Yearly Archives: 2021

How To Exceed Attendee Projections During COVID: A Case Study

Since September, I have been touting an event that has managed to do the impossible in these times of COVID: exceed attendee number projections. The event, focused on small magazine publishers, is Super Niche. In existence for more than 15 years, Super Niche was purchased a few years ago by a friend of mine, Ryan Dohrn. A number of people have requested that I write about Super Niche, so I reached out to Ryan and he graciously agreed to share the ‘secret sauce’. Here’s what he had to say:
Warwick Davies (WD): What were the principal reasons you decided to purchase Super Niche?
Ryan Dohrn (RD):I did not want to see this event go away after seeing two other national events fold. The post-event feedback was always so good that I knew I could keep it rolling forward. Also, the virtual event during COVID had over 900 in attendance. I could just tell that people wanted to attend really bad. As a speaker at the event for 15 years, I knew that the event had a loyal following. In addition, I knew that the event email database was clean and engaged.
WD: Why did you decide to re-launch Super Niche and put it in a location where most of the attendees would have fly to it to get there?
RD: I took all of the past event attendee data and created a heat map to determine where most of the past attendees lived. Then I looked back at past attendance to determine which areas of the country tended to draw a pretty good crowd. Then, I looked in detail at where these attendees will potentially be flying from and which city would be easiest for most past attendees to fly out of. All data led to Denver and Chicago. The Windy City was out due to COVID restrictions. Denver was open for business and the psychological idea of the mountains, fresh air, and wide-open spaces was a marketing theme I could sell.
WD: What were the key reasons you exceeded your targeted attendance and sponsor participation in 2021 when on average most events are seeing a 65% decrease in attendance?
RD: I was very careful about the promotions, the location, the content, and the pricing. All the promotions had to be specific to reducing the cost of travel to get people there. The location had to feature wide-open spaces and a marketable idea around not being trapped inside of a hotel. Then, on the pricing, I had to avoid the typical model of the later you register the more you pay. We did a flat-rate pricing that never changed. In addition to that, and probably one of the most important pieces of the puzzle, was excellent content and wonderful experiences. To continue to play off the idea of wide-open spaces, we rented the Denver Broncos stadium for our attendees. There is absolutely no way that our crowd could’ve felt cramped inside the stadium built for 75,000. They had a blast. We also set a standard of excellence for creating experiences at the event.
WD: What is your opinion of being part of the community you serve?
RD: I find that one of the secrets of success is not to be an event producer but to be a participant in the community that you serve. That is really the only true way that you can give people what they want. It is very evident to me when someone is just an event producer and not a part of the community they serve. There is a significant mismatch in the alignment of content, events, and other details that I need to make an event a success. If time does not allow you to be a producer that’s also involved in the community, you really need to do your research. I would highly recommend an attendee advisory board that can guide you. Without them, the event could potentially be a mismatch or even worse a failure.
WD: What are the characteristics of your audience?
RD: Our audience for the Super Niche Media event tends to span all age groups from 30 to 65. They share a common passion for the media business. They also share a common passion for wanting to have a good time and also wanting to learn. When you can combine fun and learning, you have a winning scenario.
WD: What is your advice to event organizers struggling to get attendance?
RD:I find my attendee advisory board and my sponsorship advisory boards are two critical components to my success. In addition to that, I do a ton of surveys! When I say a ton, I mean a ton! I also look very carefully at the feedback I received from the event. This feedback is critical to our operations moving forward. To really get the most out of the feedback from an event you need to do the feedback in real-time and get information while it’s fresh in your attendee’s minds. Then, you have to have a thick skin and understand that you can’t please everyone.
WD: What have you learned in 2021 which will help you make your events stronger?
RD: My biggest learning moment was to see the true benefit of adding diversity to my speaker lineups at the event. One of the biggest compliments I received from an attendee was that they truly noticed that there were more women and minorities speaking at the conference this year than ever before. The other learning moment was to locate my event show office in the center of all the action. All too often I see event producers hide the show office in the back hallway away from everything that’s going on. Our goal was to create a place where every attendee knew they could come at any moment of time and ask for help or get a question answered. The final thing I learned in 2021 was that marketing is everything. Creating a robust marketing program using programmatic advertising to target people wherever they are online was a very important part of our success.

As you can tell from my interview and the success of Super Niche, Ryan has become an instant industry leader by knowing, anticipating, and becoming an authentic part of his industry. Hats off to him. Hopefully, the rest of us can adopt a similar approach, one that will bring our own events out of the dark.

Good luck with your own!

There’s Only Opportunity

I recently had a call with a long-lost friend. This was someone with whom I had not spoken in more than 15 years. He is someone whose career ran parallel with mine in the trade show space until the sameness of the experience prompted him to ‘step off the bus’ and pursue more creative digital projects for individual companies.
Our conversation offered a chance to catch up and reminisce about what has happened in the market, as well as discuss what we thought was the future for the trade show business. That business is still relevant to my friend, since event organizers remain among his clients.
We discussed the divisive political climate, the impact of COVID, the decline of the USA in the world’s estimation, and what all that means for the event business. What is the message to take away from what’s happened over the last 24 months? There’s been upheaval, the demise of businesses, tremendous pressure on industry participants, reduced revenues, and layoffs. In other words, there’s been lots of misery. Given what’s happened, most have chosen to focus on keeping their heads down and trying to survive. 
Yet there’s another way to view what’s happening for those brave enough to raise their heads and see: opportunity.
At an event industry meeting in August, rather than commiserate about how bad things were, I managed to upset someone by mentioning that things actually were going great for my business. I asserted that what’s happening actually offers a magnificent opportunity for anyone who’s willing to take it on.
My friend who pursues digital projects concurred with my opinion. There’s opportunity available right now if you choose to see it that way. Or you can focus on what’s failed, what’s worked before but is no longer possible, and bemoan what’s been lost.
As I have more conversations, I find that industry folks secretly concur. I hope they are spreading the seeds in ways that help to make it happen for all. We all can learn from what’s happened by sharing our insights with each other. After all, we want to be motivated to dig ourselves out of the morass that’s resulted from what has happened.
Are you with us? In every disaster, there’s opportunity for those who are open to take the next action and creative enough to find it. Why can’t it be you?

Do Winners Always Win? Thinking This Through Might Be A Necessary Wake Up Call

At a recent industry event a colleague suggested that I shouldn’t worry about the event business, claiming that it would come back as strong as it was before the pandemic. He further stated that the companies that had done well before would do well again, given that “winners always win.”
I believe that the winners of the past achieved their success because they jumped on opportunities and executed well, but I’d also assert that the belief that ‘winners always win’ represents a hubris that’s STILL present within our industry despite all that’s happened.
Have we not learned anything from the punch in the mouth we’ve received from COVID?
Although we’ve survived – and some of us will thrive – the overall lack of innovation that we’ve fostered in this market segment has been a huge disappointment to me and many of us, even given the twenty month opportunity, haven’t much idea of who their future attendees will be. That doesn’t mean that cool things aren’t happening. They are, on a micro-level. In September, I attended an event that EXCEEDED its attendance targets by trying things that cost little, but made a huge impact. And many of the tactics were things that I would have scoffed at, weeks before. This event will be a big deal soon, if only because many will rush to copy its tactics.
Of course, our events will return. Of that I am confident. Those who have paid the most attention to the shift in attendee demographics, and the attendees themselves, will be the ones who make the return the quickest and thrive the longest. It will not be those who simply think that they will succeed because they did so before. The winners that always win are those who see the need to change with the times – and do so.

Find Your Future Stars Amongst Today’s Up and Coming Exhibitors – And Turbo Boost Your Revenue

At many of your events you’ll find a number of new companies that are trying to make a significant impact. They have the energy, the interest, and the money to drive that effort. How can you harness their excitement (and their funds) to create an experience that is profitable, both for them and for your event overall?
  • Information – Ensure these companies have all the details they need about your event when they are determining their marketing budgets. Although not every company’s fiscal year coincides with the calendar year, make sure that all the information for your next year’s event(s) is available by the current year’s Labor Day. This will help prospective exhibitors as they conduct their planning meetings for the upcoming year.

  • Access – Make yourself available to prospective exhibitors for discussions about the different ways they can make an impact at your event. Your event is a multi-faceted experience, but your exhibitors may not be aware of all the options available to them or the different packages. And engaging with them directly (vs. just providing published material) may allow you to adjust or offer discounts that increase their overall spend.

  • Advice – Provide guidance to exhibitors on how to position themselves within the context of your event. Gauge their aspirations: do they want to merely have a presence, be competitive, or do they want to dominate.* How they answer will determine what options – and the associated costs – you choose to offer them.
If you can start to cultivate the up and comers, it may serve to disrupt the complacency of your bellwether clients, pressuring them to make decisions by key deadlines, if not earlier. Competition from firms with more agile decision-making means that your traditional clients cannot assume the availability of event activities or resources (e.g., booth spaces, speaking slots, event sponsorship opportunities). You’ll have increased the demand for assets that have a limited supply.
You also will have an actuality of urgency about making decisions that is more than the words “Buy now before the best booth and options are sold!”
I recently managed an event with only 19 available exhibit spots. Once the newer companies started signing up, the pressure grew to the point where a handful of incumbents missed out on exhibit opportunities because the event sold out before they had signed agreements, which they spent weeks sitting on, in some cases. Everyone interested was informed throughout the process that the number of available spaces was shrinking. What a powerful sales message! No one could claim ignorance or complain; yet a handful still missed out.
The net impact was that the companies that did miss out took steps to book earlier for the next event, thus creating even greater sales momentum and doing so earlier in the cycle. This means that the events are selling earlier and faster, inspiring even greater exhibitor efforts to contract events further into the future.
This activity also has increased the near-term cashflow of the company given that deposits are required in order to reserve a spot in an event. That means exhibitors now are more attentive to sales outreach and your champions within the exhibitor companies are more motivated to overcome the internal barriers associated with getting contracts signed.
Of course, if your future sales depend on rebook activities during your events, make sure that what you do with these new companies doesn’t go against current stated policies. My opinion, however, if you want to increase revenue, you must figure out how to leverage the presence of new companies as a catalyst to shake up your “traditional” (i.e., old and tired) ways of getting exhibit revenue.
As your event gains visibility with new companies that want to make an impact, you can help those companies and your events by being prepared and ready to do business. Your CFO will thank you.
Good luck!
* Thanks to Ryan Dohrn on the exhibitor positioning terminology:

Eliminating Distraction: Keeping Your Eye on the Ball When the Chips are Down

One of the things that really has helped me in life is keeping calm when all around is going wrong. This is especially helpful at events where I must solve problems in real time and it’s not always evident that there’s a solution readily available. I have seen a real difference between those times when my response has reflected panic versus those when I remained calm. A panicked reaction is not conducive to a positive result. Frequently your clients depend on you, as the expert, to be the one who is calm and provide the assurance that “Everything will be fine!”

I recently attended a complicated event (i.e. one with lots of moving parts) where the staff was calm and collected on the outside. But on the inside? Probably not so much. Though it’s likely that there were lots of minor things going wrong, you couldn’t tell from either their actions or their demeanor.

One way I have found to master this kind of situation is eliminate the extraneous elements and focus on the goal. In a crisis, you need to be able to appraise the circumstances, receive input from others, and determine an immediate path of action. Peripheral details are distractions; I believe that keeping your focus depends on ridding your mind of the stuff that doesn’t matter.

From Rudyard Kipling’s “If”:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run –
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man my son!

Learning to Eliminate Distraction is just another skill that will help you rise above your competition.  

Safety and Certainty- Conveying The Right Message so Your Customers Will Return to Your Events

In the last four weeks, I have traveled to two events. Some non-event people thought I was crazy to do so, given the ‘risks’. Notwithstanding the caution that I’ve expressed in some past newsletters, my recent actions reflect how much I want face-to-face events to return – and to do so as soon as possible.

Being out of the office has given me the opportunity to observe and ruminate about what prompted my attendance at these two events, despite the “fear porn” about going to events before the end of 2021 that’s been widely circulated. Beyond the inherent ROI of attendance, as well as the value in networking and content, what got me to go? What are the other basic requirements that are a prerequisite for our attendees and sponsors to be able  to return to our events?

The answers are Safety and Certainty.

Huh? What does that mean? Simply put, if an organizer is hosting an event, given all that’s happening in today’s world we would like to think that the organizer has our best interests at heart. That means acknowledging the risks of travel and the possibility that we might be engaged with people at an event who could infect us.
In terms of Safety, has the organizer identified all the COVID (and other) risks and done everything to mitigate those risks in a manner that is reasonable in terms of the impact on exhibitors and attendees? Have they communicated those actions as a marketing message that is grounded in facts that are positive, real, and not alarmist?
With respect to Certainty, has the event organizer demonstrated their confidence in running the show and that it’s in the best interests for the attendees and exhibitors to attend? Is that confidence evident in a real, grounded – even transparent – advocacy for the event or are they hiding behind opacity that ignores reduced attendee and exhibitor numbers? Are they truthful with their messages? Are they confident in their messaging?
If you planning to run a face-to-face event before the end of the year, it’s critical that you both develop strategies that focus on these key elements and make sure that your current and potential customers know about them, too. We’ve got to get back to work, let’s make it easier for our customers to do it too.

What’s the best kind events company to have?

Over the years I‘ve had the opportunity to work with many event companies and that vantage point has allowed me to how companies are organized, what drives their decision making and clues as to why some companies are more successful than others.

There are four types of companies:

  • Sales Driven – Motivated by revenues, the sales staff are the stars in these companies. The products may not always be the best, but sales can sell the hell out of them, putting a price tag on every inch of the trade show floor or any digital property. Customer service may come in second or it’s managed by sales to ensure that it’s done right, since the rest of the company is ‘beholden’ to the sales team. Frequently, CARING PROGRAMS (see this link) are a must. The amount of revenue generated often helps subsidize other ventures like riskier launches.
  • Product Driven – They don’t always make money, but the product is first-rate. They lack the application of success or profitability metrics other than those focused on how to make the product more spectacular. Marketing is what makes or breaks this kind of company because if no one knows about the product, the company will go out of business. Customers are usually quite satisfied with the product, but money and opportunities are left on the table. Event owners are seen to be part of the market and not ‘carpetbaggers’.
  • Marketing Driven – Can find every customer in every crack. The product is not always up to snuff and therefore they may run a series of “one and done” events. Every new marketing technique is explored and tried, but if the sales staff isn’t aggressive with their follow-up on leads, the company can fall flat on its face. Usually win lots of event marketing awards.
  • Operations Driven – Everything is done well in terms of the execution of marketing, sales, and service. In terms of the product, there’s not much focus on innovation. The concentration is upon cash cow events, with little to no business development. Business expansion comes via the acquisition of existing events rather than organic growth. Everything executes on time and is carefully crafted and presented. Event owners are frequently prominent members of the market (though not always.) The environment can be quite an assembly line – dominated by production charts and similar tools.
In truth, there’s a fifth kind of event company, a superset of the above four that draws on their best attributes. I would it as “profit-driven.”  The top qualities on these companies are:
  • Part of the market-they can ‘talk the talk
  • Dedicated to building first class events which are profitable
  • Have a killer sales team which focuses on nurturing customers for the long term
  • Have a first rate marketing team which can pivot when milestones are missed
  • Execute well
  • Have a business development team which can launch new events quickly
  • Have an eye on the bottom line, but are willing to take some risk
  • Make decisions based upon positive cash flow
  • Do their analysis on current and launch events
  • Have succession planning for the CEO to new hires
  • Can stand in the customer’s shoes
Definitely a ‘wish list’ above, but how do you measure up?
Which kind of event company do you have?

Three Attendee Types Needed to Reach Your COVID and Post-COVID Attendee Targets

There’s been some talk of hiding your prospective attendee numbers from your exhibitors/attendees, given that almost the attendance for most events is down due to COVID-19. I don’t think that’s the right perspective and I’d like to take a different approach. What are the strategies which should be used to bring attendees back, both now when uncertainty reigns, and in a future when [presumably] some semblance of normality has returned?
I believe that event organizers have three groups of attendees, each of whom will need specific targeting strategies:
1)     Loyal Attendees
This attendee doesn’t need as much convincing as others might. If they can come, they will. What might interfere with their plans would be corporate restrictions about travel, the personal fear of becoming ill, or other COVID-related circumstances. The messaging for them will need to be high in content and event logistics (what, where, when, how, etc.) and less on the “sell”. This is your core audience; when your numbers are down, they will comprise most of the people who show up. Treat them well and communicate with them honestly. Ensure they understand your health and safety protocols, as it will help your numbers!
2)     Former Attendees, But Not Now
These are the attendees who previously attended your event but are not a given to return. When your numbers are down, the biggest reason is that this segment is absent. They may have health concerns and, given those concerns, they may take a “wait and see” approach to your event before committing to return. It might be that they didn’t get a lot of tangibles from the last event they attended, and now require some convincing. Marketing themes to this segment should include specifics about your COVID-19 safety protocols, the rich conference program, the professional and person value and joy of attending face-to-face events, the chance to temporarily escape from a world of Zoom-only meetings, etc. Your near-term business success may well depend upon your effectiveness in attracting these folks.
3)     Never Attendees
You may say “I’ve never landed these people before, why would I get them now?” Well, the world is different. As I write this, I am in a hotel, attending my first event in 18 months. How refreshing is it to see my colleagues for the first time in 2 years? The age of COVID-19 has changed business – perhaps forever. What drives decisions about the business is likely to change, as well. Make sure you develop programs that you see people are enjoying elsewhere and incorporate them into your events. Tap into that momentum and you may find you are able to attract the audiences of the future.
I remind you, however, that each of these audiences require a different approach. If you opt to do only one theme in your messaging, expect that the majority of your attendees will be from the first group. Ensure that you think through your messaging for the second and third groups, making it authentic and clear. After all, you want to consider your attendees (and exhibitors) as if you are on the same team, rather than consider them only as sales prospects from whom you hide information.
As difficult as the last 18 months have been, we event organizers must take the initiative to create the future. The business is still there, and your attendees are finding what they need outside of face to face events, outside of your offerings. What are you going to do about it?

Adapt or perish….

Do You Know Who I Am? A Tradeshow Attendee’s Lament

I am not an ‘analytic’ on a spreadsheet.

I am not merely a name on an email list to be targeted by your marketing.

I receive thousands of emails from you, but none that are personalized to reflect an understanding of who I am.

Though I’ve attended your event many times, I have never interacted with anyone on your staff (other than at the registration desk when I pick up my badge.)

It’s clear that I’m being tracked when browsing the web, as your tradeshow’s ad keeps popping up though I never asked to receive them.

I have sent you an email with feedback, but it was never acknowledged.

I get hundreds of emails from event sponsors with whom I’ve never met nor have an interest in meeting.

I’ve spent thousands of my company’s dollars attending your events.


I am one of thousands of your event’s attendees.

If I never come back, will you know why? Do you care?

I have dollars to spend, both on you and your exhibitors.

Without me, you don’t have an event. If all of us faceless ‘analytics’ stop coming, you’ll be hiding in the event sales and show offices, hoping the exhibitors don’t find you.

Do you know who I am? Do you now care?

There’s No Such Thing as a Hybrid Event

Have you ever heard an attendee say, “I just attended this great hybrid event?” You probably have not. And you never will.
Why? Because attendees view an event through the lens of their own experience. Face-to-face attendees don’t care about who’s online at the same show. Their participation in an event is grounded in the face-to-face experience they get. Likewise, online attendees aren’t that interested in who’s attending the event in person – with the possible exception of the speakers and exhibitors. The online attendees are having their own experience, and while they may wonder somewhat about what is happening onsite, it’s only if it relates to their online experience.
The term “hybrid” (in terms of events) is a marketing expression employed by technology companies to describe software that allows event organizers to gain efficiencies and expand their reach by delivering content to multiple channels (both in-person and online) simultaneously. But it’s not something which you should use if you plan to present an event to an attendee-they only care about the channel they choose to experience.
A “hybrid” event, however, still requires the organizer to create a unique experience for each kind of audience. It’s two projects, with the easy one being the creation of an experience for face-to-face attendees. More difficult, with the requirement for additional, specialized staff with expertise in delivering an online experience, is the virtual event.
As you should realize, despite the single term “hybrid”, two different events are happening within the same timeframe, albeit with some similar types of content (aided online by streaming, etc.). But a shared use of content does not change the fact that attendees get a different experience. Why are we projecting otherwise?
A further challenge is how exhibitors must organize themselves for a hybrid event. They need two different staffs to support both their onsite and online presence. What does an exhibitor do if they can only staff an onsite booth, yet want to connect with an online audience? Who are the best attendees with whom to connect, those online or onsite? What if an exhibitor can’t manage both effectively in those critical initial stages of prospect engagement?
The only way to do a true “hybrid” event is to treat each event uniquely, with each requiring its distinct strategy, staff, and execution plan, and market them to the audience the individual channel is intended to serve. You can use the economies available from shared content between the onsite and online sessions, but the timeframes, engagement expectations, and pricing are going to be different.
I might further argue, you should consider doing either an online event or a face-to-face event, but not attempt both in a single effort. Attempting to do both risks creating winners or losers, especially on the exhibitor side. And the style of an event should not be the arbiter of which exhibitor wins or loses – the exhibitor and their offerings should be the determining factors.
So, my advice is to tread lightly before embarking on a “hybrid” event and start in the shoes of your attendees to map out the best experience for them.