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Conferences and Exhibitions

Wed, 26 August 2009

Conferences and exhibitions provide a good opportunity for businesses to engage with potential customers face to face, maintain or enhance their profile, network and generate new business leads and feedback.
However, costs can be significant, particularly for SMEs. Not only may you have to pay attendance or exhibitors fees, but the costs of producing new promotional materials to hand out, travel and hotel accommodation can soon mount up, not to mention the time staff spend away from your core business.
To ensure you get the most out of the event, we suggest putting in place the following simple processes and procedures:
Choose your events carefully
It may sound obvious, but there are so many conferences and exhibitions taking place throughout the year that it can be hard to decide which ones to go to, and easy to spend a large chunk of your budget on some that are irrelevant, expensive and a complete waste of time. Therefore, it's vital that you do some research before signing up, even if it's just asking other people who have attended in the past if it's a worthwhile investment. To help you decide, you should also try to establish your exact reasons for attending and what you hope to achieve when you're there - is it to reach new clients or customers, to launch a new product or to learn best practice from business leaders in your sector.
During the event
Once you've decided to attend and event, what will you do when you get there? The person booking the event may have a clear idea of its importance, but you must ensure that the attendees are clear on what is expected of them when they get there. Is it to hand out as many leaflets or promotional items as possible, to collect new signups for your mailing list, to do business with other attendees and make some sales, to come away with some exciting new ideas, or to collect as many business cards as possible which you can follow up when you get back to the office. If possible, it's a good idea to try and set up some meetings with key people in advance, especially if the organisers publish a list of attendees before the event actually takes place.
Giveaways are an integral part of any event stand. The current trend is to produce USB gadgets and items that are environmentally friendly. In addition to the usual memory stick, many companies have begun to give away things such as USB-powered mug warmers. Research shows that people are particularly likely to notice the brands of products in their workspace. Similarly, more and more companies are "offering pens, mugs and carrier bags made from recycled materials," says Gordon Glenister, director general of the British Promotional Merchandise Association. Just make sure the items are clearly labeled as having been made from recycled materials, he warns. Brand-message metaphors are another simple idea that works well. For example, the product could be an over-sized coffee mug that reads "You get more from us." The most important thing, Glenister says, is to ensure that the giveaway makes an impact.
After the event
Most businesses will sort through the business cards that have been collected and then arrange follow up calls, emails and meetings. However, there are two main problems with this blanket approach;
  1. Of the names collected, only a small percentage may be genuinely interested in the company's products or services, and so you may be wasting a lot of time chasing 'cold' prospects.
  2. By focusing only on business cards that were collected at the event you will be missing out on a lot of 'unknowns' - people or companies that may be interested in your business but did not engage with you or visit your stand (if you had one).
Therefore, before you jump in and try to contact every single lead, take some time to review each new contact individually, where the potential customer or client engaged with your company and what was actually discussed between you. Can they be ranked according to 'hotness' (i.e. how likely they are to do business with you)? Obviously this will need to be done by the people who attended the event in person and collected the cards.   
The web of intelligence
Often, a more efficient alternative is to monitor the prospect's actions after the event. A logical step for a person who is interested in a company's products and services is to go to the website for further information.
If an SME uses simple tools to track the company names of visitors to its website, it can compare those names to the list of prospective sales targets generated at the event. By using this information as an indicator of the level of interest and engagement, the sales team can prioritise the target list to follow up with the most interested leads first. Furthermore, by analysing the content that was accessed, it is easy to see where their specific interest lies.
Take advantage of the organiser's lists
Due to personnel and time constraints, it is not always possible for companies to engage with all of the participants at a particular event.
So how can an SME quantify the unknown, and identify whether additional sales prospects were gathered at the event? Many event organisers will have a list of attendees that they are willing to share with exhibitors. By comparing this list to the company name of visitors to your website in the weeks after the event, the sales and marketing team can identify "warm" targets that noticed the company at the event, but perhaps didn't have the time to engage with staff.
Sorting the wheat from the chaff
An individual may visit a company's website for a number of reasons - they may be looking for a new job rather than investigating a potential purchasing decision. If the website was accessed by a number of people from the same organisation or if the pages were viewed between 9am and 10am, it is likely that those accesses indicate a business interest. On the other hand, if a visitor to the site viewed the careers section and/or accessed the website around lunchtime, chances are that this indicates a job-hunter.
Blog for success
SMEs can also leverage their presence at an event by posting a blog or comment piece on their corporate website. Providing considered opinion about what the company identified as the key trends and insights from the event can help to build the company's reputation as an expert in its field, and move those prospects further along the decision-making process.
Give it time
SMEs need to be realistic about their normal sales cycle. If this is usually several weeks or months, the true ROI of attendance at an event can only be calculated after that cycle has run its course.
Quantifying the results
By using its website to qualify interest, the SME can measure the true response rate to its attendance at the conference or exhibition, both during the event and in the following weeks and months.
When any of the sales leads from the event are converted into sales, they may be seen as a return on the original investment in the event and logged as a measure of success.
By tracking the outcome of each of these leads, the SME is able to quantify the real financial results of the business' attendance at the event and compare it to the original cost and effort.
Hosting a conference
Hosting conferences can be an ideal way for businesses to showcase their products and services. But it is important to remember that their expertise is in their chosen field, not in managing conferences. Any project requires sound management and the right expertise. Think along the lines of building a house. You bring in the experts for each of the required fields. No single person can handle the whole job. It is not a matter of giving up control, it is a matter of getting the right team to get the right results.
Many see the use of Professional Conference Organisers (PCOs) as a cost and not as a valuable investment that can save money and even make a profit. The cost of a typical conference includes venue, catering, audiovisual, speakers, project management, marketing, print and design, website, delegate booking and management, abstract management and on-site management. These costs need to be matched by revenue, namely delegate fees, grants, sponsorship and exhibitors, to break even. By using a PCO to coordinate all the different strands of the conference, the costs and the revenue can at least be matched and frequently can even realise a profit.
Organising conferences requires expertise, experience and tight scheduling. Without these it is likely to run into problems. By using a PCO you can avoid these pitfalls.  PCOs should be seen as a partner. They are in the background to make sure your event is successful, rewarding and so recognised by your peers.
Craven, Caspar. "Maximizing ROI From Conferences and Exhibitions". Northeast Business 22-23.
Reay, Sue. "The Professionals Can Save You Costs". Northeast Business 24.
Allen, Andy. The Marketer September 2007: 37.
(Pictured: Terence Chung from FRUU at the Shell Enterprise Development Awards)

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