Five Symptoms That Your Expo Is About To Fail

Sign of the Times

I’d estimate that maybe 25 percent of those reading this post would do better to sunset your expo for either your annual or topical conference.

Are you stunned by this statement? Hear me out. While most associations crave non-dues revenue, sometimes the expo portion of your program is a drag on profit speed. Perhaps it’s not delivering the same bottom-line results as it did in years past. Perhaps it’s not as highly valued by your paying attendees.

Five Business Indicators  To Analyze

Here are five business indicators to help you analyze whether it’s time to close up shop.

1. Renewal Rate

If your expo is not able to retain at least 75% of your exhibitors each year, you have too much churn. Whether your revenue is steady or not, this is a huge concern. Brace yourself because your organization is going to spend too much money acquiring new exhibitors vs. building upon past success.

2. Exhibitors Not Invested

One attribute of a healthy trade show is that your exhibitors help drive traffic with you. In a healthy show, your exhibitors will be eager to tell all their customers they’re participating. They’ll distribute expo hall passes in droves, because they realize that their success is highly contingent on their ability to partner with you in attendance acquisition. If your major exhibitors aren’t doing this, you have a problem.

3. Bribery Drives Traffic

If you need to use food and beverage and booth drawings to get attendees to spend time on the show floor, you’re forcing it. I’m not saying these are bad tactics, but more often than not, they’re desperate moves to save a dying expo. The big question you need to ask is, are we delivering on the networking and education promise we made to the paying registrants?

4. Education and Solutions

Today’s business mentality has shifted from always be selling to always be helping. If your expo feels like a rummage sale instead of a solutions-based, educational experience, you’ll need to change that fast. Some shows have seen the light and only take money from exhibitors that have innovated something new or provide the kind of solutions and guidance that key attendees value highly.

5. Price Objections

According to CEIR, the average price for booth space is $31 per net square foot. If you’re priced below that and you’re throwing in two full conference registrations to sweeten the pot — yet you’re still experiencing significant exhibitor churn, price is not your problem.

Rest Assured, There Are Still Options

Before you make a go/no-go decision for your expo, consider other revenue streams to diminish your risk. In many cases I’ve seen, we’ve determined that many of the exhibitors could be converted to paying registrants. Some of the larger exhibitors could be persuaded to shift their investment to sponsorship. All in all, the revenue loss risk was low, but it was clear that an expo-free event was preferred by attendees and the expense savings were considerable.

Are you concerned that some trade shows might be losing their luster? What else can we do to create a more vibrant and valued experience for both buyers and sellers?

Adapted from Dave’s Forward Thinking column in PCMA’s Convene. Reprinted with permission of Convene, the magazine of the Professional Convention Management Association. ©2013.

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  1. William says:

    Hi guys, sage words. We have a couple of shows, within the events industry, the UK which are crawling slowly and painfully to a deep and dark abyss. They are or have done all of the above and more. It’s a shame that a lot of organisations don’t realise they need to drastically change their approach and their events to turn them round. A lot of organisations expect the same return for the same time invested like they had in the good old days: times have changed! Attendees and more choosy; there is more competition from competitor shows and exhibitors and sponsors spend is shifting from live to online. Smell the coffee guys!!!! Don’t tinker with the event tear it up. Focus on value for all your stakeholders and take their standpoint not yours. Be brave, throw away the whole shell scheme culture, offer creative sponsorships packages and tailor your engagement. Design the conference don’t produce it. Rather than take the painful death by attempting things in the list above be bold and take a holistic view of your event: and look to create an experience and not just an event.

  2. Jai cole says:

    I think a seasoned trade show professional would have a lot of comments about these points. Perhaps the question should be posted to the Canadian association of exposition management. Or the International Association of Expositions and Events Or the Society of independent Show Organizers. http://Www.siso. Com.

  3. BJ Enright says:

    “Don’t tinker with the event tear it up. Focus on value for all your stakeholders and take their standpoint not yours. Be brave…” — Thanks for your bold words, William!

    As Jeff says, “Today’s business mentality has shifted from always be selling to always be helping.”

    How can you reinvent your tradeshow and event to drive valuable engagement for your attendees and your exhibitors? What activities can only take place between buyers and sellers in a face to face environment? What and how do your attendees want to learn from each other? Start with a blank sheet of paper. Focus on what attendees and exhibitors want and then build the tradeshow environment to help them get it.

    As William says, “Design the conference, don’t product it…”

  4. Dave Lutz says:

    ‘@William, thanks for sharing your thoughts! Couldn’t agree more about taking a holistic view and getting more creative about the experience design.

    @Jai we are seasoned trade show professionals and very active in some of the organizations you reference. We’re not saying that all trade shows should go, but have come to realize that it’s not always the right strategy.

    @BJ, appreciate your comments! Too many of decisions are made with the $’s in mind first vs. designing the best experience and knowing that the $’s will follow.

  5. Traci Browne says:

    Having produced a few shows I can tell you that you are so right on with 1, 2 and 3. That’s not to say I don’t agree with 4 and 5 I do! I just don’t think you’ll ever get exhibitors to get out of the “drive traffic with giveaways” mentality. That’s all most exhibit managers know…strategy is not their thing. They cannot see the bigger company long-term picture.

    I’m sure there are a few shows where exhibitors would be thrilled if they shut down. Right now they are just showing up because they don’t want to be seen as not supporting the industry, but they know they are dumping money down the drain every year.

  6. Dave Lutz says:

    ‘@Traci, thanks for your comments! In the printed version of this article in the March issue of Convene we included this text – “Traci Browne’s recent thought-provoking blog post asks the question, “Are Trade Shows Still Relevant?” Read her post at

    A few of our consulting gigs inspired this post and your blog post mapped well to our thinking.

  7. BJ Enright says:

    Heather Hiles, CEO of Pathbrite talks about Applied Learning – Learning Through Doing in her article,

    Where else but on a tradeshow floor, do we have a better opportunity to learn by doing? Yes, the tradeshow floor may need to look, act, and be different. But, herein lies the opportunity….

    What can our exhibitors teach our attendees? How can we, as show organizers, help our exhibitors teach our attendees? What do our attendees want to learn? How do our educational sessions tie back to the tradeshow floor?

  8. Dave –

    Excellent piece here – thank you. All are valid points and show organizers need to remember they are creating or extending a marketplace and that nuance matters!

  9. As you said in the article the sole business mentality is shifting, and maybe the expositions also need to evolve and incorporate new functions, if they are to survive. Today’s customers look for so much more than they did before, and the competition is vicious. I love the suggestion of transferring the costs to a charity… nowadays there is nothing better than a well-advertised CSR policy to gain customers’ trust.

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