It’s taken two years from conception to completion, but IMEX America successfully produced a European-style trade show in Las Vegas last week.
IMEX Frankfurt — one of the meeting, incentive, conference and exhibition industry’s most important international events — is about to celebrate its 10th anniversary, but this was its first time in America.
Originally, said IMEX Group Chairman Ray Bloom, they expected to draw 1,500 hosted buyers (meeting/event planners whose expenses are paid by show organizers) and 1,000 exhibitors (tourism bureaus, hotels, service providers and media sponsors like Plan Your Meetings). At the three-day trade show, which ran Oct. 11-13 at the Sands Expo Center in Las Vegas, there were 2,000 hosted buyers, 1,867 exhibitors and 1,700 non-hosted attendees (independent planners and non-exhibiting suppliers who paid their own way).
Only 800 of the exhibitors were from the United States; the remainder represented more than 140 countries around the world. “You don’t see an American trade show, you see a European event happening on the trade show floor,” said Bruce MacMillan, president of MPI (Meeting Professionals International), IMEX America’s strategic partner and primary education provider.
As a condition of having their travel expenses subsidized, hosted buyers were required to participate in a minimum number of individual and group appointments. At the closing press conference, Bloom announced that they had well exceeded those minimums, scheduling more than 20,000 individual appointments. With group appointments, that number exceeded 30,000.
“What’s been fundamental is the quality of the buyers,” Bloom continued. “The Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre booked a 12,000-delegate event from a buyer who arrived without an appointment, but knew they wanted to meet outside of the U.S.”
Not that the conference was without what one exhibitor called “teething pains.”
For European exhibitors used to attending the show in Frankfurt, working with American trade unions and convention center restrictions caught them off-guard.
“Serving our national drink and food has been at some points impossible … or very expensive,” complained one representative from a European tourism agency who felt that IMEX Group could have done a better job educating exhibitors about cultural differences and advocating for long-term clients.
“Normally you wouldn’t have to ask about doing tastings,” added a co-worker. “But we were addressed about it, so we asked the question and were told it was impossible, we couldn’t do it.”
To manage relations between exhibitors and union riggers, sound engineers, caterers and other workers needed to create and staff their booths, IMEX America hired GES (Global Experience Specialists) to monitor the needs of each exhibitor. “But there was no one person responsible for making sure it all worked,” said an exhibitor whose sound kept going out during hosted buyer presentations. “There were too many moving parts.”
American exhibitors took issue with the food and beverage restrictions, as well. “Here, enjoy one of our $8 beers,” said a convention and visitors bureau sales manager. “We brew it back home, but we had to purchase it from the Sands.”
There was some grumbling about whether union restrictions or an IMEX oversight were to blame for no water coolers on the show floor (bottles of water cost more than $3 in the lobby). And many working the show chose not to eat rather than purchase “a $16 sandwich.”
American exhibitors also voiced concern about what they deemed “customer service issues.” Shuttles, scheduling mobile apps and the lowest hotel rates were a few of the show perks exhibitors were denied. And those who had submitted pre-show questions were underwhelmed by the way IMEX sales representatives told them to read an 188-page PDF instead of answering their questions. “We’re the ones who pay for everything,” said the CEO of a meetings technology company. “But we’re not treated like clients.”
But most admitted their quibbles were minor compared to the benefit of the show and the quality of leads they had gathered.
“We’ve met fantastic people, our partners are happy with what they’ve seen,” said the European tourism agency rep. “I would imagine in 12 months it’d be in our marketing budget.”
Hosted buyers also enjoyed IMEX America. The ones Plan Your Meetings spoke with were impressed with the appointment-setting format, variety of exhibitors, MPI’s educational offerings and the general execution of the event, which they preferred to similar trade shows.
That is good news for IMEX America, which will annually compete for hosted buyers and exhibitors with EIBTM in Barcelona, ITME in Chicago and AIBTM in Baltimore, which also premiered in the United States this year.
At the closing press conference, Bloom said that IMEX America reps had spoken with all of their exhibitors. “Almost universally, I can tell you that they say they’re coming back … and many say they want more space.
“We have an agreement in place to be in Las Vegas for the next three years,” he added. “But we plan to be here indefinitely.”