Recently, I published an article, Are traditional conferences dead?, which raised a tsunami of opposing arguments. As an aspiring meeting designer, I was ecstatic to see people discuss the status quo of conferences which, in my opinion, is ripe for disruption. In the flow of comments, one contribution grabbed my attention in particular.
Tony Orlando, the Executive Vice President of CA Technologies, noted:
“The growing trend I have seen in the conferences I have been to over the past 5 years is that the ratio of sales/marketing to business leaders (buyers) is now about 2.5:1. That is, there are more sellers at conferences to connect to buyers than there are buyers. […] Leaving the sellers to network with one another.”
While the ratio may be too high in many cases, it stills depicts the gloomy situation at a lot of conferences. Frankly, I noticed similar patterns at conferences I had the chance to attend or speak at. A cohort of exhibitors hanging around their booths, waiting for attendees to come over while mentally totaling up their investment in sponsoring the event.
Taking into the account that the conference organizers need sponsors to pay for the event itself, this situation is quite alarming. As the ROI for exhibitors is dropping, event organizers are challenged to come up with new ways to connect exhibitors with attendees to prove the value of sponsorship.
Below, I present seven ways to bring your exhibitors closer to your attendees.
1. Tech seminars
Tech seminars are designed to allow a small group of attendees to experience the latest technology and discuss its use with technology experts. These sessions create plenty of room for event buyers to get hands-on experience and test-drive the presented solutions in real life.
Tech seminars at the Meet the Future conference in London took the format a step further and experimented with a number of different meeting formats and tools, such as body voting and informal seating, to demonstrate that technology is just one of the tools that has an impact on the meeting’s interactivity.
Another great example of a meeting format that encourages technology talk is Imagineering tour, the workshop on the move, that took place at the Confex Trade Show. Tour leader, Jackie Mulligan, guided participants around the venue discussing future-ready design and communication ideas sparked by seeing and reimagining spaces within Confex.
2. Tech kit fit-out
Despite a rising number of conferences that adapt event tech solutions, event delegates might still need assistance with their use. And this is a great opportunity for tech providers, that are in many cases also event sponsors, to connect with the attendees.
At Meet the Future, delegates were welcomed with a full ‘tech fit-out’ next to the registration desk. Tech providers showed attendees how to install the relevant smartphone apps, explained the functionality and eventually helped visitors make the most of the day.
Throughout the day, attendees could seek help from support staff either at the tech fit-out desk or just by approaching them in the venue. Exhibitors thus had a chance to interact with their users, see their app being used in real-life and obtain valuable feedback.
3. Pitching competition
Pitching competitions are one of the most popular and effective ways to give exposure to exhibiting event tech startups. There are a large number of conferences that hold startup competitions in their own niche.
In the events industry, IMEX and EventMB partnered to organize Event Startup Competition in order to acknowledge the raising stars and help event professionals get exposure to the most cutting edge and innovative technology.
4. Networking breaks
At many conferences, exhibitors are located in secluded areas, away from visiting delegates, and very few people actually pay them a visit. Try to maximize the value of breaks for your sponsors. It’s practically the only time they can meet the delegates, so make sure to place them close to the networking areas.
At the EMEC15 conference in Krakow, sponsors were stationed at the perimeter of the networking area so anyone could easily approach them during breaks in-between the sessions. Similarly, Meet the Future served lunch in the exhibition area, allowing delegates to hang out with the sponsors and talk to them.
5. Learning carousel
The Fresh Conference 2015 came up with an effective idea for connecting attendees and sponsors – learning carousel. In the exhibition space, attendees were split into groups of three to five, and were told to move in groups from one exhibitor to another. Sponsors had two minutes to present their product and two minutes to answer attendees’ questions.
The whole activity was based on gamification. Before moving to the next table, delegates voted on how much they liked the solution. In total, there were 10 rounds and the sponsor with the best overall rating won the FRESH award.
6. Hosted-buyer programs
A number of leading exhibitions and conferences, including IMEX, AIBTM, WEC by MPI, are adopting the hosted-buyer programs to bring qualified meeting buyers and sellers together through pre-arranged face-to-face meetings at the show.
Hosted-buyer programs represent a unique way to give qualified meeting industry buyers the opportunity to do business with suppliers in a fun and efficient environment. At the same time, both buyers and sellers have a chance to build new knowledge from the best in the industry and network with their peers.
Offering a speaking slot to your sponsors is one of the most effective ways to give them substantial exposure. But it’s a two-edged sword. While securing presentation time is highly valued among exhibitors, it’s absolutely crucial to ensure that the session won’t turn into a 30- or 60-minute pitch.
Therefore, stress to your sponsors that their session or presentation should have educational value in the first place. You can follow TEDx speakers’ guidelines to help your speakers shine on stage and at the same time ensure the relevance of their presentation for your attendees.
The conferences are evolving and so are the sponsorships packages. With decreasing exposure in the traditional booth-style setups, event professionals need to look for innovative ways of bringing exhibitors and attendees together. The techniques described above work well in practice and will provide great value to both parties.