You walk into the Expo Hall. It’s lunchtime, and this is where you eat. The buffet tables are all the way in the back, so getting there is a walk. On the way, you see people you met at last year’s conference and stop to say hello and shake hands, as everyone makes their way through booths to the food.
Get a plate, get some food, find a table, sit down. You have a good conversation with your tablemates. Someone collects your dishes. You look at the agenda, then your watch. There’s nothing but the Expo to do for the next three hours.
Your options: Go back to your hotel room, leave the conference property and go sightseeing, or stay here and look at some booths. You’ve already set up meetings with the vendors you need to see, so you don’t really “need” to tour the Expo but think, “Why not? I’m here.”
You start out aimlessly. Sometimes an eager salesperson calls out for your attention. You avert your eyes and pick up your pace. Sometimes a vendor interests you and you stop to talk, often putting your business card in a bowl for a drawing or leaving with some golfball-shaped chocolates. Sometimes there’s a big crowd around a particular booth, but after a few moments you leave because you can’t see what’s going on. Sometimes a booth is empty. Sometimes the single occupant ignores you in favor of eating their lunch. It’s all a blur, and you doubt you’ll remember any of it when you get home.
You’re bored and check your watch again. You’ve only been walking around for 45 minutes. It feels like two hours. You take a 360-degree look at the Expo, just to make sure you haven’t missed something worthwhile. Convinced, you head for the door, feeling vaguely guilty since the Expo is only halfway through its day.
I know the scene described above is depressingly familiar to anyone who has ever planned, attended or exhibited at any kind of conference or trade show. Everyone knows the model is outdated but that fixing it is complicated. I’ve spoken to several vendors who tell me they’d love to find a better way of connecting with potential customers, but until conference organizers give them options, they feel compelled to go along with the way things are done now. For many, not being there isn’t an option. They feel trapped.
I’m not an Expo expert, but there are groups out there taking risks and challenging the status quo. If you’re the person tasked with making your organization’s Expo more interesting, start here:
EDUCATE YOURSELF. The May 2013 issue of the MPI magazine One+ has a great article about hosted buyer programs. It’s a radical change, and it might not work for your group, but everyone in our industry should know about it. There are other places to go for information. Find them.
TALK TO YOUR VENDERS. Find out if they know of trade shows doing somethinginteresting that you could copy.
TALK TO YOUR ATTENDEES. Ask them how to make their time in the Expo more meaningful.
TRY SOMETHING NEW. Add a live demo every hour on a stage in the hall. It’ll give attendees something specific besides wandering and could be a premium sponsorship opportunity for a vendor. Advertise the demos to bring people in.
SHORTEN EXPO HOURS. Every vendor I’ve spoken with tells me that four consecutive hours of Expo time is, on average, too much. Maybe yours is so popular you need all that time. That’s probably not the case for most. Talk to your exhibitors; you might be surprised by what they say.
I recognize how financially difficult it is to alter the Expo format. Many organizations depend on exhibitor income to make their conferences profitable, and shifting to a new format does entail risk. But the current model is on the way out, and we should be working to find new solutions while we still have time to make the changes ourselves. Organizations that don’t find a new way forward, I believe, will be left behind.
If this interests you, read more meeting design articles from Amanda: