Matchmaking Programs Offer New Networking Benefits to Exhibitors and Attendees
A primary reason many people attend conferences and trade shows is to meet the right contacts and vendors. To support this need, show organizers across industries are launching formalized matchmaking programs designed to help attendees make better connections and everyone is reaping the benefits.
Jessica Blue, senior vice president at Licensing Expo—an organization that connects entertainment, character, art and corporate brand owners and agents with consumer goods manufacturers, licensees and retailers—says it created the Matchmaking Service in 2016 to further help its attendees and exhibitors make the most of their time at Licensing Expo.
“Boiled down, it’s a one-on-one professional networking opportunity, because we want exhibitors and attendees to connect with one another to schedule those crucial business meetings before they even set foot in the show,” she says.
Licensing Expo opens the service six months before the show starts to help participants prepare, and both large and small companies make meetings using the system. In fact, in 2018, 4,600 meetings were made through the Matchmaking Service.
This event isn’t alone in bringing formalized matchmaking to its exhibitors and attendees.
Sarin Bachmann, event vice president at JCK and Luxury Events, a trade show for the jewelry industry, says its program, JCK Match, is one of many ways it helps exhibitors and attendees make new connections. The show collects information when attendees register about what they are looking to source at the show and uses a sophisticated algorithm to match that against the products and price points its exhibitors offer. Then, it serves personalized recommendations of exhibitors to connect with.
“The recommendations are only provided to attendees, putting the power in their hands to connect with exhibitors before, during and after the show,” Bachmann says.
A Tool for Exhibitors
Exhibitors are finding formalized matchmaking programs to be useful tools as they prepare for events.
Jeff Kear, owner of Planning Pod, used IMEX America’s matchmaking program as an exhibitor for the first time last year.
“We had a fairly full slate of appointments, and our sales from the appointments much more than offset our exhibitor fees,” he says. “In addition, the matchmaking service took off some of the pressure you feel in the final few weeks before a show when you are scrambling to schedule meetings with prospects.”
Matchmaking programs are not just for building exhibitor-to-attendee connections, but also attendee-to-attendee connections to enhance learning. Karen Shackman, founder and president of Shackman Associates New York, says today's meeting planners are increasingly focused on providing intense learning and engagement opportunities among colleagues versus simply organizing speaking presentations. She shared an innovative idea some meetings are using to create more attendee connections: brain dates, which have been used at forward-thinking conferences such as C2 Montreal.
When a meeting offers brain dating, attendees build profiles and include requests for knowledge in specific areas as well as areas they can offer support ahead of the event. They can then browse other profiles and set up brain dates as designated times throughout the meeting.
“Attendees can schedule brain dates throughout a meeting that provide direct, one-on-one learning, information sharing and corporate culture building,” Shackman explains.
While many apps allow attendees to build profiles and find new connections onsite, brain dating is different, Shackman says, because it eliminates the time and effort required by attendees to search for each other and reduces chance as a component in networking.
"Brain dating is the closest thing to guaranteeing a connection between two attendees who are ideal for each other,” she says. “It also reduces stationary time where attendees have to sit through multiple presentations to finally get the knowledge they are looking for.”
Even Greater Value
Beyond providing a better attendee and exhibitor experience, matchmaking programs provide value for shows themselves.
At Licensing Expo, exhibitors that used its Matchmaking Service are more likely to return to the show the following year.
“Our net promoter scores and customer satisfaction scores from attendees and exhibitors are higher from those who used Matchmaking compared to those that did not,” Blue says.
For JCK and Luxury, survey data and stories from buyers indicate that JCK Match helps attendees meet new business partners and find new products—the main reasons they attend the show.
“Customers who use JCK Match report higher satisfaction scores, and it’s been amazing hearing the connections made through the program—retailers who may not have otherwise met with an exhibitor have created lasting, profitable relationships,” she said.
Where Technology Comes In
Technology facilitates matchmaking programs.
When Licensing Expo attendees register on the show’s website, they receive an email invitation to join the system and make a profile. Then the system uses their information to auto-generate recommended matches. Attendees can also search for potential connections based on criteria they set, such as business type or country. Users can send requests for meetings to take place at their exhibitor booth or in a dedicated matchmaking lounge.
Kear noted that while ideally, matchmaking tools will do a good job of matching exhibitors with prospects who have a true interest in the products, exhibitors must still assess their needs, pain points, budget and decision-making processes up front.
“I was a little naive in thinking that our prospects had pre-qualified themselves by choosing to meet with us,” says Kear. “I found myself re-qualifying many of them at the beginning of our conversations to gain a sense of where they were with regard for the need for our product.”
Blue agrees that matchmaking program participants need support from show organizers.
“Help the exhibitor and attendee through the entire process: Provide video tutorials, cheat sheets, best practices and a help desk,” she says.
Successful Marketing Tactics
Once the technology is in place, marketing the program is key to making it work for trade show participants.
To encourage participation, Licensing Expo promotes its Matchmaking Service through a dedicated email campaign; telemarketing; and its website, social media and registration form. The sales team consistently promotes it to customers as well.
“The portal itself is only 20 percent of investment; the remaining 80 percent is invested in encouraging engagement, and offering help and support to users,” says Blue. “Interestingly, some of our larger clients who never thought they needed matchmaking to secure meetings have become our biggest proponents after experiencing tremendous success with the service.”
Similarly, with JCK Match, attendees are served matches in an email a month prior to the show. They can access and communicate with the matches anytime on the website and they also get matches on the back of their badges when they arrive at the show. The show floor also has a JCK Match booth where attendees can go for more personalized recommendations.
“We make it fun by giving away prizes in the JCK Match booth; we even have a large prize wheel they can spin if they make a purchase from any of their suggested matches,” says Bachmann.
Many exhibitors and attendees find that matchmaking is a more organized and efficient way of meeting with potential partners than cold networking. The investment in providing a higher-level networking experience for all participants can lead to positive results for trade shows themselves as they strive to create better experiences.