by: Michael R. Hough
Contrary to what one might think, launching a new event at this time may be a very good idea because:
- A number of shows have been canceled—maybe you could resurrect one of these and make it a success.
- Many venues are hungry for new events—you can get good dates and good rates.
- By next year when the show occurs, everything should be back to “normal.”
- This is a good use of your talented staff (who may not be that busy during these down times). It is better to use their time to build new business.
- And finally, no one else is crazy enough to do it—so you will have less competition.
First, how do you get a good idea for a show? Look for opportunities not served. Maybe a potential exhibitor says, “I’d really like to reach a qualified group of buyers in this market.” Or possibly there is a change in government regulations that requires educating the industry. Or maybe an existing show has an unfilled niche.
But keep in mind there are three additional requirements before you actually have a show (besides there being a perceived need):
- There must be a group of buyers (attendees) who recognize this need. This is called the “community of interest.”
- You must be able to identify and reach these buyers. That is, are there lists or other sources that permit easy access to this community of interest.
- There must be a sufficient number of exhibitors who want to sell to these buyers.
If an idea sounds promising, do some research. Read everything about the industry and talk to everyone. Ask such questions as:
- What is the total size of the community of interest (or universe) for this show? As a rule of thumb, you will be able to attract 1% of this universe to your show.
- What competition is out there, both direct (other shows) and indirect (magazines, web sites, etc.)
- Are exhibitors dissatisfied with the existing opportunities to reach this market?
- Will the industry influencers (associations, trade magazines, etc.) support your show?
However, do not spend too much time researching and agonizing. By the time you act, someone else may have beaten you to the market. This is an entrepreneurial industry, and many times entrepreneurs go by gut feeling. Tip: the very best research is to ask exhibitors to place a deposit on a booth.
Positioning the Trade Show
The first step in a launch is to position the show to ensure its success. Everything flows from this, so be sure to spend enough effort doing it right.
The position is the show’s unique rationale or what it provides that buyers want but is not provided by any other show (or event or medium). How is it different and more valuable to the target attendees and exhibitors than any alternate use of their time/money? What special benefits and features differentiate this show from all others?
Note that “better” is not enough – everyone says that. You have to get very specific regarding what unique benefits you provide and why a potential attendee/exhibitor must be at your show.
Once you have established the show’s position, reinforce it with a killer name, logo and graphics. The name should say exactly what the show is, so it sells by itself. The logo and graphics should be simple but elegant.
It is important to obtain early support from several segments who are vital to the success of a new show: bellwether exhibitors, associations, b-to-b magazines and other influencers.
- Exhibitors. Select a half dozen or so key, prestigious exhibitors who dominate the market. Pursue them with a targeted campaign to get them to sign up early. Offer them “charter” exhibitor status meaning, for example, a significant discount off the posted exhibit rate, membership on the advisory board and a spot on the conference program.
- Associations. Even if you are an association yourself, you should solicit other associations to support the show. This provides third-party endorsement plus the use of “other people’s money.” That is, others spend their resources helping promote your show.
- B-to-B Magazines. Trade magazines that serve the market you are targeting are constantly looking for ways to reach show exhibitors (their advertisers) and attendees (their subscribers). They, in turn, give you 12-month access to the market; this is the perfect 2 + 2 = 7.
- Other Influencersge professors, online newsletter editors, etc. Find out who they are and convince them your idea for a show is good for the industry in general and good for them in particular.
Harness all this support by creating advisory boards for exhibitors, conference, etc. Then actually use this expertise in putting on the show.
Develop the Content
Content refers to what benefits the attendees receive from the show including:
- Actual learning in the paid and free conference sessions.
- Networking with other attendees.
- Updating their knowledge via the exhibitors.
- And pure entertainment (the “fun” aspect of the show).
The conference program must be professionally done. Do not allow exhibitors to give sales pitches as part of your paid program. This may be all right on the free side, but clearly identify these. Other tips regarding content:
- Use a content partner to help identify topics of interest as well as speakers on these topics.
- Favor those who actually “do” what they speak on.
- Strive to provide information that the attendees can use tomorrow.
Attendance promotion is the most important task for any show, but particularly so for a launch. If you have attendees, exhibit sales will come much easier. Note that for a launch, you have to budget more for promotion because you have two tasks: position the show in the minds of prospects and then convince them to come. If you position the show well, the rest of the promotion effort will go that much better. See “Positioning the Show” for a discussion of how to do this.
The other tasks in convincing the prospects to come to the show are: early efforts, outside support, public relations, direct mail and e-marketing.
- Early Efforts. Make a big splash when you announce the show (see Timeline for when to do this). Have your early supporters lined up, including several large exhibitors committed to taking space. Issue a press release, but also call key editors and other gurus to pitch why the show is unique (and needed). Send out a “Mark Your Calendar” post card to the best lists available.
- Public Relations. As mentioned, target those who actually influence the show’s community of interest. These are editors at the leading trade publications, association staff, gurus, etc. and probably number 20 or so. Go one-on-one with them to gain their active support.
- Direct Mail. This is still the most important promotion tactic, but it is declining due to its high cost/low return. Control costs by focusing on the 20% of the universe who will most likely attend your show. Other tips:
- Your database is critical. Carefully build it using proactive sources such as association member lists, paid or controlled circulation subscribers, etc.
- Mail early and often, using different looks but all with the same message: you must come to this show. This is called the “Chinese water torture.”
- E-marketing. This is definitely the future of attendance promotion. But while it is the best way to communicate with prospects, it is not good for cold prospecting. Some tips:
- Use permission marketing, that is, the prospect “opts in” to receive information about your show.
- Drive prospects to your web site and encourage them to self register.
- Keep your website, emails, etc. as simple as possible. Complex graphics take too long to download and may turn off prospects who do not have broadband.
Good attendance makes exhibit sales that much easier. But how do you sell a show that has not been held? Here are some tips:
- Make a list of the industry’s bellwethers and smother them with attention until they sign on.
- The bellwethers may require some unique persuasion such as discounted or even free exhibit space or sponsorships.
- Try to start your sales effort prior to the annual budget cycle which typically starts in August – September. It is very hard to get a prospect’s attention once their annual show budget is set in stone.
- Use the list of signed up bellwethers to sell to the next tier.
- Fancy printed sales material is more necessary for a launch than for an ongoing show. But still focus on the unique position of the show and on the precise demographics of the targeted attendee market.
- For a launch, you may need some unique sales pitches, such as a sliding scale, money-back guarantee. For example, if promised attendance is 4000 but only 2000 show up, you would return 25% of the booth fee.
A show could possibly be launched and held within a 4-month time span; ideally you should allow 18 months; but realistically it can be done in 12 months. Here is a timeline assuming you have 12 months from decision to go:
(Prior to 12 months, the following has been done: research idea and decide to go; articulate unique rationale; and choose show name/logo)
- 12 months out – decide on date, book the venue, line up early supporters, announce the show
- 11 months out – draw floor plan, start selling booths, create web site
- 10 months out – issue Call for Papers, begin conference preparations, continue PR campaign
- 8 months out – prepare attendance promotion plan, issue sales prospectus, confirm keynote speaker(s)
- 6 months out – start implementing promotion plan, prepare to take registrations
- 4 months out – begin direct mail/e-marketing campaign in earnest
- 3 months out – go/no-go decision whether to cancel
- 2 months out – implement operations plan with venue, contractors, exhibitors, etc.
- 0 months out – hold successful show
- plus one week – do post mortem
Even though you may be spending more on a launch than on an ongoing show, you should still prepare a precise budget. Here are some tips:
- Price the exhibit space at slightly less (10%) than what competitive shows are charging. But not at half price – you will be perceived as worth what you are charging.
- As mentioned, budget more for promotion, but don’t allow unlimited expenditures.
- If you end up making money with the first show, then great, but this would be highly unusual. Realistically, plan on losing some money in Year 1, breaking even in Year 2 and starting to make money in Year 3.
It is very important to build in hard go/no-go decision points. Set specific goals such as get three bellwethers before announcing the show and sell 50% of exhibit space at six months out. If you fall significantly short of these goals, then shut down the effort and cut your losses.
Right after the show, do a post mortem that focuses on:
- Did you reach your goals for attendance, exhibit space sold, profit (loss)?
- Did the industry leaders support the show? If not, why not?
- What must be done to make next year’s show a huge success?
Note: This article appeared in the August, 2002 issue of Forum, the monthly publication of Association Forum of Chicagoland.
Sidebar 1: Ten Questions to Ask When Considering a Launch
- Does the proposed show have a truly unique rationale? That is, will it fill a need that the market wants but which no other event fulfills?
- Has anyone else tried the idea? If not, why not? If yes, are they succeeding and if they are, what makes you think you will also succeed?
- Is the “community of interest” (or universe) large enough to support this show? As a rule of thumb, about 1% of the show’s universe can be enticed to attend.
- Likewise, is the potential size of the exhibit large enough to generate a sufficient profit? In general, a 100 to 200-booth show only breaks even; it takes a 500-booth show to really start making money.
- Can you identify (and reach) the community of interest? That is, are there lists or other sources that you can access?
- Have you chosen a location/time of year that serves the unique needs of the market?
- What do the bellwether exhibitors think of the idea? More important, will they put down a deposit for a booth?
- What do the industry leaders (associations, magazines, gurus) think of the idea? [Note that some will oppose it because it is competitive with their agenda while others will voice their support only to please you. You must read between the lines to divine their true sentiment.] Also, will these industry leaders appear on your conference program?
- Do you have the long-term resources (staff and financial) to make the idea work? Especially in these times, it will likely take 2 to 3 years to have a successful show.
- Have you set go/no go hurdles at predetermined points so you can make an objective decision to kill it if it is not succeeding?
Sidebar #2: Locating the Show
Be sure the time/locale supports your show’s needs. For example:
- Choose a date that fits the industry cycle but does not compete with other must-attend events.
- If location is an important factor in the industry, don’t choose a second-tier city.
- Try for a location that is within 150 miles of at least 40% of your target market (to permit easy drive-in).
- Consider whether “hotel show” fits your image; if not, go directly to a convention center.