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We might be over the biggest obstacles that COVID-19 has thrown at us (at least we can hope so), but in-person attendance is still nowhere as high as it was pre-2020. While we’ve talked a lot about how the pandemic affected planners and attendees, we haven’t focused on exhibitors’ experience all that much. We’ve talked about exhibitors at virtual events and virtual event sponsorship ideas. But it turns out that the biggest challenge exhibitors face doesn’t live in digital space but in a world of face-to-face interactions.

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In his many years in the events industry, Nick has seen and done it all. Today, he laments about the experience exhibitors have at in-person events these days. But low attendance isn’t the worst part; it’s event planners’ behavior post-event that really grinds his gears. Tune in and learn about the exhibitor’s point of view and what you can do to right the wrongs, caused by low attendance.

Events: An Opportunity To Do Business

Nick prefaces today’s topic by emphasizing that he knows the events industry inside and out. “I’ve worked in the events industry since I was a teenager. I believe in events – bringing people together definitely works. However, I have a lot of hats to put on. I’m an event professional, a marketer, a person who has planned events. I’ve been on planning teams as well as a sponsor and an exhibitor.”

Now, let’s get to the problem Will and Nick will tackle today: exhibitors at in-person events face unprecedented challenges. “In the last two years, attendance has been down. As an exhibitor, you’re sold an opportunity to do business. However, the amount of money that someone pays you is based on the idea of deliverables. It’s not a sure thing,” says Nick.

Same thing in marketing: “If I invest my money as a marketer into Google, I’m paying for impressions. That’s what I’m getting out of it. I don’t necessarily know how many will be truly valid MQLs,” he adds.

When Exhibitors At In-Person Events Are Not Made Whole

So, what’s his beef with exhibitors at in-person events these days? “You tell me that there’s going to be 10,000 people and I get 25% of that. I’m not whole. It was a bait-and-switch. Many event planners then say: How are we supposed to know who’s going to come to our event during these times? It’s not my fault. I agree, it’s not. But here’s my problem: you didn’t deliver on what you sold. If you believe in customer service, you need to be proactive. Explain that this happened because of COVID-19 and that these things are outside of your control. But be willing to talk about it because you want to be a partner for a long time,” he explains.

“In 2022, there are so many opportunities to give sponsors value,” he adds. “If you put all of your eggs in one basket and that basket does not deliver, and you didn’t do anything about it, that’s on you. That’s not caring. For me, that’s pretty unforgivable.”

“Here’s the salt in the wound that got me upset: the congratulatory emails event planners send out to attendees after the event,” he continues. “Exhibitors don’t get a special email. But I look at that email and I wonder: what are you celebrating? That you took our money, that you were able to accomplish your event, that you feel good about it? But what about me? What about the person that actually paid for your event? From the exhibition standpoint, I did not get the thing I was promised.”

After all, event planners have to understand that an exhibitor, too, answers to somebody. “I have to report to a team of investors. I need to be able to say: I used your money towards our mutual goals in the way that I believed was the best possible. Some of them are a win, some aren’t, but ultimately we’ve learned from the ones that weren’t. Well, I’m telling you. In-person events were not the wins.”

exhibitors at in-person events

Solutions For Unhappy Exhibitors At In-Person Events

Now that Nick has let off some steam, Will suggests they move on to solutions. How can event planners do right by exhibitors who were let down by low attendance at an in-person event? Luckily, there are many ways they can do that, and none of them sound all that difficult.

Face The Music & Talk To Your Exhibitors

First, Will suggests communicating what happened. “How many planners and event management companies actually sit down with their sponsors afterward and have an hour-long debrief? It’s very much on the exhibitor to give that feedback. You should always have that conversation: if it’s a win, you can celebrate it with your client and grow stronger bonds with them.”

And if it’s bad, even if they yell at you, it’s nonetheless important to face the music. “If you don’t talk to them, they will say bad things about you behind your back,” says Nick. “However, no one says: I had a big problem and then they called me up and tried to work it out. The bad-mouthing stops there. At the very least you have someone who’s not an enemy.”

Offer Branding Opportunities Beyond Your In-Person Event

“I have many other solutions to this problem, but none of them involve getting my money back,” says Nick. “My solutions come from the fact that there are so many opportunities for lead generation. An exhibitor ultimately wants branding opportunities.”

Link An Exhibitor Up With An Ideal Client

Your business relationships can also offer a solution for exhibitors who were let down by in-person events. “You can ask to introduce them to somebody, to set them up with an ideal client. You can create a nice opportunity for an exhibitor and a client to get together. These are inexpensive, low-lift things. Even the gesture would put you way above your competition as far as how people handle this stuff,” suggests Nick.

“However, don’t be the spammy person who allows the exhibitor to send emails to every attendee,” adds Will. Not only is it illegitimate to give out data without attendees opting in, but it’s also starting a potential relationship on a bad foot.

exhibitors at in-person eventsForget Exhibitors At In-Person Events – Focus On The Perks Of The Community Model

“The big 2022 event trend is the 365 community model. You can move your events towards a community model and your sponsorships and exhibitors towards a year-long sponsorship. One of the greatest things is when you get your sponsors on for an annual contract.”

Inside that community, there are countless branding opportunities that you can offer your exhibitors.

Send Out Post-Event Surveys

Next, Will and Nick suggest sending out post-event surveys to disenchanted exhibitors at in-person events. “I’ve worked for a lot of events where I’ve instituted post-event surveys that are automatically sent right after the event,” says Nick. “It’s all automated. If they rank 1/5, it would go straight to the leadership of that division. And then, they would have the opportunity to instantly email that person back and do this right. They’re aware, they’re organized. This is a priority. It has made a huge difference in customer relations.”

… And Pre-Event Surveys!

“You also need to do this leading up to the event,” Will adds. “We all knew going into it that this in-person event might have low attendance. You should survey your exhibitors and ask them how they’re feeling going into the show.”

Nick agrees. “Get this: it’s two weeks before the show. You’re at 10% sign up. Then, you can email your exhibitors and say: I hate to say this, but based on COVID, we’re dealing with low attendance. However, we’re going to go in this full steam and make this an exciting event. You’re going to get the most out of the people that you have. You might want to roll in with one less person per team, though. Maybe you’ll save some money that way, but afterward, we’ll talk and figure out a way to make you whole.”

Knowing about the reality of the upcoming event, exhibitors can at least save a little bit of money on food, travel, and lodging for that one extra unnecessary team member. They’d be grateful to know that in advance.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate!

In conclusion, dear event planners, you just have to communicate. “Don’t hesitate to have an honest conversation,” says Will. “I get how hard it is to lead up to it. You don’t want to spook a sponsor. But you have to acknowledge what happened. You can go so much further that way.”

“The bar is really low to be excellent,” concludes Nick. “One of my biggest reasons why I preach being excellent in teams I’m in is that most of the world isn’t. It shocks people when they experience excellent customer service.”

Hopefully, today’s episode inspired you to change the relationship you have with your exhibitors and sponsors. Nobody will blame the event planner for low attendance in the midst of the pandemic. So, step up and have those difficult conversations: your business relationships will be all the better for it.

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Nick Borelli

Author Nick Borelli

With 20+ years in the industry, Nick Borelli is passionate about helping event brands communicate stories that result in achieving strategic goals.

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