Your exhibitors are begging you to stop hosting virtual events (and you aren’t listening)

Virtual events are here to stay, but if organizations don’t start listening to exhibitors then they may find themselves competing with the same people they once counted as customers.

I’m being serious. As a seasoned live and digital event strategist, I’ve spent thousands of hours working with associations and event organizers who are eager to improve the live experience. Interestingly, I’m not seeing the same willingness to figure out how to optimize one’s virtual and hybrid event strategy. Exhibitors are screaming from the tallest rooftops for help, and no one is listening to their needs. After almost 18 months, exhibitors are starting to find ways to create their own value and it’s coming at the detriment to their show partners. This storm is brewing, and the purpose of this blog is to encourage our industry peers to start listening now.

Let me take a step back. To illustrate my concern for the industry, I’d like to share an example of feedback that I received from an exhibitor with whom I had a call with recently. During this call, he shared very disturbing feedback about what it’s like to be an exhibitor. He spoke about how for years he was an on-site exhibitor who in the blink of an eye was forced to move his 10×10 to a digital storefront. At first, he was excited at the prospect of transferring his in-person dollars into digital marketing spend that would translate into even more leads. It’s digital marketing, right?

It is supposed to work especially when you are placed in front of your ideal buying audience every single day over the course of the show. He gladly wrote his $5,000 check for this opportunity and primed his staff for the big day. Fast forward, the virtual show started and ended, and this vendor was left with one…yes ONE unqualified lead. This head-scratching outcome must have been a fluke, right? So, he did it again with another show partner and this time he received NO (zero) leads. Fast forward another year and showtime came around again. He told me how he barely got any value from his previous virtual participation and was being very contemplative as to whether to participate again. He said that spending the $5K again with no ROI is likely the cost of doing business, yet he’s waffling as to whether to ‘bother’ or not. One remark he made that resonated was that as a business owner he would never want his customers to feel that they had to spend money with him if no value was received, so why do his association and show partners expect this of him?


Is this how you want your event brand to be perceived?

You might be thinking to yourself that this is just one exhibitor, but this exhibitor was a salient example of what I’ve heard hundreds of times over the past year. Exhibitor churn is a real problem. Being in the business of consulting for associations and show organizers and building exhibitor ROI-focused technology has led me to interview a myriad of exhibitors, show attendees, and exhibition staff and the scary fact that I’ve heard time and time again is that virtual events aren’t worth it [to exhibitors]. Even scarier…many [exhibitors] are saying that they can generate more ROI by offering their own virtual event.

To the association and event professionals out there, this last statement should be stopping you in your tracks. If it isn’t then I highly recommend taking a step back and spare a contemplative moment. If your vendors pull from your show and create their own virtual event where they share their own content, then that will lead to them creating a stickier audience. Digital time is valuable…will your mutual attendees pick your event or theirs? The stickiness factor wins out. Examples to look at include Cisco, Qualtrics, & Uber Eats, to name a few, where they showcased their own products, made announcements and connected their broader ecosystem in a meaningful way for them as the host. Take a look at the CEDIA Expo taking place this week in Indianapolis. As anchor exhibitors pulled out last month due to the COVID-19 Delta Variant, some, including Savant & Sony, decided that they would create their own event, highlighting their own content and products. Savant will be using the booth that they created for CEDIA and stored in a warehouse to broadcast content for their own virtual event. There is plenty of value for brands to host their own event as it demonstrates to their customers just how nimble they are and the power behind a strong digital pivot. These are big brands, but virtual event platforms are becoming more affordable so what’s to stop smaller brands from hosting their own or playing in the sandbox with their larger competitors? Or making the decision to hold tight while leveraging their existing assets and pouring more money into traditional digital advertising?

Hearing story after story during my exhibitor interviews took me back to my days walking show floor halls and hearing the feedback of

participating is a necessary evil

you only win if you can pay to play to get a prime location

smaller brands don’t stand a chance but if you don’t participate how will you get noticed

I always viewed the digital landscape as the great equalizer and a prime opportunity for smaller brands to shine alongside their larger peers. After all, the digital landscape isn’t about who has the bigger booth, but rather how you get your message out. It is a mix of strategy and creativity with a sprinkle of budget. Exhibitors should be elated to have this experience. However, over the past year+, most events are falling flat and quite frankly I’d recommend that exhibitors not rush to spend at a digital event. Rather, I’d encourage them to rethink what digital interaction should look like for their brand and use that to make a decision that will lead to better ROI.

This last statement was difficult for me to write as I’ve served the association and events landscape for many years as both an independent strategist and a strategy director for a major events company. I feel a responsibility to encourage exhibitors to support their show partners and I have a great deal of respect for each show organizer I’ve had the pleasure to work with. There is a lot resting on their shoulders. After all, it is up to them to make up revenue from the holy grail that is the live tradeshow into a digital event when most show organizers aren’t digital marketers themselves.

So, what should we all do about this situation? Let’s take a moment to reflect.

Here’s the problem:

Virtual events are marketed as content-rich experiences. Attendees are joining for the content and if exhibitors only get a digital storefront or a space to place their logo, then it is hard to draw people away from content for a non-content driven experience. Only those who get selected to speak stand a chance of getting noticed. These speaking slots are far and few. They could have the best content housed within their digital storefront, but it isn’t a headlining experience, so attendees aren’t seeing a reason to shift focus.

But attendees are generally happy with the experience. Many digital event organizers understand that the experience is subpar for exhibitors. When balanced with attendee satisfaction, many defer to the attendee experience and assume that exhibitors will go along for the ride. The common thought is that a happy attendee equates to more attendees which is what exhibitors want to hear. More potential eyeballs, right?

Couple this with associations and show organizers saying that they want to try something new but are hesitant to take the leap. This may be attributable to organizations not knowing how to change. The risk may not be worth the reward. Organizations also tend to follow their contemporaries. All safe strategies and understandable…again creating a virtual event is a major undertaking. No one could dispute that.

The Solution:

The first step is to stop and reflect on what went well and what should be improved upon for your show. Assess this for the attendee experience, exhibitor experience, your presenter experience, and your experience as the host.

I think the Buddhists had it right when they said that the best way to move forward is to quiet one’s mind and just be present at the moment. Mindfulness is a meditative technique that requires one to pay attention to as much of your environment as possible. This expansion of one’s awareness in the corporate sense can open your eyes to not just what you are seeing – which is often the positives like attendee satisfaction with content – but rather, where dissatisfaction is stemming from.

Take your reflections and either work internally or hire a consultant with expertise in this space (it is worth the spend) to create an event strategy. Once dissatisfaction can be properly addressed in the virtual event landscape, you can formulate a tactical plan. Be sure that your strategy & tactics are rooted in behavioural psychology practices that tap into why people belong to your association or why people want to attend your show in the first place. The answer isn’t just networking or commercial transactions in isolation because these do not translate well in a short-term virtual event environment.

I highly recommend questioning any vendor that states otherwise as human connections simply do not form fast enough to transpire in a timebound digital universe.

Attendees can find community on LinkedIn or special interest groups, and they can find product solutions by talking to peers and visiting websites. Exhibitors want you to try something new and there are approaches that will generate the returns they crave. When you embed these novel approaches, you stand to see more attendee engagement both in and out of the show, exhibitors who report back ROI and that they cannot wait for the next opportunity to sponsor, and more insights for internal leadership. A clear direction will materialize, and your organization will see more revenue and a stronger brand presence.

There is a lot to unpack here. I am aware that I’m challenging the status quo, but it is for the good of your organization, the good of the value your exhibitors receive from sponsorship participation, and for the good of our industry. We all continue to rely on one another to learn what works and what doesn’t. But it is time to stop following the leader and rethink what virtual and hybrid should look like to set a new tone.

Your exhibitors are begging you to stop hosting virtual events the way they exist today. However, I can guarantee that when you think critically about the interplay of your event attendees and exhibitors & deploy strategies rooted in behavioural psychology, you will have vendors lining up to sponsor and offering up more money to participate. Digital is gold, so why not start mining.

Erica Bishaf is the Founder & CEO of CampfireSocial

Erica Bishaf is the Founder & CEO of CampfireSocial, the first-of-its-kind private social network and commerce platform designed for trade verticals. 

She is a 20+ year award-winning strategy & insights veteran who has worked for consumer packaged goods companies such as Kraft, Nestle, Kimberly-Clark, & MillerCoors and associations & event organizers including Freeman, GES, the American Library Association, the Audiovisual and Integrated Experience Association (AVIXA), the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA), the National Retail Federation (NRF), and more. 

Erica is passionate about innovation and speaks often on entrepreneurship.