I just returned from the Georgia Society of Association Executive’s Grand Tradeshow Experiment at the Georgia International Convention Center, and from a vendor perspective, I found it to be a curiously refreshing take on the traditional trade show offering I have experienced over the years.
Having worked for a state SAE at one point in my career, I know how challenging it is for an association to get decision makers (association leaders) paired up and connected to exhibitors at an annual conference. Exhibitors want an exhibit hall packed with decision makers, and often those decision makers take advantage of exhibition hall hours to break away and catch up on email, or meet privately with colleagues.
The reality is we all know how much associations count on their vendor members for financial support to help fund much of what the organizations does – everything from education programming to having the ability to bring in prominent speakers at events. And let’s not forget the annual foundation golf event! The need never diminishes around vendor member financial support, but also on the flip side, the need never lessens to provide vendor members with real value to make their commitment beneficial to their companies, too.
I have noticed a trend where a number of associations are separating their trade shows from their annual conference, creating two distinct events at different times of the year. As travel costs continue to rise there is a noticeable trend of trade shows downsizing, and not just in the association space. And the introduction of virtual trade shows is also changing the landscape for organizations.
This year marked the third time GSAE has used the format of a stand-alone event. What I enjoyed about their format was having a one-day event (began at 10:00 am and ended at 2:30pm) wrapped around a single workshop and closing keynote.
During the two-hour tradeshow attendees were able to eat while walking the hall and meeting with exhibitors. They each had a sheet that listed every exhibitor, and brought it to us to sign. Now obviously, not everyone who stopped by the booth was looking to engage with YourMembership around our products and services (yet), but it did give me the opportunity to meet and introduce myself and the company, to many association professionals.
Speaking with Wendy Kavanagh, CAE, GSAE’s President, she describes their current trade show format as a work in progress. From a happiness standpoint both exhibitors and association executives are very pleased. In fact, Wendy noted that more execs showed up for the trade show than for their annual event.
From a financial standpoint, there is still work to be done. Obviously, the financial challenge for GSAE is they are adding the expense of a separate event to their budget. Timing is also a question, as they work to determine the best month to hold the event.
As Wendy said, GSAE is where their members go to experiment, to see what works and what fails. That is a part of the value they provide their members. In addition, GSAE works hard to collect important data from attendees that not only provided extra value to exhibitors, but also gives the association important information about attendees and their expectations.
The GSAE Board is committed through 2015 to the stand-alone tradeshow event. But even with that commitment Wendy and her staff are working to make the 2014 edition more valuable to everyone. Wendy will be attending the Association Forum of Chicagoland’s Holiday Showcase next month to look for new ideas to help strengthen GSAE’s 2014 trade show.
The take away from this is don’t be afraid to experiment and shake up the status quo, even with sacred cows like your association’s annual conference /trade show offerings.