Do Your Suppliers Habitually Skip Out On Your Conference Education?

No School Today by Farid Iqbal Ibrahim, on FlickrDo you know where your suppliers are?

Seriously, do you?

Are they attending your conference education? Or just hanging around for the networking and social events?

Side-by-Side Learning Should Be a Must for Suppliers

The home page of the Meetings Mean Business website sums up the coalition’s main message: “Great things happen when people come together. Face-to-face interaction is the platform where deals are struck, relationships are forged, and ideas are generated.” But are those of us employed in the meetings industry practicing what we preach?

Take PCMA’s Convening Leaders 2015, for example. According to my guestimate, nearly half of the 4,100-plus attendees were suppliers. They come to this event every year in droves because the meeting planners who attend have significant buying power. Sans an exhibit hall, Convening Leaders offers supplier interactions at networking events and education sessions — yet too few suppliers take full advantage of those opportunities.

On Monday afternoon, I co-presented a session in the Meeting & Experience Design track with Lisa Block, vice president of meetings and conferences, SHRM, and Tony Lorenz, CEO, bXb Group. A quick poll revealed that of the 150 participants in the room, there were only eight suppliers! The rest were meeting professionals who are directly responsible for producing very significant conferences. Similar supplier/meeting professional ratios were observed in other concurrent sessions throughout the week.

So, Where Are They?

Like most non-meeting industry conferences, supplier participation in general sessions and networking functions is usually strong. Education sessions? Not so much. Suppliers often choose to fill these times with individual appointments, to catch up on email, rest up after a long night out, or hang out with other suppliers.

Conversely, the strategic supplier (especially the ones with a passion for our profession) sees gold in education-session participation. Nothing says “I want your business” more than learning alongside clients/prospects and better understanding their business challenges and opportunities. It helps turn a dates, rates, and space transactional sales professional into a high-performing consultative sales pro.

Some associations try to lure suppliers to education sessions by designing content specific to their challenges. The better approach is to design high-level content that serves their customers. PCMA did just that, but the supplier community, with a few notable exceptions — Disney and Freeman among them — missed the boat.

Disney and Freeman cultivate a culture of consultative selling. They believe that relationships and the ability to help their customer succeed is key to customer retention and growth, and that means rolling up their sleeves and learning about their clients’ business priorities alongside them. I’m sure there are other companies in our industry that deserve mention, but we need more. Or we ourselves won’t realize our own Meetings Mean Business promise.

Do your suppliers and exhibitors take the time to learn alongside their customers? What steps can you take to promote side by side learning at your event?

Adapted from Dave’s Forward Thinking column in PCMA’s Convene. Reprinted with permission of Convene, the magazine of the Professional Convention Management Association. ©2015.

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  1. Dave,

    Wow! I hadn’t thought of this, but you make a great point!

    I’m especially intrigued to think about what this means for the intellectual health of an industry. Vendors control a large part of the information bandwidth in an industry. They’ve got sales people out talking to folks, they do a ton of content marketing, they produce the most webinars, white papers, and conference sessions in many industries. If they’re not learning and up-to-date, if they’re not hearing how ideas are connecting to practitioners, if they’re not hearing pushback from those who are debunking faulty information, a whole industry can suffer.

    You’ve sent shivers up my spine!

    I’m now going to poke my nose around my own industry — the workplace learning industry — to find out what’s happening in this regard…

    Thanks for the wake up call!!

    = Will Thalheimer, PhD, Work-Learning Research (blog:

  2. Dave Lutz says:

    Thanks for the comment Will. We see this same trend playing out in lots of conferences where deal making and relationships often trump conference education. No question it’s often a lost opportunity.

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