Association Organizer, What If Your Attendees Stopped Coming?

Association Organizer, What If Your Attendees Stopped Coming?

by Bob James and Michael Hatch

Brick-and-mortar chain store owners everywhere are sweating “the retail apocalypse.” Traffic is abysmal. Sales have tanked. Stores are vanishing (over 8,600 are predicted to close this year). Job losses, bankruptcies and liquidations are legion. A tidal wave of disruption is shaking retailers to the core.

Could an “apocalypse” beset association shows, as well?

To be sure, brick-and-mortar retail is not going away—and neither are shows. But the lessons retailers are learning apply to any business that depends on foot traffic.

Let’s look at just one.

Lesson: the wounds are self-inflicted

Disruptors like Amazon, of course, have captured tons of retail market share. “But much of what ails [traditional] retail is self-inflicted,” says retail consultant Steven Dennis.

“Retailers’ organizational silos get in the way of delivering an experience that is unified across channels and touch-points,” Dennis says. “Traditional players’ reluctance to move away from one-size-fits-all marketing strategies fail to make the shopping experience more personalized. Retailers’ focus on efficiency rather than effectiveness stands in the way of a more simplified shopping experience and one that is more localized. And most brands’ risk aversion leads to a sea of sameness rather than an experience that is amplified in its relevance and remarkability.”

Sound familiar?

Today, shoppers’ journeys begin on line, most often on mobile phones, Dennis says; so brick-and-mortar retailers need to be top of mind from the start. “Having a great product and cool advertising is necessary, but far from sufficient in a digital-first world,” Dennis says. “If retailers don’t show up consistently in the moments that matter with an intensely relevant, remarkable, and actionable offering, it’s likely game over.”

Trade show attendees of course aren’t “shoppers” in the sense consumers are. Their buying journeys take a lot longer than consumers’; and a large committee usually goes along for the ride. But attendees’ reliance on websites and phones for product research, most people would agree, isn’t all that different from consumers’.

And although 90% of all retail purchases today are still made in brick-and-mortar stores, Dennis imagines a not-too-far-off future where shoppers rarely visit stores—a future retailers who hope to survive must prepare for now.

“We aren’t buying less, we are shopping differently,” Dennis says.

Your customers are your next competitors

So if attendees are also “shopping differently,” what kind of events will attract them in the future?

We’re afraid the answer isn’t association shows. It’s proprietary ones.

Proprietary showscorporate events—due to their single-purpose, “bespoke” nature, may very well be tomorrow’s must-attend events. The roaring success of proprietary shows like Adobe MAX, Cisco Live, Dell EMC World, and Dreamforce suggest that’s the case. In fact, AGS Expo Services’ Evan Garvey recently told Exhibit City News a tipping point has already been reached.

“Garvey believes the exhibition industry is pivoting towards an era when more companies will be offering their own large-scale events, rather than participating in industry trade shows,” the magazine says. “Doing so allows companies to offer a unique experience for attendees that is more brand-heavy and very narrowly focused, which company officials may see as a better way to achieve ROI. Companies may even invite certain partners to exhibit or otherwise participate in those highly branded events, turning them into organizers of sorts themselves.”

As proprietary shows grow both in size and number, today’s exhibitors will become tomorrow’s competitors—unless you dicover a way for your show to remain, in Steven Dennis’ words, “intensely relevant, remarkable, and actionable.”

And that’s not easy.

There is a ray of hope

But there is a bright ray of hope: Millennials.

Except for those who are trust fund babies, Millennials (born between 1980 and 2000) have written off future home ownership, future car ownership, even future furniture ownership. So what do they spend money on?

A recent study by Airbnb concluded it is one thing, and one thing only: experiences. Or, more precisely, adventures.

Millennials crave travel; and over 80% crave adventures when they travel. They want to hang out in cool, offbeat neighborhoods, eat authentic local cuisine, and engage with quirky people in quirky rituals.

Brand Quarterly claims Millennials’ passion for adventures has its roots in the “festival culture.” Today’s Coachella Festival, for example, offers Millennials who attend a chance not only to hear their favorite bands, but to watch fashion shows, attend nonstop parties, sample artisanal dishes, play games, exercise, practice yoga, fire walk, and do charity work.

Millennials’ quest for adventures is opening doors to wholly new business models in the entertainment, gaming, hospitality, and tourism industries. There’s no reason on earth comparable doors shouldn’t open for association shows. Shows, after all, are all about learning new things, experiencing new products, meeting new people, and visiting new places.

But how you design those experiences will be critical. Millennials are tough critics. Your goals shouldn’t be to “deliver experiences,” but to create a thousand and one opportunities for adventure, for creating content, and for sharing content, because that’s what turns Millennials on.

You might, just for starters, reschedule your show, to allow attendees to add a couple of “adventure days” onto it; work with DMOs and DMCs to organize local tours, produce special events, and assemble discount packages for local attractions (the more offbeat, the better); bring local celebrities, arts, entertainment, and cuisine onto your show floor; and assist exhibitors in doing the same.

But that’s just for starters.

What next steps should you take?

We recommend these seven:

  1. Make innovation a priority—before you’re so far down the path of decline it’s too late to salvage your show.
  2. Interview dozens of Millennials in depth about their wants, needs and expectations (both past attendees and prospective attendees). Embrace the fact that Millennials are your show’s future. In less than three years, they’ll compose 46% of the workforce.
  3. Interview dozens of exhibitors in depth, to learn how they plan to cater to Millennials. (You might discover you have common interests.)
  4. Validate your findings through a quantitative survey, so you don’t make design decisions based only on qualitative research.
  5. Ask for help from outside consultants. They will help you overcome the normal anxiety, tunnel-vision and mind-blindness.
  6. Brainstorm and test new concepts.
  7. Discard losers and scale winners. Then keep innovating.

No business model lasts forever. Why should association shows be the exception? When fundamental changes in technology, culture and the competitive landscape necessitate the discovery of a new model—as they undoubtedly have—the only question you should have is: How fast can we catch up?

Bob James is co-owner of the event-focused marketing agency Bob and David James. He is also managing editor of Event. Opinions are his own. You can reach him at 202 641.5131 or

Michael Hatch is an independent sales and marketing consultant who has worked with AT&T, Salesforce, a2z, and other exhibit and event industry leaders.  Opinions are his own. You can reach him at

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