Back to Basics: Five Strategic Planning Best Practices for Building Better Trade Shows

October 17, 2017

Schae Kane

As Strategy Director at Freeman, Schae Kane helps show organizers and associations better understand their audiences and what they value, using this information to design an experience that successfully bridges the gap between audience needs and business goals.

The nature of events is changing and with it the responsibilities of the modern show organizer.

In addition to all the other roles they are asked to take on (empathetic storytellers, tech-savvy marketers), today’s show organizers have to be strategists as well. That’s because successful brand experiences aren’t just singular, one-time events – they’re part of an ongoing, multichannel brand narrative.

Figuring out how to weave that narrative through your entire marketing mix requires a little planning and some good insight.

Here are five best practices to help you keep your next trade show on strategy and on target.

  1. Identify your goals and expectations

The problem many organizations run into is that the event strategy is separate from the business strategy.

What’s more, the operations, financial performance and marketing for the event are separate to those of the greater organization, and managed by different departments that are not always integrated.

To make matters worse, sometimes the attendees, exhibitors and sponsors have disparate expectations for the event – making meeting expectations a challenge.

Aligning missions and goals helps create a stronger value proposition and increases the ability to showcase the impact of the event. Brand experience is a communications channel – a vehicle for spreading the message of the organization. It’s also a way to impact the industry and membership by providing content, and access to innovations and products that will push the industry forward.

  1. Optimize your budget

For most event organizers, a budget is a predefined dollar amount. In order to get more money or make changes, the approval process will sometimes require sign-off from a board of directors or other assembled body, which isn’t always easy to do in a timely manner. And sometimes, event organizers have to stop doing X in order to do Y.

These sorts of challenges can be traced to political ownership, a lack of understanding of real impact on the target audience or even a philosophy of “that’s how we’ve always done it.”

A need for change has to be established first, so it’s imperative that it gets addressed. Create urgency around desired changes by pointing to benchmarks on industry research to help make your case. CEIR and ESI are great resources that can help provide performance benchmarks for event organizers.

  1. Think like your audience

Designing a brand experience requires a little insight into who your audiences are, what they want and how they think.

• What motivates them to make a decision?

• Where are they in their career?

• What do they want to accomplish as a result of coming to an event or conference?

• And where else do they seek information they want?

Knowing your audience helps you get closer to building an event that addresses their needs and exceeds their expectations.

  1. Tap into data

Did you know that data can deliver deep insights for your event strategy?

For example, if an event has been increasing in attendance by about two percent year over year but the industry vertical shows a growth rate of five percent, then the event is underperforming in its space and the strategy may need some adjusting.

Another example is when an event travels locations, like east coast in odd years and west in even years. If the even years show a consistent decrease in attendance, then event organizers should take a look at their members and attendees and evaluate whether the west coast is a desired location for the majority of their targets. Perhaps a more cost-effective approach would be to rotate between north and south and organize a more targeted regional event on the west coast to serve that market.

It should be noted that access to attendee data isn’t always available – sometimes the only surveys administered to attendees or members are more about satisfaction or feedback on a specific issue. In that case, you may want to rely on benchmarks.

Data can help us to course-correct, and that is why it’s important to make it a part of the strategy process.

  1. Engage year-round

In today’s world, the event isn’t over after the exhibits are dismantled and everyone goes home.

Staying top of mind is crucial for show organizers who want to retain and grow their audiences. Designing a communications strategy that includes touch points throughout the year is an effective way to engage target audiences.

By maintaining a presence and awareness with targets, and layering opportunities to have a conversation, spark a discussion on a controversial topic or use a digital channel to create interest, event organizers can shorten the sales cycle and the timeframe for decision-making about attending a conference or event.

There’s a reason almost two-thirds of marketers believe in the power of brand experiences to engage attendees and make them feel valued. This is a medium that combines storytelling and meaningful interactions to create connections between brands and audiences. It has enormous potential to capture the attention of attendees, exhibitors and sponsors alike, but a carefully executed strategy is the key to unlocking its full potential.

Like everything else in life, you need a good plan.


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