Time to Rethink the Exhibitor Experience

Mar 21, 2024

Originally written for Exhibition World magazine

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Exhibition organisers must work harder to make exhibiting easier for the sake of its future, says Adam Jones, FFAIR CEO and exhibition industry technology veteran.

For those who are following the annual financial reports of the likes of our industry giants such as Informa, RX and Clarion Events, it’s not hard to see that exhibitions are seeing a post-pandemic revival. While this is incredibly positive news, it’s crucial to acknowledge that exhibitions still face significant challenges, notably rising costs and the competitive pressure from digital marketing channels.

It's time to shift our focus towards retaining exhibitors who have remained committed to investing in their marketing budgets. We need to cultivate them as advocates for exhibitions, leveraging their support to attract or re-attract new exhibitors.

A concerning statistic from Explori’s 2023 Exhibit Marketer report indicated that those with less experience in the industry (<10 years) give lower ratings for exhibitions as a marketing channel, are more worried about exhibiting-related costs, and are less likely to feel their organisation’s leadership sees exhibiting as a valuable part of the marketing mix.

While it may be tempting to overlook those individuals who aren't directly signing contracts, their influence on executing exhibit activations and championing trade shows to internal stakeholders is crucial. As organisations face budget constraints, marketers and exhibit marketers become pivotal advocates for exhibitions. Exhibition organisers would be remiss to underestimate the significant role these individuals play in shaping decision-making processes within corporate entities.

Discussions on the ROI of exhibitions typically centre on leads, data, and financial gains. Yet, given the significant layoffs and team restructuring within the marketing sector, it’s crucial for exhibition organisers to recognise the challenge posed by the diminishing people resources in corporate marketing teams. The extensive time commitment required for exhibiting – a fact well known to anyone who has recently participated in a trade show – underscores the impact of these challenges on the exhibition industry.

The timeless adage ‘time is money’ holds true, and streamlining the exhibiting process to be less time-consuming will inevitably enhance the return on investment for exhibitors. This frequently requires organising teams to critically evaluate their legacy processes, invest in event tech stake and reconsider their team structure. While no small task, organisers who are putting exhibitor experience at the core of their event strategy are winning over the hearts and minds of their exhibiting companies.

One such organiser, NHS Confederation, has proactively put the exhibitor experience at the forefront of its strategy. It’s largest event, NHS ConfedExpo, runs annually at Manchester Central in the UK and welcomes over 5,400 delegates. NHS Confederation sought to partner with FFAIR to streamline their exhibitor experience and create a ‘one-stop-shop’ for their exhibiting companies. Nick Westerman, head of strategic partner events at NHS Confederation, shares his experience: “Before partnering with FFAIR, we relied on our general service contract system. While it served its purpose, it meant that the experience changed every year for our exhibitors and, as it wasn’t a centralised platform, exhibitors still had to access suppliers in various ways. The majority of the manual was also still hosted on a document, making it a rather outdated and inefficient system. Our initial idea was to build our own platform; however, after some research, we realised that an existing platform on the market could meet our needs.

“The key for us is that it is frictionless… From an event organiser's perspective, FFAIR’s central platform offers a much better customer service experience than having to send exhibitors to different resources, not to mention being less labour-intensive.”

Technology is pivotal in enhancing the exhibitor experience. Although transitioning to a centralised platform and a unified online exhibitor manual may appear to oversimplify a broader challenge of exhibitor retention, seasoned exhibitors will attest to the fact that exhibiting is arduous. It’s notably more demanding, costly, and time-consuming than managing, for instance, an email marketing campaign. By easing the burden of exhibiting, we can rally exhibit marketers to support and champion exhibitions to internal stakeholders.

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