“Future of Trade Show Marketing? You Decide.”

Written by Dell Deaton. Originally published in print edition of Exhibitor Magazine (ISSN 0739-6821, July 1997) at 1,511 words.

From the dentist’s chair I listen as my doctor-cum-marketer explains how marketing as we know it will be gone in a decade. Gone. And, knowing my life as a recovering exhibit manager, he adds: “I’m afraid that means trade shows, too.”

I can’t say anything.

Dr. X isn’t alone in his belief. Truth be told, he’s in the majority. And the ugly truth be told, an arresting number of people in our exhibition industry believe so, too. I expect such proclamations from the computer-obsessed. Corporate America always has been susceptible to the latest notions to solve every business problem imaginable. But our own brothers and sisters of the show floor? Heretics!

In my opinion, this stems from two things. First, these folks must view all marketing tactics as interchangeable commodities. Second, they do not understand the trade show business. How could they?

Let’s review the facts.

No other medium affords the seller more control and buyer accountability than a customer interaction on the floor of a trade show. Other media — e-mail, VoiceMail, direct mail — the marketer puts the time and content of response completely in the recipients’ hands. Forget the PR spin and ask yourself, “Is that really what you want?”

On the show floor, you see who and what you are dealing with. All of your senses are available for deployment. You can probe until you get the feedback you want and need to cinch the deal. Ask any good sales person: The close comes from quickly and accurately reading needs that the customer may not know how to communicate, or, worse, may want to hide.

Trade shows create an excitement and time pressure that motivates action. Opening and closing days are dates certain. Decisions have to be made. No one wants to be left out. When the exhibitor says, “Offer ends Friday,” it has real meaning. Pressure is good for sales! These are seller advantages you can leverage — and you won’t find them in the perpetuating ether of cyberspace.

The exhibit hall creates a world of “immersion diversion.” Complete, uncompromised attention to the important business attendees come to conduct. No disruptions. This is not only healthy, it’s attractive. The average person receives 178 messages each day in an information barrage that interrupts him three or more times an hour. This is the electronic age. So said the Wall Street Journal, citing a study by the Institute for the Future/Gallup Organization. “Critical thinking and analysis get lost” in this environment. (Incidentally, the study also found that e-mail is not replacing other kinds of messaging; it is simply “layered over existing methods, increasing the communication message load.”)

“Virtual trade shows” replace the real thing? Poppycock! If anything, the pervasive juggernaut of such technology will make exhibitions more attractive as the preferred place to get away from chaos, think, and do real work.

Exhibitions are the best marketing environment for buyers, as well. Exhibitors who repeat the mantra, “there are too many shows,” often forget that decision makers select the events they will attend based on the degree to which exhibitor profiles match the needs those buyers are seeking to fulfill. Segmentation. Focus. These are good things.

Trade shows organize and consolidate suppliers, resulting in maximum efficiency for buyer education, comparison, and selection. Real time.

Physical products and physical people are available to these decision makers in a way that no other marketing medium can even come close to! Never will. Try it out, try it on, learn how it works. Preview the level of comfort in the buyer/seller “partnership” before the point-of-no-return contract is signed. The dialog begins, continues, and can be closed here for business relationships.

Accountability is also at an all-time high. When I’m making an important purchasing decision, I want to know that the seller is real. Substantial. Invested. Exhibitors show me that. On the other end of a glitzy Web Site, I risk dealing with some fly-by-night Joe in bedroom slippers, operating from his mom’s basement. I like the discrimination of the trade show floor, whereon only the serious companies can exhibit well. I see what he’s all about and I can watch the reactions of other buyers, customers, competitors, the media, et cetera, as they pass and visit his booth as well. That says a lot.

Remember that ability to “probe” for answers I mentioned earlier? It’s a two-way street: Buyers frequently have a need to pin down ambiguous sellers as well.

So, we know this is the best tactic for the corporate businesses we are a part of. But let’s also be honest: We have “job security” motivation for getting that word out, with substantiation, to the right people.

Here’s where things get dicey. Anyone need to spit or rinse at this point?

According to data provided through the American Marketing Association [1] (from McGraw-Hill Research and The Wayman Group), 1984 marketing budget levels averaged 8.9 percent of sales. That number had dropped to a mere 3.5 percent of sales just ten years later.

Remember that ability to “probe” for answers I mentioned earlier? It’s a two-way street: Buyers frequently have a need to pin down ambiguous sellers as well.

So, we know this is the best tactic for the corporate businesses we are a part of. But let’s also be honest: We have “job security” motivation for getting that word out, with substantiation, to the right people.

As sales increase, you say, so do real dollars. But so, too, do expenses. So does the work which has to be done with those relatively smaller marketing dollars which must work to help generate larger sales dollars. Therein lies the rub. Where are businesses investing? The Direct Marketing Association predicts (and is promoting to ensure) that their business-to-business segment will grow by 8.4 percent annually, through the year 2000. Yikes! Trade shows face stiff competition for what is clearly a shrinking marketing budget pie.

As reported in the April Sales & Marketing Management, citing a Cahners Business Confidence Index survey, the future is as follows. Trade magazines get 49.9 percent of new spending dollars, 40.0 percent to the Internet (as if that comes as a surprise to anyone!), 8.2 percent to “general interest magazines,” 1.1 percent to broadcast TV/radio, and 0.8 percent to cable TV.

Makes you stop and think when your presence in the business-to-business marketing budget is eclipsed by television!

I fear that we’re being left behind.

And that concerns me. Not only do I believe that trade shows work, but I can prove it. When faced with a cornucopia of marketing options, I choose trade shows because they deliver results. If we lose share because our business isn’t glamorous enough for the front pages of the trade publications (and I suspect that the print media folks may have more nefarious motives for hiding our light under a bushel), then everyone loses. But our reality is a powerful tool to impact how we are perceived.

Don’t take my word for it. Arm yourself with data from the Center for Exhibition Industry Research [2] (CEIR): The Power of Exhibitions II — an independent, objective study conducted by Deloitte & Touche — identifies and quantifies the real value of exhibition marketing as a tool for doing business. As far as mainstream credentials go, Deloitte & Touche is about as straight as you can get. And trade shows shine brighter and brighter the closer you scrutinize the data.

Okay, so who’s going to get with the Wall Street Journal to ensure that our real value is communicated front page on a regular basis?

Who will advocate exhibition marketing mañana? In this era of corporate downsizing, will the top management that remains have the institutional knowledge necessary to make the right decisions in lieu of dedicated “exhibit management” expertise? Do they have sufficient background to establish meaningful measurement criteria to evaluate trade show performance? ROI is a terrible thing to waste. So are misplaced marketing dollars.

Perhaps managers will look to their advertising agencies for “objective” advice on the most effective tactics selection (by the way, don’t agencies still earn commissions on their print advertising buys?). Many of these so-called integrated marketing boutiques still talk about exhibitions with opinions based on the conventioneer characters depicted in movies like Silver Streak and Airport ’75.

It hasn’t been that long since I sat client-side, and I remember legions of magazine space sales representatives calling on my area in 4- to 8-week cycles, regular as clock work. What is the trade show industry’s parallel to this dedicated, aggressive advocacy?

My dentist is right about one thing: The way corporate America does business is changing. “Going global” isn’t a novelty, it’s a necessity. Many previously-fragmented buying influences are being consolidated, centralized. It’s easy to say “the old ways” of marketing to customers no longer work. It’s easy to succumb to the temptation of today’s glitz. “Follow the thundering herd.” Lemmings! But we know what tactic has a proven track record, what continues to work now as it always has.

All that being said, perception is still reality. If the facts about the value of exhibition marketing are not detailed and put before the right audiences, our industry will be at risk. It is up to each of us to make certain that the facts of our industry’s value are heard.

As for me, my next dentist appointment comes later this month. And when Dr. X comes at me with his laughing gas, I’ll be ready.

  1. Dell first became a Professional Member of the American Marketing Association in 1991.
  2. Dell was elected to and served three years on Center for Exhibition Industry Research Board of Directors, 1996-1998.