesn’t worry me. Firstly, there is a direct correlation between when ‘A ‘registers and whether ‘A’ comes – the closer to the show the more likely they will attend, as any simple graph will show you. Many of the names we are currently emailing on our pre-reg lists must, by those standards, be ancient. And secondly there must still be a certain reticence to attend any kind of event. The fact that we insist on double vaccinations will possibly keep 10/15% away, and while most attendees are happy about the venues, they may well not wish to travel long distances on public transport. That is particularly true in the USA at the moment.

And how many visitors come back year on year?

This is a statistic which the industry has always been very quiet about. Analysing the data can be complex (is J Smith the same as John Smith etc), and I haven’t seen any in-depth work done for nearly a decade. What that older research concluded (accurately or otherwise) was that, on average, year on year 23% of visitors return. Just 11% of visitors attend, on average, three consecutive years. Of course, there are caveats. Vertical shows and transactional shows will have a higher return rate. Horizontal shows (IT may be a good example) will have a worse rate. In certain sectors (let’s say vets or pharmacists where we can analyse the data) a practice may send a different person each year – so this is a genuine returnee but shows up as a negative.

Show directors reading this will exclaim “Not My Show!”– but how many of you have the exact information to be so sure? You may meet some people every year – often the most important clients – and hence believe that everyone returns, but you don’t meet 10,000.

Compared with other media (the usual caveat: if we are to be regarded as a medium) these numbers are not impressive – I am sure The Economist has a 99% renewal rate each year, and that 98% of the people who watch Coronation Street this year will watch it next. But all that does is prove, yet again, that Trade Shows are not a standard media form and cannot be simply regarded as a sell/buy forum.

Do we really recognise why people attend – or do we try to sell them something they don’t always want?

This brings me back to conversion rates. We almost all auto-register this year’s attendees for next year (not exactly, but you know what I am saying). If only 25% of people come back each year, then it is hardly surprising that conversion rates rarely exceed 50% (I am speaking here of free events – paid events can be very different). And to be clear, just because someone doesn’t come every year, it doesn’t mean that they never attend again.

It’s a basic starting point in any marketing campaign to try to identify why the customer might want your product, to analyse her or his needs, and then to sell their desires back to them.

There is a broad spectrum of reasons why people attend trade shows. At one end we have clear buying/selling/transactional objectives. Towards the other end we have all the intangibles – meeting friends, getting out of the office, just wandering around seeing if anything catches your eye. In a sentence – Total Tangibles through to Total Intangibles. For most people, there will be a mix of several elements.

But if you look at a range of our websites (which is where almost all visitors first look), I don’t think that this is what you find. They are orientated very strongly to the proposition that trade shows are about buying and selling – just as if you were trying to sell an advertisement in a newspaper. In the past decade there has been a significant move towards “content” as an appeal, but this is still secondary.

Is it really about ROI?

This may be because of a perceived need to provide ‘ROI’ (has anyone ever provided definitive ROI figures for a show; ever?) for potential exhibitors, to perhaps stall comparisons with other media forms. Or it may be a consequence of the industry not really understanding why their visitors keep driving up/down the M6 or catching the DLR.

There is a case for researching in depth why your visitors come to your event (which is not the same as letting them tick boxes). And then altering the marketing campaigns to reflect what you find. I think that the intangibles are far more important than many would wish to believe, and that it is possible to appeal to these intangibles far more effectively than we currently do. This is reinforced by the use of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and others – which lend themselves very obviously to talking about the social side of events and generating a wide array of messages which appeal to the intangibles.

Are we really appealing to the deep, quasi-subliminal reasoning behind a visit to the NEC or ExCeL? Are we focusing (understandably) on the obvious messages by assuming everyone goes for a commercial reason, and not doing more on the “have a great time, meet old friends, refresh your batteries, so-and-so is great for a night out” angle. There is an understandable fear of doing this (and annoying the marketing director – but how much research does she/he have on why last year’s visitors really attended?)

What happens if you don’t promote a show at all?

I will finish with another cameo which also highlights the peculiarity of attendances at trade shows. I can only speak for my companies, but nowadays (on average) we spend around 9% of the total revenues of a show on marketing/promotion. This has come down considerably in recent years – switching from print to digital has brought that percentage down from 16%+ over some fifteen years.

A few years ago, we had a show (not a CloserStill event) and, being busy, we subcontracted all the marketing to an agency. The show turned over around £1m, so the promotion budget was circa £100,000. We didn’t keep as close an eye on things as we should and failed to notice that the agency was losing staff at an alarming rate. Just 48 hours before the show ran we realised that the agency had simply not spent the budget. They had done little more than sent out two emails to the database – spending perhaps £20,000 in total. So, we entered the portals of the NEC in great trepidation. The result? Our attendance was down just 12% year on year.

Which suggests a number of things: one is that the core of the audience might pay attention to next year’s date anyway and is likely to attend without too much prompting. Another is that exhibitors do much of the work themselves. And another is that perhaps 80% of the total marketing budget goes on attracting the last 10% of visitors. And another is that much of what we spend is “wasted” – in as much as such a statement makes any sense. It would be wonderful to try an experiment of not promoting an annual show at all and seeing what happens. But I doubt I would get volunteers.

In terms of answering ‘Why do People Go to Trade Shows?’ – well I suspect that I am just asking the question, and not entirely answering it.

Related Articles