The sad truth about cookie-cutter approaches to trade shows.

We’ve said it time and time again: every show is different.

Every audience is unique—each with its own set of personal needs and wants. So the question remains: why are people still taking the same old cookie-cutter/one-size-fits-all approach trade show outreach? The time has come to stop trying to apply outdated approaches that shoehorn everyone into a generic “everyone” category that never existed in the first place.

But, don’t just take our word for it.

According to recent case studies by the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE), times have changed…and in big way. And, the most successful show coordinators are the ones who have recalibrated the way they think about things like drayage, sponsorship, event conceptualization and revenue models. They’re not changing the game; rather they realize it’s the game that’s changed. And while everyone else is bemoaning the fact that stale techniques have resulted in stagnant revenues, these change-embracing, savvy professionals are laughing all the way to the bank.


“There is still a huge value meeting face to face, but the way you do it is different. You can’t just put up an exhibit floor and expect people to come. There has to be more applied value—not just catching up with people [you] may have worked with.” — Sandy Reynolds, CMP, President of Meetings & Events USA (which managed the Yellow Pages meeting)


Ms. Reynolds is spot-on. In layman’s terms, Reynolds is saying that you can’t just print glossy brochures, put up a pretty booth, stand there with a toothy grin, hand out some business cards and expect that formula to convert itself into additional revenue. These days you need to clearly articulate your value proposition—what sets you apart, what’s cool and interesting about your culture and why clients should join you.

If utilized intelligently, tradeshows work…the same ole, same ole doesn’t.

The E2MA-CMO study released in 2013 confirmed that 73% of brands saw trade shows as essential and very valuable in their target markets, and 64% saw tradeshows as essential to create new business opportunities


“I think traditional exhibits themselves are not as significant as they used to be in terms of being a draw, unless it’s a buying show. For the most part, associations don’t have big buying shows. They tend to be more focused on education and ROI. Their attendees have to prove there was value to being out of the office. You have to be able to articulate what you learned, apply it to your everyday job, and quantify the results.”
— Sandy Reynolds


Case In Point: The Radiological Society of North America’s “Bistro Approach” To Business

For the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA), the key to more attendee time on the show floor was to build on something that already was there. The show already had a massive built-in audience. The six-day annual event has the distinction of being the world’s largest medical meeting, drawing 58,000 attendees and 678 exhibiting companies last year. It fills more than 452,000 net square feet of exhibit space over three halls at Chicago’s McCormick Place.

Three years ago, it took the usual show-floor food and revamped it into a dining experience called “Bistro RSNA.” The organization constructed a dining hall on the show floor—accommodating up to 700 people and mimicking a fine-dining restaurant.

“It [had] a very nice atmosphere to do business. It [had] white tablecloths, a carpeted floor, a buffet of good quality and selection. The goal is [that in] five minutes or less from when they get in line, [exhibitors] are sitting at the table enjoying themselves.” — Steve Drew, RSNA’s Assistant Executive Director, Scientific Assembly and Informatics.

Drew estimates that Bistro RSNA brought about 20,000 people through the hall each day. Exhibitors also had the option of reserving a table to bring guests to throughout the day.

“It provided exhibitors and their personnel with a place to go so they don’t have to leave the hall and take up valuable selling time. And it’s a place where they can sit with a customer and discuss business away from the booth.” —Tom Shimala, Director of Technical Exhibits. “

It appears to have paid off: RSNA measured the cabs picking up and dropping off at McCormick Place during the lunch break, and it dropped by 25 percent the first year of Bistro RSNA.

Shimala and the others from RSNA agreed that it is key for any association to know the audience—both attendee and exhibitor—when trying to develop new strategies for the exhibit floor. RSNA is a professional and somewhat formal audience, so any change had to stay in line with that expectation.

Even Reynolds, who managed the Yellow Pages show, had some qualms about selling the strategic-exchange sessions space. “I was kind of a Negative Nellie because I was really unsure how it would work,” she says. “But the feedback we got was that the people exhibitors met with were high quality. It wasn’t the same number of people as they would get walking by on the floor, but the quality of the person they met with was much higher.”

Our research and practice shows the single most important factor for brand side tradeshow success is to measure goals and objectives. Sounds simple mundane and pointless except it works.

Our most recent validation was the experience of one of our clients, who within the last six months drove an anticipated annual losses on their 20 x 20 to 150% increase. How’d they do it? They changed their approach. And, instead of getting some so-so leads, they left with 15 quality leads, with lead cards already filled.

Our Three Principles For Success

  1. Work to understand the psychology of the attendees.
  2. Create an interactive, engaging experience even if it lasts for only 15 – 30 seconds
  3. Measure, record, adjust and measure again.

To coin a well-worn phrase it is a process not a destination, a process that requires constant attention and adjustment, just like any well-developed relationship.

Space sales are flat



Attendance is flat over the last 15 years






  • Only 20% of members attend the annual tradeshow/conference  year over year for as long as we have been measuring attendance – Source Exhibit Surveys
  • Space cost is flat
  • Organizer Profits are 42% and steady or rising-  Source Lippman events
  • Exhibitor costs for electric, labor and transportation are flat to 20% up
  • CPI is 17% for same time period
  • Material handling is up 257%
  • 60% of exhibitor cost is beyond their control
  • Exhibit revenue (Space sales) represents 62% of tradeshow revenue

 These market conditions are creating the following survival exhibitor behavior

  • Less space being purchased
  • Smaller lighter exhibits
  • Proprietary events
  • Cancellation of participation in trade show

The bottom line is that it’s all about the bottom line. So, rethink. Recalibrate. Rework. And, start reaping big rewards.