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Putting on successful events in 2023 and beyond

The events sector has been on a rollercoaster ride these past few years and the nature of events and what commercial partners and visitors expect from them has changed. Tim Willoughby looks at what event organisers need to do to ensure a successful future.

By Tim Willoughby

Putting on successful events in 2023 and beyond
“Exhibition halls are refilling, but exhibitors now expect the same precise targeting and robust metrics that digital gives.”

Like jealous siblings, events and publications are complicated companions. They play together in the garden whilst fighting for their parents’ affection. Replace the garden with an industry and their parents with customers and the comparison becomes clearer. There is a bond, but it is not always apparent. Over the last two decades, there has been a change in thinking; the publication titles that spawned most of the large events we know today, were sold by the larger players like informa and Reed as their focus moved to events and other business lines. As print revenues became a fraction of what they once were, publishers struggled, and pure events business could make better margins. Events became the investor’s favourite.

A hardy bunch of publishers, however, saw the benefits of maintaining a balanced and mixed product portfolio, so kept their titles, kept their editorial teams and kept their customers. With the pandemic the catalyst, the pure-play event businesses are coming full circle, with online 365 communities and content strategies now part of the events mix. Events businesses are investing again in editorial, or more specifically, content. Those publishers who never stopped investing in editorial now have a large competitive advantage.

I imagine few of today’s publishers see themselves as holding the keys for a new generation of mega events, but their customer access means they do still have the power. Loyal readers hold titles in high regard and editors have godlike statuses. Events and publications both sell access, both bring buyers and sellers together, but publishers focus on buyers, and event companies, too often, focus on the sellers. Exhibitions arrogantly boast about the strength of their brands while secretly coveting the depth of industry relationships that editorial have.

We continue to emerge from a pandemic which saw all events go digital. Spending on digital events disappeared as quickly as it arrived, but it brought about permanent changes. The pause led to reflection and the customers who returned are much more demanding. Exhibition halls are refilling, but exhibitors now expect the same precise targeting and robust metrics that digital gives.

With customer attitudes and expectations changed, inflation driving increasing costs, supply challenges and a recession looming, it is easy to say, “times are tough”. However, although new challenges, they are not new in impact. Digital alternatives were around long before Covid and we have always been challenged to justify what we charge and why someone should choose you over your competitor.

Often less than 25% of an exhibitor’s spend is in the square metres. Big stands mean big build costs, large teams, client dinners, flights, hotel rooms, etc. The list goes on. What matters to the business is the result of being at the event, and not being at the event. This does not mean that onsite experiences do not matter, and that events business can still differentiate through customer service, but this is becoming a hygiene factor. The pandemic, the war in Ukraine and rampant inflation has not brought new challenges, but they have supercharged the existing ones.

To respond, you must supercharge your approach, and improve your offer. There are three approaches publishers should adopt to improve their events:

1. Know the specific needs of your customers and endeavour to meet them exactly

Through editorial relationships and years of service, publishers know the needs of their customers very well, and it is essential your product development strategy starts here. Events created to fill ‘gaps’ in budget may meet your business needs, but do not necessarily meet a customer need. Likewise, hiring a Spanish speaking salesperson does not increase your market share in Spain, which requires a well-planned market entry strategy and a customer need for your product or service in that geography. Build with your customers’ needs at the core of your event proposition. I must caveat this by saying, you do still need to take risks. Your team may tell you a market is saturated and explain why all the existing events are great and there is no space to launch. Most customers will have an extensive list of reasons why the legacy exhibitions in their sector do not meet the latest needs of that sector. Be bold, be confident, and build for your customers. Launching new events is an area where the event teams and publishing teams combine well and collectively create better results.

There are many routes to helping establish the exact needs of all your customers, be they readers, visitors, advertisers, exhibitors, and publishers tend to be closer to their markets and know better what their customers really need. Use these relationships to identify gaps and opportunities and build robust launch plans. We have so much data at our fingertips; research, survey, build, test, and test again.

When times are tough, the process does not change, we must double down on best practice. Overall, event sales have moved from the numbers’ game approach, which favours strong administrators, to relationship-based selling. As markets decline, growth comes from taking market share from competitors, but do not obsess about competitors, obsess about customers. It is all too easy to get fixated on what your competitors are doing and lose sight of the customers and what they really want.

2. Provide a service that offers easily measurable ROI

We are all time poor. We go to the office much less, and to events even less frequently. How people spend their time and budgets is ruthlessly reviewed. Decision making involves more people and must be defendable with data and provable returns.

One way we are seeing time and money being controlled better is with a preference for attending smaller, focused exhibitions. The generic mega tradeshows are struggling to get back their scale. This makes total sense if you think about where their growth came from. We are experts in using our customer’s desire to outdo their competitors to drive the growth of the show, encouraging competitors to go larger each year with their stands and branding. This was reset by the pandemic and further compounded by costs skyrocketing.

Scale offered security and a high footfall gave implied ROI, so marketers played safe and chose the larger shows. Now when choosing which events to attend, scale means expense, when all exhibitors want are customers. They are asking what the most effective route is to meet the people they want to see. Meet the buyer and well-structured one-to-one meeting programmes within events are not new but are seeing a significant resurgence. Why? Because they are the bit of digital events people really liked! Choosing who to see and only meeting people relevant to your needs. In a measure everything world, one-to-one meetings tick these boxes. One-to-one is a personalised experience; it is a focused activity with zero wastage which is much more likely to meet the specific needs of a customer. Organisers are bringing one-to-one meetings programmes into even their largest tradeshows, because it gives the customers the personalised experience and focus of niche, whilst maintaining their brand scale.

3. Play the long game with your brands – do not erode core value

It is essential to understand where value is created and lost within your product portfolio. For many, we are merely the custodian of the brands we work on. They existed before we got hold of them and they should remain long after we have added our little piece of value. What do your customers value most and what is your brand built on?

The need to find growth in declining markets requires us all to be entrepreneurs but the quick buck can lead to problems later. Bespoke client projects are often extremely high margin and a customer favourite. We are giving the customer a slice of what we do, for a nice profit. This is a risky move, akin to those early publishers selling off the title that launched the event and keeping the event. Let me explain. The trend for bespoke client events is understandable as they are cost effective for your customer and you build exactly what they need. However, in this instance, the customer is attaching to your brand for their gain and only their gain. Your brand is a living entity; you can slice some off, and it will be fine, slice too much and the brand dies. The same can be said for large tradeshows, where there is a trend to compartmentalise show floors or even create spin-off editions for segments of a market. These are great strategies for rapidly growing markets, but the more likely outcome now is an increase in the organiser’s costs to deliver more products that share the spend, and not lead to any overall revenue growth.

With every event, build a brand which means creating something that has longevity. The trick here is to ensure mutual gain. By involving themselves in an exhibition, the customer adds value to your core product by increasing the choice and experience the visitor enjoys. If one customer wants you to do something for them, it is highly likely their competitor will also, and their competitor as well. Work with customers as groups when developing new products. You will still create something focused that meets the specific needs of your customers, but it will become a product with longevity that is also fully within your control. Only if you control the agenda can you really grow events.

The new year is a good time to make changes. Here are five things you can do right now to make the most of a turbulent 2023.

  • Check-in with your customers; one-to-one is best, but any channel works. Do not sell, just listen – let them tell you what they want and use this in your product development.
  • Break down any internal barriers between events and publishing – have regular product meetings and create packages that add value to both parts of the business.
  • If you are not doing this already, introduce VIP buyer programmes and one-to-one meeting services to all your events.
  • Review your product offer by brand to see if you could consolidate whilst keeping the same level of customer spend – this will save resource and improve margin.
  • Ensure your customers are adding value to your brand and not stagnating the brand or leading other customers / prospects to look elsewhere for their spend.

These are not particularly cerebral solutions, but the best business strategies often are not. The world of events has moved on, but the challenges are the same. This means our responses do not require a reinvention of the wheel, but it is probably time to move to an electric car – if only for the acceleration.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list to receive the magazine, please register here.