Easiest Path to Attendance: Events People Want
By Rich Westerfield
NB: There was no post yesterday due to a service problem with this blog's authoring application. The following is the post that should have ran Wednesday, July 12. Today's blog post will be up later this afternoon.
For some reason I've got a strong affinity for the movie, "about last night...". The movie was an adaption of play written by David Mamet, which would usually imply a quality production. In this case many reviewers considered, well, awful. After all, Jim Belushi was a key character as was the pre-enhancement-surgery Demi Moore.
It's one of those guilty pleasures I usually keep to myself, but as I need to borrow a line from it for today's post, I'm admitting my poor taste in movie preferences.
If you haven't seen it, I'll spare you the story. But there's a line in it, spoken by Danny, a restaurant supply salesman played by Rob Lowe, that goes like this:
"I've spent my life stuffing more unneeded restaurant supplies on the shelves of more unneeded restaurants than any salesman in Chicago."
Change that quote to, "I've spent my life sticking more unneeded conference brochures in the mail for more unneeded conferences than any marketer in the nation," and you'd be adequately expressing why I've become extremely selective in who I work with.
Had there been web-based communities back in the 80s, it would've been different. But more on that in a few minutes.
I suppose the reason for all those unnecessary shows and conferences is that for about as long as I can remember, the process for launching a trade show has been exhibitor-centric. In the show divisions of mammoth media companies there was usually some offshoot of Reed's PLP (Preliminary Launch Proposal) vetting device, which separated ideas that could potentially make millions in profits from ideas that would generate only mere hundreds of thousands in profits.
Regardless how much due diligence went into the PLP, the "go" decision usually came down to whether or not at least four of the top ten industry bellwethers would commit to exhibiting in the launch. If you got that far, you could start spending some money on exhibitor marketing.
But that was just the first barrier. Your market had to have at least 100 or so potential exhibitors to provide the critical mass on the exhibit floor. And that market had to be growing, because a show with a ceiling of only 100 or so exhibitors was not worth pursuing.
From what I understand from my association colleagues, the experience wasn't that much different for many of them. New events were generally created not out of customer demand, but out of need for additional revenue.
Back in the 1990s I helped launch 14 different shows, five of which I personally created. Among those I created were:
- a West Coast clone of a national design engineering show
- a Northeast clone of a national electronics component show
- an East Coast clone of a national carpeting/flooring show
- a niche event for CRM software capitalizing on another show's brand
- a control engineering conference that would co-locate with two vaguely tangential engineering shows
- five clones of US shows for the Mexican market
- a niche event for F500 corporations interested in developing intranets
I also did due diligence and launch plans for another two dozen events that didn't pan out and were never launched. These included a slew of regional "clones" of Tradeshow 200-type events, but also some interesting new launches for flat screen manufacturing, internet investing, technology for the pet market, and third-party warehousing and logistics.
Not surprisingly, the market at the time for those last four opportunities wasn't all that large in the mid-90s. But before the end of the decade smaller entrepreneurs launched events in each of those markets. While the markets may be small, there was a need for those events.
Until very recently, "need" seemed to be fairly far down the list of reasons to launch a show. More often, launches at the publicly traded big media companies were done because the show division's CEO commited some number of new shows to the Board of Directors in order to prove there was growth potential.
In the entire decade of the 90s, with the possible exception of the five Mexican events, there wasn't a burning need for anything I worked on that was greenlighted. All those projects were clones of sorts, usually regional events that would be convenient for some people in that market to attend. But in no case were they "must-attend" events representing a market niche.
Not that regional convenience is a bad thing. The engineering event clones I created are still going on, having been bought by a producer that now specializes in producing regional engineering events. It's just that those events are so... unfulfilling.
While the situation has improved somewhat, the above exemplifies a problem I've seen with our industry. Many shows and sponsored conferences get created not because they're necessary or have the potential to be great value for exhibitors, sponsors and attendees, but because they're assets that can be relatively easily developed into something to be sold.
Perhaps that's just the American Way. It just seems that when I talk to tradeshow entrepreneurs these days, they're usually not personally involved in the area in which they launched. There's no passion about the subject matter of the event. But there is passion about discussing their exit strategy that includes a minimum of a 3x multiple within five years.
Many of them have their dreams derailed when they find that their attendance projections (quantity and quality) aren't increasing year-to-year, followed by sponsors and exhibitors demanding more value and eventually pulling out.
It's that "events as assets" attitude that has invited and enabled people with no career tradeshow or conference organization experience to launch events that have become extremely successful. A look at this year's Tradeshow Week Fastest 50 is evidence of events being created by "industry outsiders" (smaller and non-traditional media companies, non-associations) and enthusiasts that are making a name for themselves.
CoffeeFest - managed by David Heilbrunn, a Seattle-based entrepreneur and coffee fanatic. Recently launched their fourth show in China.
VON Conference - originally run by Voice-Over-Internet guru Jeff Pulver, now grown to size where he needs Jason Chudnofsky's help.
Electronic House Expo - Yes, John Galante is techincally a "show guy", but he's also a huge home electronics enthusiast who was talking about doing this event as far back as 17 years ago.
Other events on the TSW Fastest 50, like Kioskcom, Lubrication Excellence and TEAMS, are currently connected to publications, but those publications were launched by professionals and enthusiasts in the field who also happened to be entrepreneurs.
From personal experience, I can guarantee it's a lot more enjoyable working on an event that people consider "must-attend" and "voice of the industry" than an event that's simply there as a convenience. Many of you know I did two tours of duty on Internet World in its halcyon days. It doesn't get much better than that.
Surprisingly, the biggest difference between must-attend industry vs. convenient regional/clone events is not the profit margin. It's the community. It's rare you'd find innovation at regional or clone events. Because you won't find community. There's nothing compelling about attending other than the convenience and cost-savings for your company. It's almost a chore.
When you do an event just for the money, it shows.
And when you do an event because you love the community, that shows too.
This is where the internet has had its biggest impact on the show industry. While most industry observers continue to believe the benefit of the internet is in the sale of web advertising and online delivery of paid seminars, those are simply distribution methods that may or may not come to a quick end.
Rather, the impact of the internet is that it has made it extremely convenient for us - the general public - to self-identify ourselves. This has two major benefits: 1) If you know where to look in your chosen industry, prospecting for attendees is much easier than it was pre-internet. 2) It is "democratizing" the events industry.
To the first point, we are becoming a product of the online groups to which we belong. World of Warcraft has been called "the new golf". An increasing number of us spend more time interacting with others over wireless and wired networks than we do in person (your kids would often rather text on their phones than talk on them). That will become even more common as broadband access expands. And the faster access we have, the more time we'll spend online (FACT: about twice as many broadband users get news over the internet as dial-up users).
On the second point, by "democratizing", we mean making it more affordable for non-show people to get in. If you can identify a large enough online community (or several communities) interested in a given topic (and every topic has at least one online forum, if not a half-dozen), then you don't really need to invest in print marketing to sell your event. You use word-of-mouth, forum participation, blogs, maybe even podcasts and vidcasts from other participants.
The cost to start up a small event from a marketing perspective can be as little as next to nothing. Meetings logistics are still expensive, but once the lion's share of marketing costs has been eliminated, operations costs seem, well, managable. And those costs can be covered by sponsors, who will happily give you money once you've proven you can attract enough attendance in your selected narrowcast niche.
Back when I was regularly publishing TSMR, I posted fairly often on Gnomedex, the grassroots social networking event created by Chris Pirillo that is limited to about 300 people in its "live" format, but which attracts hundreds of thousands to its daily podcasts and blogs during the event. Gnomedex might be the "perfect storm" of user-driven events:
- geeky attendees (heavily involved with the subject matter)
- attendees eager to communicate and share experiences with one another
- attendees able to use technology to evangelize the subject
- a charismatic leader (Pirillo)
- sponsors willing to fall over themselves to throw money at the audience
It's an audience that has come together not because anyone told them to or marketed some B.S. about the value of CEUs. The Gnomedex audience came together because they wanted to. It was in their own best interest - or at least that's what their egos told them. And they made everyone they knew with similar interests aware, if not involved, with the event.
THAT'S what we should all be aiming for. Events people really want. Events that people want to attend so bad it hurts to stay home.
Now, how to get there.