It's the oldest story in the tradeshow business: The exhibitors complain to the show manager that they didn't get enough leads. The show manager says – or at least thinks to him or herself – the exhibitor got the leads, but either did not realize it or know what to do with them.

Until recently, it's been a circular discussion with more questions than answers. However, at the end of the day it has always been incumbent on the show manager to prove the value of buying space on the show floor.

Tony Lee, vice president of meetings and expositions for the Craft & Hobby Assn. and a member of the Intl. Assn. of Exhibitions & Events' ROI Task Force, said, “They have to prove to people it's worth it.”

Lee, whose association produces two tradeshows annually, said, “I don't think the industry does a good enough job of proving ROI for the exhibitor.”

While there is still no magic wand that quantifies ROI to the cent, two new technologies can help an exhibitor decide if a show is worth it.

One that is particularly helpful for the exhibitor in the 10'x10' booth is the ROI Tool Kit, developed by Exhibit Surveys. The second, good for larger exhibitors who know they'll draw people to the booth, but need to learn more about their behavior once there, is the radio frequency identification-based Booth Traffic Analytics, developed jointly by Experient and Alliance Tech.

IAEE and the Center for Exhibition Industry Research also helped develop the ROI Tool Kit, and the Professional Convention Management Assn.'s Education Foundation provided funding for it.

Skip Cox, president and CEO of Exhibit Surveys, a company that offers intelligence and measurement resources in the event marketing industry, said that as far back as the late 1960s and early '70s, his company offered exhibitors a pre-planning tool that helps identify the potential audience for a particular show. With the data the tool provides, the exhibitor can then decide what size booth to buy and how many people should staff it.

According to Cox, what is different about the new tool kit, officially rolled out at PCMA's Annual Meeting Jan. 13-16 in Seattle, is the software that helps the exhibitor estimate the potential ROI based on the number of leads collected and an average percentage of those that would typically turn into a sale – after the show.

“Too often companies say, 'I had a bad show,'” Cox said. “With the tool kit, after the show, exhibitors can ask themselves, 'Did I just not realize the show's potential? Or was (the show) just not good?'” he added.

One of the task force's objectives, Lee noted, was to ensure that the software was geared toward small- to mid-sized companies that make up 80 percent of most shows' exhibitor bases. The next trick was to get exhibitors to see the value of the tool kit.

Once the tool kit was ready to be tested, Lee offered exhibitors at both of his shows a chance to participate in a webinar led by Cox. Twelve companies gave it a shot and, he added, “I think it was well received by them.”

They learned a few things, Lee said. For instance, if an exhibitor expected to draw a certain number of buyers to a booth, he or she had to make sure it was the right size and properly staffed.

“In a 10'x10', with the product, buyer and salesperson, it gets pretty crammed,” Lee added.

By calculating their expectations, he said, exhibitors could look at the whole picture and bring in temporary staff if needed.

On the opposite end of the scale are a show's anchor exhibitors, who return every year with their massive booths. A lot of time and energy is spent figuring out exactly how to put these exhibits together so that potential buyers find what they are looking for and the exhibitors maximize their ROI. But, even with all the effort, there's still the possibility that someone important could wander in and out of the booth completely unnoticed.

Experient and AllianceTech teamed up with the Radiological Society of North America at the association's annual meeting Nov. 25-30 at Chicago's McCormick Place to come up with a solution to this problem.

Steve Drew, RSNA's assistant executive director, offered some of the bigger exhibitors the opportunity to try out RFID technology that would allow them to track attendee behavior in the booth and alert salespeople through AllianceTech's Smart Message system when key buyers who might not have identified themselves were around.

GE Healthcare signed on and set up 15 monitors in its 37,400 square foot booth, according to Don Schmid, the company's director of global exhibits. “It was a kind of walk-before-you-run situation,” he said of the new technology. Still, he learned something important immediately.

“In hindsight, we didn't have enough coverage in the booth,” Schmid said.

Drew said nine exhibitors installed the RFID monitors in their booths, but GE was the only one that also used the Smart Message system. “It identified VIPs when they came into the booth,” Schmid said. “It would notify a salesperson, and they would be able to give the VIP an enhanced customer experience.”

GE, therefore, had a better understanding of attendees' traffic patterns and what products they were looking for, he added. Its entire setup, with 15 RFID monitors and messaging system, cost about $15,000, according to Schmid.

Bob Lucke, Experient's executive vice president of product management, said of his company's experiment with the RFID technology at the RSNA meeting, “we were very satisfied with the results, as far as exhibitor participation (goes). One of the most important aspects of what this allows exhibitors to do is, for the first time (they can) gather behavioral data in the booth.”

Attendees could enter the booth with the intention of looking at one thing and then be drawn to another product, Lucke said, which is valuable information for marketing professionals.

The technology isn't for everyone, Drew said, especially smaller exhibitors who don't have as much ground to cover. Of the more than 700 exhibitors at the RSNA show, he added, only a few hundred would probably find RFID useful. Next year, Drew said, he hoped more of them would give it a chance.

“Some people might say it's an expensive solution (for quantifying ROI), but what other means do you have to access that kind of data?” he asked. “You can't be penny-wise and pound-foolish in your booth property.”

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