Have We Failed to Innovate in Our Events? An Insider’s Perspective from David Saef

I met David Saef at the recent Exhibit Sales Roundtable and was impressed both by his presentation (though not necessarily agreeing with everything) as well as his overall point of view about our industry. David is the SVP of Strategy at Freeman. In that role he helps Freeman’s many clients with their marketing strategies, including pivoting given the new business world we all now operate within. David has been in the business for more than 20 years, having held positions with Exhibitgroup/Giltspur and GES before he joined Freeman.


Our conversation following his presentation sparked my interest in having a further interview which drilled down on some of his thoughts. Here’s what we discussed:


Warwick Davies (WD): Would you agree that the industry is at a crossroads? What can we do about it?

David Saef (DS): I am not sure I would say “a crossroads.” We are at an inflection point – where people are yearning to get together and embrace meaningful engagement. We need to address our legacies – our legacy databases and emails which need a total refresh, our event design and attendee experience which need new approaches, and our selling and delivery models which need to be more agile. Most of all though, we need to understand our target participants (attendees, exhibitors, staff, etc.) in deeper and more meaningful ways to attract and engage them in our events and communities.


WD:  I feel that the events industry missed a great opportunity to innovate the last two years. Do you agree?

DS: A sense of fear and disruption affected many people – but not all. There were a number of organizations that invested and innovated these past 2 years, and I think their efforts paid off in many ways – new solutions, new teams, and new ways of thinking and operating. AUSA for example, launched a weekly lunch series online during COVID which was a huge success, attracted many new participants and led to new opportunities to host and engage its wider community that is having a positive effect on their ongoing in person event program.


WD: Why do most event organizers have nearly no engagement with their audiences? What can be done about it?

DS: Organizers always marketed to audiences, but just broadcasting “WE ARE HERE!” is no longer sufficient. Attendees need to know that the organizers really understand them – what are their business or professional priorities, what do they wish to learn, connect, or undertake to improve their businesses or practices. We also need to know where audiences want to convene and how they want to engage. And most of all – participants are time- and budget- constrained. So, the most important aspect is the WHY – why they should spend their time and money taking part in your event versus any other online or in-person gathering.


WD: Many event organizers were making 65%+ margins pre-COVID and have had no motivation to do much innovation other than cram their face-to-face events into virtual events and pray for the in person events to return. But Pre-COVID conditions are gone. How should event organizers react?

DS: Listen. Innovate. Be Agile. The number one investment today should be in truly and deeply understanding your audiences and updating contact databases. By a long stretch – if audiences grow more rapidly, it solves so many other challenges. Second: innovate – the participant journey needs to be digital first in order to be able to learn and capture information and share with peers back in the office and innovate the onsite experience to make it interactive, immersive and inspirational in so many ways that people have no choice but to make your event the top investment they will make in themselves in their career for the year. Take the National Broadcasters Association – during COVID the team invested in deep audience research which led to insights and the launch of a new online platform – Amplify – to enable NAB to connect with their audiences year-round. This engagement strategy led to many innovations, from launching new events based on emerging sectors to revamping the show halls and creating Experience Zones to draw and engage attendees. NAB opened a whole new show segment in West Hall based on identifying emerging sectors of their business. The listening and innovating paid off as the show as a huge success this year.

Finally, be agile – circumstances will continue to change so it’s never been more important to test and learn new ideas by using insights to inform experiences and priorities, and to tap on-demand talent to ramp up the most promising opportunities.


WD: Many organizers have pages of “to dos” but don’t seem effective at getting things done. How should they proceed?

DS: Two pieces of advice: first, establish no more than 2-3 major objectives for the event and organization. Those objectives should have clear measures of success. Then look at the “to do” list – prioritize only those actions that will drive these top objectives. Be brutal in prioritizing – literally ask “will this action lead to these 2-3 outcomes?” If the answer is not clear, or not compelling, then de-prioritize. Second exercise – ask staff to list “5 things we should stop doing NOW.” Review and then act. Last note – many people will say they don’t have enough time “but we have to do X, Y or Z.” If those items are truly critical, I would look at whether enough time has been freed up for folks to address those items, or hire on-demand, temporary resources to get those tasks done.


WD: You’ve told me that events should have a combination of Experience, Networking, Commerce and Learning. Can you explain why you think this?

DS: At Freeman we analyzed decades of surveys and research and realized that participant motivations come down to these four drivers – we call it the XLNC (pronounced “excellence”) framework. Each event type has a different degree of each of the four pillars. Our clients love how we use this tool to help tie back to participant needs and create a compelling experience design.


WD: Focusing on Experience seems like the lazy way to go, since it’s the easiest one to accomplish than the other three. Why is Experience important?

DS: Experience may be the most differentiated of all the pillars. It drives how you feel or perceive the overall brand and event value. It’s the WOW factor. Take a car show – we go look at and test drive lots of cars. But it’s that WOW factor – with our families and our kids that influences that next visit for an online quote or to a dealership. Another example is Sirona’s Dentsply World event for dentists. They create a dynamic experience in Las Vegas with a big wow factor and entertainers in addition to the other elements of learning, networking, and talking about their products. The price to attend is multiples of other dental meetings – and it continues to grow because of that X-perience factor. One other note – Xperience can be achieved myriad ways from delivering an immersive experience like Visa’s powerful interactive to support United Nations’ efforts around climate change to sparking new meaning and joy in our country’s love of baseball by recreating a real-life Field of Dreams ballgame in Iowa.


WD: One of the biggest failures of trade show organizers is engaging their audiences. Now it’s a necessity. How do you engage with the audiences of the future?

DS: Listen and understand. I cannot emphasize this enough – and it’s not about just conducting surveys. Our clients love the ethnographic studies we have done – when we have someone go to the conference and adopt a persona so they can have authentic conversations with other attendees. Also test and learn – try new environments or experiences that enable attendees to undertake the journey that is most meaningful to them. Final note – build in budget and time to listen and talk to audiences at your event (and contact non-attendees afterwards!) to help inform future efforts.


WD: The new competition of for attendees is not other events, but time, opportunity cost, workload and convenience. Given that how do we continue to earn our attendees’ business?

DS: Our clients focus on one simple question: what keeps you up at night professionally? Answer that question and you will have a loyal following for life.


WD: What is wrong with post-event surveys?

DS: Aside from Net Promoter Score, we are asking many of the wrong questions. We need to obsess on a couple of critical questions, such as whether we address their priorities, whether we provided relevant and meaningful tools to impact their work and life, and whether our gatherings are their top 1 or 2 priorities for the year. Our clients also love to benchmark against critical metrics like density, buyer influence, and audience quality. But current surveys focus way too much on satisfaction – which is a nice metric internally but doesn’t get to the heart of the participant mindset. One last note – we often survey about items that we either cannot control or don’t plan to change, which is a total waste of time and effort.


WD: Is there a need for event organizers to invest in more product development? Where should the research for new “products” start?

DS: New product development starts with and should always include participant insights – it should be at the heart of everything we do. This should include many of the strategies I have shared in earlier questions – understanding what keeps participants up at night, what their professional priorities are, what they are seeking to learn and how, and how they want to learn and interact. Then use an agile process to develop concepts that can be tested. The most important part of this is having a team dedicated to understanding and exceeding participant expectations – and developing products suited to those audience needs. That team should have a combination of industry, analytical, and insights skills. New product developers should be entrepreneurial and willing to take risks.


WD: Where do you predict we’ll be in the next five years?

DS: The events sector will be strong and focused. Participants will feel we understand them better, that experiences are designed to their needs, and that companies can demonstrate ROI because organizers are providing better intelligence and evidence of the payoff. Also, we will see new experiences in spaces and places we have overlooked – pulling like-minded people together and utilizing the full campus as an integrated journey and experience versus the separation today between “keynote, exhibit hall, and classrooms.” Last note – today is the time to disrupt and innovate – and those innovators will be accelerating the pace of change for the better.


Thanks David! You have made some great points. I appreciate your sharing them.

Will your lack of respect for your customers come back to bite you?

A colleague advised me when I started in the business that I should “do as little as possible while trying to get the maximum out of others.” Left unsaid, but understood, was the presumption that as long as I got mine, making the minimum effort was OK.
Fortunately for my bosses and my clients, I rejected that advice.
But it got me thinking about how much we actually do for our customers. Often the rationale that underlies the operation of many events is that if you just put up a tent, “they” (the sponsors/exhibitors, speakers, and attendees) will come. Much of the time that works – at least for the short term. But without an insider’s understanding of the interests of our customers, we’re just guessing – and successful guessing is a matter of luck. Perhaps you believe that hitting the repeat button and, as long as you get yours and what you deliver is ‘good enough,’ who cares? Eventually, luck runs out.
The good news is that with all the digital marketing and analytics now available, the behavior of our customers can now be tracked and analyzed. That makes it easier to push a button and ‘know’ who our customers are and what they want. Sort of. The nature of most analytics is that it captures the past far better than it offers guidance for the future and gives you no visceral idea of what the actual minute by minute experience is.
Throughout my career, I have often found that show organizers have an aversion to meeting with attendees and visitors to really get to know them. Instead, they choose to make decisions based solely on generalized archetypes/personas and spreadsheet analytics. That only takes you so far.
When you go to a restaurant, you expect courtesy and service from the staff that’s grounded in respect for you as the customer. What do you do when you don’t feel that you’ve not been accorded that respect? You walk out. It’s the response to be expected from a person who’s real and not an archetype.
Are we getting too complacent about how we put our events together? Would your attendees and visitors say that you respected them individually? Or have you become too big or too successful to care what the individual thinks because you’re confident that someone else will fill the seat or walk the floor?
The colleague’s guidance that I cited at the beginning of this piece did not serve him well. Though he went independent and initially was successful, the opportunities dried up and he ended up retiring. Remember, the market always decides who wins or loses. And that’s often determined by what people choose to do and, correspondingly, what they opt not to do.
Perhaps you are fortunate right now to be on a hot streak and if you can keep it going, my hat’s off to you. Hopefully, you are well aware of what’s driving your success and you’re still willing and able to provide it. For most, that’s a matter of understanding what provides value to your customers and working to deliver that value on an ongoing basis, not just doing it once because you found a way to maximize results through minimum effort. In this business, success is not a matter of “rinse and repeat.”
The bottom line is that you will get “yours” if you can walk the path that your customers walk and bring that insight into your planning and execution. It means you’ll have to work harder, change faster, and produce events that people actively want to attend.
Do you really respect your customers?

How to Get More Revenue When Your Customer Budgets Are Shrinking

Times are tight. Even though ‘events are back’ your exhibitors are cutting back, as evidenced by their smaller budgets. They are returning neither your calls nor your emails. How do you reverse this trend and accelerate the process needed to increase your sales?

You CAN increase sales year over year, even though times remain tough.

As always, the fundamentals are still necessary for my guidance to work. You must have developed strong relationships with your customers and have ROI-driven events that can draw both the quantity and quality of attendees that your customers seek. You also need a proven commitment to customer service and a record of smooth event operation.

But given that foundation, there are things you should do immediately to [what I would call] ‘train’ your customers to understand that by choosing to work with you in the way that you propose, it will be to their benefit. And it will increase your revenue.                                                            


1) Always have an annual plan to offer each of your Top 10 (or more) exhibitors.

First, you need to understand the customer’s decision-making timetable to ensure that your proposal has an opportunity to be fully considered in advance of budget decisions. Next, you should look at the prior history of a customer’s purchases with you to identify when items were acquired throughout the year. Assuming your interest in bundling multiple purchases within a single contract, you should be able to create incentives (e.g., volume discounts of some type, free or discounted service add-ons, etc.) that the customer can acquire within that contractual relationship. Then, with such a baseline established, you may also have the opportunity to make additional offers during the year. The result should be increased year-over-year revenue from any customer who participates.

2) Ensure you have a champion within the exhibitor organization who A) understands what you are offering and why, and B) has the power to influence decisions regarding that offering.

This is of course critical. For your plan to work, you need someone on the customer side who is an advocate for your plan. This must be someone who likes and trusts you and has influence within their company. Someone who merely gathers information is unlikely to spend the time to understand the details of why a plan such as yours is beneficial for their company. Even if they did, they’d not have the authority to act on that understanding. So, avoid the information gatherer and find the decision-maker or -influencer.

3) Find out whether an exhibitor wants to “Dominate”, “Compete”, or “Be Present.”

Thanks to Ryan Dohrn for this one. Find out if your customer wants to “Dominate”, “Compete”, or just “Be Present” at your events and, more broadly, what are their goals for their market. Perhaps this is a question that you’ve never previously asked a customer. If that’s true, and you choose to do nothing else that I am recommending here, please remember this guidance. Understanding your customer’s goals will help you understand their spending focus and, accordingly, help you construct and position your offer.

“Dominate” customers should want the biggest presence at your events, as they are seeking to be more influential than ANY of their competitors. That means they’ll be incented to spend to achieve that goal – a huge green light for your plan. Customers who aspire to “Compete” will want to be on an equal level with their competitors – neither more nor less. Those who choose to “Be Present” will want to do the minimum, but they’ll need to ensure it is sufficient enough to be visible.

Your Top 10 customers (with a prior history of investing in your events) will likely fit in the first two categories, as there will be a strong correlation between their past spending on events and their broader goals for the market. But you’ll need to calibrate your package offers accordingly. If you have put together an exhibitor package that fits a customer with a Compete goal, but the customer tells you they want to Dominate, that’s a signal that you should add more to the package to accommodate the greater ambition. But if you presumed a customer has Dominate aspirations (with the appropriate package for that goal) and they indicate they’re intent is to Compete, I would recommend that you not adjust your offering, but rather leave the proposal as is, for reasons I will explain below.

4) Always propose a package to an exhibitor based on your research as to what is right for them.

Don’t look to have a detailed discussion about the elements of a proposal before you send it – unless the customer requests it. If you have done your homework, you’ve already picked the items they should want, and you’ve been insightful about presenting a package that fits their goals and is comparable to what they have bought previously. 

5) Give them the best deal possible without compromising existing pricing arrangements.

Make sure you’ve given the appropriate discounts – based on a presumed annual commitment – but don’t be more aggressive than that with your pricing offer. When you get the inevitable discount requests, you’ll have the defensible position that that no-one else – with similar dollar spend – is getting a better deal, thus helping you ensure your goal of a revenue lift from each customer.

6) Go for the close, asking when the deal will be signed and what their process will be.

Present the package and ask what the next steps will be. Put pressure on getting a decision if there is anything in the package that has a limited inventory. Have an agreed timeline for moving the deal forward. Surprisingly, the last few times I have done this, the deal has sailed through with the customer signing off on a package with the components, conditions, and payment schedules that were in the original proposal; all just by asking when the deal will be signed. This is why I recommend NOT adjusting a Dominate package if you find they are more likely to be a Compete customer. There’s always a chance that a customer might opt for your bigger proposal because it’s what was presented to them.

7) Repeat this process for all your Top 10 Clients.

Sounds easy, right? It is easier than you might think if you follow the guidelines above. If you can do this for all your key customers, you will increase their revenue contribution. In addition, you will ‘up the ante’ for other companies who want to Dominate or Compete, since their competitors will be investing more. Given that budgets are shrinking, you will also be taking marketing investment that would otherwise go to competing events. At least you will be taking money from the event competitors that are not pursuing similar customer strategies themselves. Perhaps you’ve noticed such activity from your competitors? If so, you’re late to the party, but you can recover by acting.

Good luck in getting more sales when budgets are shrinking. It’s eminently doable!

Event Marketers Who Focus Exclusively on Spreadsheets and Analytics Will Kill Their Events

Attendee profiles are constantly changing. Those who attended our events in the past may no longer be candidates as they are changing jobs within their current industry, retiring, or have taken new jobs in other industries. Given such changes, can we really know who next year’s attendees will be with any degree of confidence?

When I ask event marketing people what they are doing differently given these dynamics, the answer I get back is usually is an answer which includes some combination of tools, technologies, analytics, market segmentation, ad targeting, and social media outreach. The answer rarely includes telephone outreach with one on one conversations with members of key constituencies or meeting attendees walking the aisles of our tradeshows and conference rooms and engaging in face-to-face conversations. Indeed, why are so many staff members in the staff office the majority of their events talking to each other? I think that the failure to personally connect with live attendees is a huge mistake.

Since anticipation of the needs of and personally getting to know event audiences is something I’ve long prioritized,– as far back as when I opened for business in 2005 – I was inspired by my interview with Nicole Peck earlier this month. I particularly noted what she identified as the essential skill set for a successful event marketer

“The event marketer of the future will be a jack of all trades and master of many. They must be an experience curator, an expert in their community and use the data of their marketing campaigns to refine and optimize. Marketing teams will have sub-specialists or experts in data analytics. Key to the event marketer of the future remains an ability to write copy, understand how to communicate value proposition and excitement. I have said for many years, that your strongest marketers should be easily able to switch places with your best salespeople. They also must have a sense of humor and adventure. You never can fully know what will be thrown your way and must be able to flex where and when needed.” (The bolding is mine).


How far away is the typical event marketer from this ideal? A considerable distance. And the lack of personal insight about your attendees could well prove a mortal wound for your events. How can you create marketing plans, project milestones, production plans, and budgets solely by sitting behind a computer screen looking at analytics and click through rates? When I hear about event companies who bemoan the challenges in acquiring attendees, I am shocked when they have no plans to contact or meet their prospects. How can we talk about face-to-face events as being essential, when we ourselves don’t practice what we preach in our own marketing efforts?


What’s getting in the way? Perhaps it’s the nature of the typical event marketer. How many of your marketing staff could switch places with your best sales reps? Very few, I am guessing. And why is that? Because a marketer is often an introverted person, whereas a sales rep is generally an extrovert. A good salesperson is comfortable and confident in engaging with the prospect to understand what they need. For a marketer, that engagement might not come as naturally. Though there’s been considerable advancement in the quantitative elements of modern marketing, numbers and the analysis of those numbers can only take you so far. After all, numbers are merely the numerical aggregation of many individuals. Numbers don’t make decisions – people do. And those numbers rarely can capture the nuances inherent in human decision-making. The real risk is that marketers can “hide” amongst the numbers and fail to understand the true motivation behind decisions, it is ironic that those most responsible for getting attendees to an event may be the furthest away from the customer.



Don’t be resigned to the status quo. You must press your marketers to get to know your attendees personally, whether it be via focus groups, communities, walking the show floor, or otherwise being physically present where the attendees are.


If you are having problems getting attendees, please start there. Ensure that those who are tasked with setting the strategy and developing the tactics are taking the necessary steps to ‘get up close and personal’ with your attendees. Failure to do so could mean the end of your event.

A Tiger Unleashed: An Event Marketing Expert Devours the Challenge 

Nicole Peck is one of my favorite industry friends. She’s a tough negotiator who’s both smart and driven, and her career has gone from strength to strength. Nicole is the vice president of marketing for global events at Foundry (formerly IDG – a company for whom I previously worked) and she’s already in the thick of the action there. I asked whether she’d share her perspectives on what I call ‘the new marketing’ of the events industry.

Here’s what she had to offer:

Warwick Davies (WD): How has your company been doing in the past 20 months? What’s worked? What hasn’t?

Nicole Peck (NP): We’ve been doing great. The events division has modified our product offerings to reflect the needs of the market and the medium available for us to safely do so. Foundry as a whole has made smart acquisitions and our software and Martech solutions include a best-in-class Account-Based Marketing (ABM) platform, intent data platform, Data-as-a-Service and an email marketing platform built for B2B. These tools provide technology companies with buyer insight and intelligent foresight. They fuel demand generation, fill pipelines, and drive return on investment, helping technology marketers all over the world achieve their ambitions. Our events are an ideal bottom of the funnel opportunity, and in 2021, we produced more than 700 digital summits and round tables around the globe and connected buyers and sellers of technology.

 WD: How have your strategies changed in marketing face to face events?  

NP: In the past, I would have approached a group ticket order as a group buy, perhaps at a discount and not thought too much about it. Now, we are shifting tactics and building a strategy and program that appeals to groups and teams to attend events together. Our face-to-face events provide a perfect environment for disparate and geographically isolated teams to coalesce as a unit. At our events, they will learn about what is new, renew (hopefully) their passions for their profession and have an opportunity to share much-needed social time together. Additionally, we are creating spaces within our events that can be reserved by teams to meet and gather, and allowing them to sit together during meals. We understand that a shared experience is a memorable one. That benefits all constituents of an event, attendee and sponsor.

We have added education to our events that cover leadership and wellness. We recognize that the last couple of years have been tumultuous, to say the least, and we want to support our community and expand on the types of education and experience we deliver. We are transparent with those offerings at the get-go.

WD: Do you think the event marketer of the future will be someone who sits behind a computer looking at spreadsheets and analytics? If not, what are the other critical skillsets these marketers need?

NP: The event marketer of the future will be a jack of all trades and master of many. They must be an experience curator, an expert in their community and use the data of their marketing campaigns to refine and optimize. Marketing teams will have sub-specialists or experts in data analytics. Key to the event marketer of the future remains an ability to write copy, understand how to communicate value proposition and excitement. I have said for many years, that your strongest marketers should be easily able to switch places with your best salespeople. They also must have a sense of humor and adventure. You never can fully know what will be thrown your way and must be able to flex where and when needed.

 WD: What’s been your success with digital, other revenue models? 

NP: We have had a ton of success with the digital model. The format has been embraced by tech executives and they value the ease of use, non-travel time and ability to connect with others in the same way they are connecting with their internal teams. As long as the right people are in attendance, sponsors will enjoy and benefit from the pipeline intent and intelligence that can be gleaned. We achieve this through our successful virtual round-table discussions. Our expertise in moderation of these talks ensures a beneficial use of time for all persons involved. Our digital summits have allowed for a greater diversity in speaker roster and, as such, our sponsors have embraced the opportunity to get best-in class educators speaking about their products and initiatives.

 WD: What is your view to launching new events in this environment? 

NP: Same as it always was. Ensure that you have a solid value proposition for all parties involved. People will be more judicious of their time and unless the new launch offers something novel and is of real value, it won’t stick. How is it that there are still events and festivals that sell out in hours and sometimes minutes?  We can learn a lot from the consumer brands who can sell out a sneaker in seconds.  If your audience trusts you to deliver an event that will be worth their time and memorable, they will attend. If your track record includes events with the participants that sponsors wish to reach, sponsors will support you.

 WD: Has your view on innovation changed?

NP: I am not sure if I’d say my view on innovation has changed, but what has evolved for me through the years is my desire to build teams with better diversity of thought and experience. I recognize the value that all team members can bring to a brainstorm session. Those with decades of experience offer a wisdom that people new to the industry will not have. Conversely, newbies provide unjaded ways of thinking and problem solving so that when a team with diverse perspectives works together, greater buy-in can be achieved and the team will be quicker to innovate and feel comfortable doing so. I for sure, have a way of doing things. However, I am quick to recognize that I am not the smartest in the room and challenge others to solve issues and improve on processes to make us more efficient.  

 WD: What would your advice be to the rest of the industry be? 

 NP: Embrace technology and make data-driven decisions.

 Thanks Nicole and good luck meeting the challenges!

Downturn Strategies from an Event Industry Sales Expert 

One of my long-term industry friends is Dan Cole, whom I first met in 2007 at a Society of Independent Show Organizers (SISO) event. Then serving as the Vice President of Sales for the Consumer Electronics Show, Dan moderated a SISO panel about exhibit sales strategies and tactics that wowed me with its insights and recommendations. To this day I believe he is one of the best exhibit sales trainers in the business. Since sales will be one of the primary mechanisms by which events improve profitability as we emerge from the COVID downturn, I was very interested in getting his take on the past 24 months and his recommendations for how sales teams should respond.

Here’s what he had to say:

Warwick Davies (WD): How have you reacted to COVID in the past 24 months? What’s worked? What hasn’t?

Dan Cole (DC): I have made the best of it. It’s a tragic situation, but also a time when industry colleagues have pulled together and exercised a high degree of empathy. This is how I’ve tried to comport myself as well.

WD: How have your strategies in advising clients how to sell their events?

DC: Keep on keeping on. Now is NOT the time to let go of or shirk away from potential or current relationships. “Within every adversity lay a seed of opportunity.” By no means am I advising to exploit the pandemic, but by all means, it’s an important time to continue reaching out to potential and current clients to convince them of the importance of their participation in our events. They’re human beings too, facing the same fight.

WD: Why are pre-COVID sales techniques not working for most event companies these days? 

DC: We’ve said this for a long time and, frankly, I think it applies to both before and now as we come out of the pandemic: Don’t expect to be successful with a transactional mentality There’s still a tendency to promote a “smile and dial” approach. You might be smiling, but the person on the other end of the phone (if they even answer) is not. Build a relationship, exude trust and earn your way into a successful sale.

WD: What’s been your success with incorporating digital, other revenue generators?

DC: I cannot speak to this personally, but I have found it to be mixed. I will say that while I understand that it’s a risk to go virtual and that financially it might not be viable at all, big and small shows alike that employed various platforms stayed relevant. Doing so was not easy. Those who had the financial wherewithal to do so made a courageous decision. They found success with digital properties and related assets that sponsors could take advantage of.

WD: What is your view to launching new events in this environment?

DC: Go for it. Our clients need us. The industry has been awakened to identify and utilize best practices and new ideas. I think we can overdeliver on expectations more than ever. Trade Shows and events are important bellwethers for our country and the world. They help jumpstart all industries, and thus make a very important contribution to revenues. Besides this noble cause, there’s no time like now to offer potential exhibitors and attendees a unique, serendipitous, and unique experience.

WD: Has your view on innovation changed?

DC: I think my previous answers might have shed some light on this. Innovative technology is no longer a “nice to have” when it comes to fostering client (both exhibitors and attendees) engagement. It’s a must-have. It’s a differentiator. It’s the difference between long and short-term loyalty. You can’t make clients “work for it” when participating in your event—You have got to make it easy and seamless. They have other choices now (and COVID has proven this). The deadliest choice for us is for them to give up on investing in exhibiting and or attending a show. In some cases, attendees and exhibitors have already made this conclusion, and that puts us behind the 8 ball. It’s going to take a herculean effort to regain their business. Innovation– in whatever form we employ can help us do that.

WD: What are the top 5 things which today’s person needs to have in their satchel? 

DC: They are, in no apparent order:

  • Incurable optimism
  • Constant improvement in one’s selling skills
  • A firm, deep grasp of the industry in which one is involved, buyer and attendee personas.
  • An understanding of the KPIs that are necessary for personal performance.
  • A mentor who can share their perspective on Sales and Business Development success.

Hmm. Dan, it seems to me that many of your tips are things that a well-organized and successful sales rep should already have in his or her arsenal.

Appreciate your input!

Does Your Event Have a Reason for Being?

Does this sound like a quesion with an obvious answer? It’s not, and I can prove it. One clue to possible problems is the core messaging. Is the tagline for your event something along the lines of:
  • “It’s all about networking”
  • “It’s all about action!”
  • “Be ingenious!”
  • Some other similarly trite, vacuous slogan?
If so, then it’s clear that you don’t understand the essence of your event (what the French would term its “raison d’etre” – the reason for being.) Or perhaps you do know the essential quality – or at least have an idea – but you’re just a poor marketer and cannot communicate it effectively. Regardless of the reason, the results will be the same: a poorly performing event that is not long for this world.
How can you fix the problem? Don’t rely on the past. An event’s previous history does not assure current or future success. Just because you’ve run your event for many years doesn’t mean it remains relevant without review and innovation. The markets we serve are too fluid. There are too many examples of what were once large, vibrant gatherings that no longer exist. Remember COMDEX and Macworld, anyone?
The challenges have only grown. Because of COVID’s impact on in-person gatherings of any kind since 2020, our customers now have experienced life without the assumption that they would be attending traditional events. Events can no longer assume to be an automatic budget allocation in the sales and marketing strategies (of exhibitors) or industry research (of attendees).
Are event managers responding appropriately? There have been far too many events that I’ve attended where the essence of them were once relevant but is no longer. Those events are on life support, simply awaiting their inevitable demise. For each event cycle, you must honestly reaffirm that your event’s existence has substantive value for all the relevant constituencies. Otherwise, you do both yourself and your supporting ecosystem a disservice. The results will be waning interest and declining participation.
And you must think beyond short-term results. Though revenue and profitability remain key references for viability, just making money can’t be the only reason to run an event. Without addressing the core business value being offered, any success should be considered transitory – even illusory – as is evident from the many “cash cow” events that once were prominent, but since have disappeared.
The bottom line is this: If you don’t provide value, the audience and sponsorships for your events eventually will disappear. Rather than resign yourself to that fate, it’s best to pre-empt the risk, taking action now to prevent that from happening.

Only 20% of Sales Staff are Truly Salespeople.
The Rest? Order-Takers

At SuperNiche in Washington DC last week, I attended a session by Ryan Dohrn during which he asserted that prospects that contact you are already 2/3 of the way through the buying process. They’ve already researched who you are, have looked at the prospectus for your event, and know what they want to buy. Given that scenario, do you really need salespeople to close these deals, or could you just hire staff that can finalize the details and get the order, doing so without any other “specialized sales skills”?

My contention is that true salespeople can do things that order-takers cannot. Among them are:

  • Turn around a failing situation (e.g., recover from a bad show).
  • Convince customers not to buy the ‘wrong’ things (that don’t fit their needs).
  • Get exhibitors for a new event for which there are no previous customers.
  • Prospect and successfully get new business from ‘suspects’.
  • Organize their time and activities without supervision.
  • Upsell as necessary.
  • Consistently exceed their numbers.

In my opinion, only 20% of event salespeople can successfully do the above. That certainly shrinks the pool of prospects for your sales team.

At a different SuperNiche session, a panelist lamented the inability to find decent sales candidates after placing job descriptions on various job boards. No wonder, given that only one-fifth of the prospective targets are true salespeople, and they are not looking for new jobs on such boards! Everyone in your industry knows who the best salespeople are and trust me, these salespeople have already found the most lucrative opportunities for themselves. Any new job must be pretty damn special to pry them away from their current position.

For the record, I would rarely hire a sales rep via a job board. I’d much prefer to get a referral and recommendation from someone that I trust. That gets me some ‘skin in the game’, both from the recommender and the candidate, providing some degree of confidence in the selection. When I’m putting together an event team on behalf of a client, the sales staff are always the hardest roles to fill. The best candidates are likely to already be working on good opportunities and it takes all my skills to recruit one for the event that I am supporting.

So, given the smaller pool of true sales staff, what is to be done with the other 80% that we are now calling order-takers? Can they be transformed into true salespeople? The answer is yes, if they have the attitude and determination to get to this higher level. You’ll need to offer them some level of training and mentoring, and then see what happens. If they don’t raise their performance, you’ll need to cut them.

For the moment though, if you have one of the 20%, make sure you are paying them well, and they have work they are proud to do.

A Ride on the Roller Coaster with Someone Who’s Seen It All: Jason McGraw

Jason McGraw, a Group Vice President at Emerald, is a good guy and a friend within the industry. From his roles with such well-known shows as InfoComm, the Trade Show Executive Gold 100, and, more recently, CEDIA Expo, and KBIS, Jason has seen it all. I met with him recently at an industry event and, given that he had a story to top all of that, I took advantage of the opportunity to interview him.

 Davies (WD): How has your company been doing in the past 20 months? What’s worked? What hasn’t?

Jason McGraw (JM): I can’t speak for Emerald as a whole; but for the events I manage, CEDIA Expo and KBIS, we have certainly experienced the highs and lows of producing events during the pandemic. In 2020, like so many other organizers, we had to cancel our in-person shows and pivot to online virtual events. In 2021, we continued with virtual events in the first half of the year and saw a return to in-person shows in the second half of the year.  Virtual events seemed to take almost as much work as producing in-person shows, but with less revenue, exhibitor participation, and attendance. And frankly, virtual events did not provide an equal experience compared to live events. Virtual events served their purpose for the time of the pandemic when in-person events were not possible; but in my experience, attendees have grown wary of virtual events and crave the return of the face-to-face experiences that trade shows provide.  Seeing and touching new products first-hand, meeting with exhibitors, colleagues, and peers in person is difficult or impossible to replicate online.
We held our CEDIA Expo 2021 show in-person last September in Indianapolis, but we were hit with a wave of exhibitor and attendee cancellations just as the Delta variant was peaking and yet we persevered and still put on a small show. The feedback from the exhibitors who participated was good all things considered.  They valued the opportunity to connect in person with highly qualified attendees who made the effort to be at the show.  They spent quality time and made meaningful connections.
And then we were faced with the Omicron variant last fall and we struggled again with exhibitor cancellations for our KBIS show.  However, the demand to return to events was so great that we saw over 70,000 attendees turn out for KBIS 2022 and the NAHB’s International Builders’ Show (IBS) at our combined Design & Construction Week show in Orlando last month. What an amazing experience! In-person shows are back!
WD: You told me the decision to run KBIS this year was nail biting, especially how the attendance came in at the last minute. Could you describe how that went down? 
JM: We had made the decision to proceed with doing this year’s event a year in advance following the cancellation of our ’21 show due to the pandemic.  With the additional health and safety measures we put in place, we felt confident that we could safely operate a successful event this year.  Our decision was boosted by the success we had with many other Emerald events held in the second half of ’21.  However, with the rise of the Omicron variant cases through the fall of ’21 leading up to this February’s show, we did experience exhibitor cancellations and attendee registrations were pacing below where we had planned to be. 
However, as we got closer to the event, the COVID cases had already peaked and were declining rapidly; registrations really increased in the last few weeks prior to the event and we actually had over 10,000 registrations come in over the final week including the show days.  The demand to get back to the in-person show was incredible and exceeded expectations.
WD: What’s your opinion about not telling stakeholders the expected attendance on upcoming shows and how has that panned out during COVID? 
JM: We actually were transparent with our exhibitors leading up to the show communicating how we were pacing in registrations as compared to our previous in-person events.  We projected that we would be 33% down in attendance with 60,000 total in ‘22 vs. the 90,000 we had at DCW ‘20.  As it turned out, we ended up with 70,000, off just 23%. 
Another key factor in the show’s success after a long delay in having an in-person event is that we ended up with 48% first time attendees – that surprised us and our exhibitors.  Many of the exhibitors who had withdrawn from this year’s show cited an expected lower ROI based on polling their dealers who said they weren’t going to the show; they did not account for the first time attendees that they hadn’t seen before. Many of the exhibitors who had cancelled have since rebooked for next year’s show and expressed regret that they pulled out of this year’s event.
I’d also like to add that our post show survey results showed that exhibitors had an amazing experience at KBIS ’22 with our exhibitor net promoter score significantly increasing vs. our previous pre-pandemic in-person event.
Even with fewer attendees vs. our ’20 show, satisfaction with the ’22 show increased.  It goes to show, that focusing on producing a quality event delivers value for your event’s stakeholders.
WD: How have your strategies changed in marketing face-to-face events?
JM: We have increased our digital marketing efforts as most attendees and exhibitor personnel have been working from home during the pandemic.  We’ve increased our use of targeted emails, videos, and webinars to engage our audiences as well as partnerships with industry associations and trade publication partners with online content, e-newsletters, and sponsored new product e-blasts.
WD: What’s been your success with digital, other revenue models?
JM: We have seen an increase in exhibitor spending in digital advertising, online sponsored content, and webinar opportunities.  To enhance the value of the show experience, we have launched AI-powered online matchmaking platforms to facilitate attendee to attendee and attendee to exhibitor connections at the events.  These matchmaking platforms allow users and exhibitors to make “smart matches” to help them connect with other show participants they wish to meet and network with.  The platforms also provide exhibitors with an added marketing vehicle to promote their new products and show promotions. We look forward to increasing audience adoption and exhibitor investment in these platforms moving forward.
WD: What is your view on launching new events in this environment?
JM: As confidence returns with increasing participation in live events, I’m confident that there will be opportunities for targeted event launches throughout the events industry in various markets.  Do the homework and look for underserved markets, regional opportunities, and curated content events for vertical market segments.
WD: Has your view on innovation changed?
JM: Communications technology tools and services certainly helped to keep businesses and markets moving during the pandemic. Can you imagine the past two years without Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Slack, Webex, etc.? Event technologies and virtual event platforms exploded to meet the online demand to fill the void of in-person events during the pandemic.  These tools will remain essential to how we do business post-pandemic in hybrid work environments.  Event technology solutions will continue to enhance the in-person show experience and help extend events’ reach with 365 digital extensions.  AI-driven solutions, online service platforms, and self-service solutions will continue to facilitate in-person event innovation and increased ROI and value for all event stakeholders.
WD: What would your advice be to the rest of the industry be?
JM: Be flexible and adapt your plans as necessary to provide the best show experiences.  Involve your event’s stakeholders and proceed with policies that serve the majority of your attendees and exhibitors.  Stand by your convictions and do what you believe to be in the best interests of your events.  DCW 2022 proved that it’s time to get back to business with live events.  Put in the work, promote the power and value of returning to face-to-face shows – attendees and exhibitors will return and have a great time!
Great stuff. I’m glad to see you and Emerald returning with some industry-leading events.
Thanks again!

Are You a Leader or a ‘Knob Twiddler’?

The definition of a knob-twiddler (according to the online dictionary, Wiktionary) is “a technician whose job entails adjusting electronic devices via knobs.” More broadly, the term characterizes someone who operates the ‘machine’, i.e., someone who has a part in running things, but does not contribute to establishing the strategic direction nor is a leader in any way. This person is reactive, not proactive.
If you consider yourself proud to be a knob-twiddler, am I telling you to change? Yes, I am. Having endured two years of battering from COVID requires each of us to be a leader who can weather the remainder of this storm and those of the future. Furthermore, I believe it makes great sense to broaden the appeal, skillset, and value that you can provide to an organization. If you lack the perspective to understand the big picture, it’s incumbent that you 1) devise a way to understand that picture, 2) determine where you currently fit, and 3) figure out how you can expand your role and make substantive contributions. Knowing how, and ensuring that others know, is now crucial.



As an example, consider the experience of event companies whose success can rise and fall due to circumstances beyond their control. I remember working for a company whose fortunes turned downward after 9/11. When cuts had to be made, some of the operations and IT staff were the first to be let go. In time, they were followed by those in marketing, the content staff, and mid-level management. Last in this succession of departures were members of the sales team. More recently, of course, many of us have seen how COVID’s impact has decimated the industry. Given that, I’ve no doubt that you have stories that match mine.
Does the sequence of departures that I cited mean that operations and marketing people were the least valuable? No, but the common trait of everyone laid off, regardless of the role, was the perception that their skills were limited to the department within which they worked. Those who remained were considered able to perform multiple tasks, both within their specific department and in others. For example, there were those who, though not in sales, had sales skills that could be leveraged. One operations person, having worked previously in marketing, could contribute to that effort. There are other examples, as well.


The value of possessing a variety of skills is not merely survival during a business downturn. Advancement of one’s career is enhanced by breadth of ability. You are far more promotable if your background reflects experience performing multiple functions. And, when that experience is within your current company, it’s gold.
If you are a good knob-twiddler, I commend you for doing a job that needs to be done and for doing it well. But you should consider broadening your appeal beyond just doing what’s asked of your current role. That way, you can prove your value when times again get tough – as they most assuredly will.
For companies to survive, all of us will need to find ways to lead.