Lately I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about Exhibitor Advisory Councils (EACs). (I know, I know, I’m a nerd) If you’re not on the tradeshow side of events, an EAC is a usually set up by show management and comprised of representatives from a group of companies that regularly exhibit at the tradeshow. The goal of an EAC is to give exhibitors a forum to communicate their concerns and feedback/suggestions for improvement to show management.
Sounds great, right? Show management can better understand their exhibitors’ needs and the exhibitors feel like they have a voice.
What could go wrong?
- Communications are not productive, rather they become gripe sessions and nothing ever changes.
- Lack of active participation from show management, EAC members, or both.
- EAC makes recommendations that show management just cannot accommodate.
- Non-EAC members feel out of the loop since they are not involved.
- Choosing the right combination of exhibitors to truly represent a united voice for your show’s exhibitors.
Being a rookie who has experience mostly in a very specialized area of expositions, I decided to pick the brain of my friend Traci Browne, over at The Tradeshow Institute. Traci is a veteran with experience in all types of tradeshows. Here is what she has to say.
Rookie: Are EACs effective? Or are they just a feel-good move by the show organizer that doesn’t produce any real changes?
Let’s assume for our sake the motive is pure behind the EAC. We’ll assume the show organizer does want to improve their show/event. The council is not just a way to get feedback from exhibitors but a chance to create a meaningful dialog. The key here is dialog, something a survey cannot provide. If your motives are pure and your goal is to improve relationships, this will be evident. If you are just putting on a show, you’re exhibitors will know this soon enough.
Rookie: Do EACs have to produce real change to be successful? Or are they just a way to improve communications between exhibitors and show management?
You’re not going to improve communications if you are not willing to implement changes to accommodate legitimate suggestions. You could actually hurt your relationships with exhibitors and sponsors. Often times show management gets so caught up with the status quo implementing the same event year in and year out. Maybe you do have an open mind and think your exhibitors would welcome the latest and greatest technology. By creating a dialog you might just find out the changes they are looking for are not that dramatic. Remember, your biggest responsibility is to your attendees and that’s what you are good at—that’s who you know. Exhibitors know how to sell their products and services to your attendees. They can let you know what is most effective for them. I bring this up because you never want to compromise your mission for your attendees just to sell more booth space or sponsorships.
Rookie: How do you measure the success of an EAC?
Before you can think about measuring their success you need to have a goal(s) and quantifiable objectives in place. This is going to help you structure your discussions and stay on track. The goals you choose are going to be different for everyone. It depends on your current relationship with your exhibitors and how open your communication lines are already. Your goal/objective could be to increase exhibitors renewing by 25 percent. Another goal might be to improve exhibitor/sponsor relationships with an objective of scoring a 90 percent or above on post show exhibit surveys. How about converting a percentage of exhibitors to sponsors at the next show? If things are particularly bad for you your goal could simply be improving your current relationships and the objective could be coming away with three solid ideas to implement that exhibitors have requested. Now measuring success is easy.
Rookie: Define what you think the best structure is for the members of the EAC (i.e. how many bigger exhibitor members versus new exhibitors versus non-profits, etc.)
The best EACs I’ve seen have an even mix of long time exhibitors, newbies, large and small; and if applicable representatives from non-profits. When you focus only on your big spenders who have been there the longest you run the risk of creating an event that smaller organizations can’t afford. Also, larger exhibitors will not have as much riding on your event that small exhibitors might have. Your event could make or break a new emerging company. A company that could go from a table top to a 1600 square foot plus island booth in five years. Your non-profits are going to help to keep you honest to the needs of your attendees.
Rookie: What is the best way to make non-member exhibitors feel like they have a voice and representation with the EAC?
Having smaller exhibitors on your council will definitely help with this. But you will have some exhibitors not included who feel excluded. To combat this, ensure all voices will be heard. Making everyone aware of why you have created the EAC and what you hope to accomplish can do this. Everyone can be included through the use of surveys prior to your meetings that go out to all exhibitors. Make sure you have a plan in place to communicate to everyone what was discussed at meetings and what outcomes you hope to implement/achieve.
You may also want to include an open forum during the show that is open to everyone. By during the show I mean a few hours after the exhibit hall has closed the final day. Give everyone a chance to get teardown underway. Do not hold this meeting when your smaller exhibitors should be entertaining their clients or working in their booth. Remember, the smaller exhibitors did not bring along their marketing entourage with them. Which brings us to your next question.
Rookie: If you implement a “town hall” meeting during your tradeshow, what measures can you take to ensure that it is productive and collaborative – and more importantly prevent it from becoming a gripe session?
This is a great question. I have been at these types of meetings where things have gotten ugly. This is often because the show organizer has been so out of touch with their exhibitors and had not listened to their complaints and addressed them until they built up to a frenzy. A good moderator is key to things not getting out of hand. If you don’t have one on your staff, or if you think things could get particularly nasty, you might want to hire a professional. They will not be speaking for you, just keeping things under control and on track.
You need to have a plan for this meeting. Going in there thinking you’ll just wing it will only get you into trouble. Having exhibitors complete a survey will help you prepare for what the mood of the room will be. If you are authentic in your motives this will show and help to keep things under control. By authentic I mean you honestly want their feedback to improve.
Don’t get on the defensive. Listen, listen and listen some more. If your exhibitors tell you GSC charges are out of control don’t start making excuses about how unions have your hands tied, cost comparisons and all you are providing for them. If someone decides they are no longer going to pay $4.00 for a cup of coffee you’re not going to convince them it’s worth it because it comes from the most rare bean on earth. They’re just going to go across the street and buy a cup at the diner because it does exactly what they want it to do without all the excuses.
If the whole room is yelling at you, boy do I hope you brought in a moderator. I also hope you realize that these are all probably legitimate complaints that one way or another need to be addressed. If you have just a couple disgruntled exhibitors that are disrupting the meeting ask if they would take their issues off line with a staff member after the meeting or immediately, whichever they prefer. Often they just want to know someone is going to listen to them.
Rookie: Outside of show management and exhibitors, what invited guests would you recommend attend an EAC meeting? Vendors? CVB folks? Labor?
Some people might argue with me here but I would definitely keep vendors, labor and the GSC out of this discussion. This is between you and your exhibitors. And it should be about more than just this one venue. Besides, the GSC and venue basically work for you. If you decided to work a deal with the GSC where charges get passed on to the exhibitor, it’s ultimately your problem. You cannot use them as an excuse. You chose the venue you have to take the responsibility.
Rookie: What if the EAC asks for things that you just cannot offer?
It’s not what if…I assure you they will. Compromise is the word of the day here. Every single exhibitor will think the prices are too high or want guarantees on new business signed at the event. What you want to do is focus on what you can do. Have them help you create a list of add-ons. You can’t re-negotiate union rates but you can come up with some really creative enhancements that will make your exhibitors feel they are getting more bang for their buck. This is also going to help you focus on the positive.
Nothing has to be decided on the spot. This is information-gathering time. The real work begins after the meetings. Using the information you have from these meetings your staff can brainstorm on ways to add value. Real value is what your exhibitors think is valuable.
this rookie’s highlights
On the value of an EAC . . .
The key here is dialog, something a survey cannot provide.
On aligning the objectives of exhibitors and attendees . . .
Remember, your biggest responsibility is to your attendees and that’s what you are good at—that’s who you know. Exhibitors know how to sell their products and services to your attendees. They can let you know what is most effective for them. I bring this up because you never want to compromise your mission for your attendees just to sell more booth space or more sponsorships. (This is a good reminder – it’s really about the attendee’s experience.)
On determining the structure of your EAC membership . . .
When you focus only on your big spenders who have been there the longest you run the risk of creating an event that smaller organizations can’t afford. Also, larger exhibitors will not have as much riding on your event that small exhibitors might have. Your event could make or break a new emerging company. Your non-profits are going to help to keep you honest to the needs of your attendees. (Wow, this is a very good point. Smaller exhibitors, while they don’t pay as much for booth space, are still an important and valuable part of your show, both to the bottom line and to attendees)
On inviting vendors to an EAC meeting . . .
This is between you and your exhibitors. And it should be about more than just this one venue. Besides, the GSC and venue basically work for you. If you decided to work a deal with the GSC where charges get passed on to the exhibitor, it’s ultimately your problem. You cannot use them as an excuse. You chose the venue you have to take the responsibility. (I definitely agree that the issues discussed at an EAC meeting are between show management and the exhibitors, and it’s not acceptable to hide behind the vendors when exhibitors complain about rates. However, I think it may be helpful, for example, to have GSC representation at an EAC meeting in a city where union labor laws truly are out everyone’s control. I also think the meeting may serve as a subtle reminder to your vendors that exhibitors are key stakeholders as well.)
On how to help non-EAC exhibitors feel they have representation through the EAC . . .
Make sure you have a plan in place to communicate to everyone what was discussed at meetings and what outcomes you hope to implement/achieve. (I do a monthly exhibitor newsletter, and this is the perfect avenue for this! Are there any other good ways to communicate notes/follow-up surveys from EAC meetings?)
Do not hold this meeting when your smaller exhibitors should be entertaining their clients or working in their booth. Remember, the smaller exhibitors did not bring along their marketing entourage with them. (This didn’t occur to me, another excellent point.)
on keeping the peace . . .
A good moderator is the key to not letting things get out of hand. If you don’t have one on your staff, or if you think things could get particularly nasty, you might want to hire a professional. They will not be speaking for you, just keeping things under control and on track. (A moderator is a great suggestion. Would you recommend a committee member or a completely unrelated party for this role?)
mob = bad.
I hope you found Traci’s insight as valuable as I did. Do you had a good/bad/other experiences with an EAC that you’d like to share? Advice? Ideas? I’d love to see any feedback you may have in the comments!
And a big thank you to Traci Browne over at The Tradeshow Institute for taking the time to share her valuable insights with a rookie!