Why Does a Show Die? What Can You Do to Prevent it?

The death of a show usually is a long time in coming. Often important things have been neglected and the signs of difficulties are there, but they’ve been ignored for a long time. Or the market served by an event disappears or diminishes in value, thus prompting attendees and exhibitors to go in new directions. But a well-managed event – with proactive leadership – typically can foresee market shifts and anticipate the needed course correction. So, if an event fails outright, it’s likely to be the first reason: neglect.

Changing the direction of a failing show is a tough task, one requiring total commitment and resources. If you have that commitment, you’ll need to look in the mirror, own up to and fix some lazy practices. Sit down and buckle up for what is to follow. These are the key indicators of a show that is fading; your show may have one or more of them:

  • You neither care or know– You’ve treated the event as a cash cow, not making the investments needed to keep it up to date. Maybe your conference has many of the same speakers year over year and you’d rather do what’s worked in the past than try new things. Perhaps your event format is old and tired. Or you no longer know what’s happening in the marketplace, and as a result, are adrift…

  • The content isn’t right– Whoever is assembling the content no longer knows what’s new and exciting in the market. There’s no understanding of what’s interesting enough to encourage someone to part with both a couple of grand and a week out of the office. You haven’t invested the time to nourish key stakeholders. Their departure has left you without the knowledge needed to create a content/educational experience for which someone will pay

  • The marketing is lazy and non-specific- You are not segmenting your lists and have no idea as to the characteristics of the persona of your best attendee/visitor. Perhaps you have mountains of data but never have taken the time to do the analytics. Your database is dirty; you lack full contact information for many of the records in your database

  • The money isn’t there- For whatever reason, exhibitors aren’t getting the leads they once did and are looking elsewhere at your competition. The need for the products and technology exhibited at your show has evaporated. You are forced to resort to extreme discounting to get exhibitors to return. Your attendees and visitors are finding all kinds of excuses not to show up.

If you are committed to turning things around, here’s my prescription. Events naturally have short life cycles, so the decision to pull the plug may be the right one. But assuming you want to save the show, do the following:

  1. Find someone to help you who knows and cares- Make sure that every one of the staff working on the show cares enough to make it successful again. Reassign – or get rid of – the ‘wagon riders’ on the team. Nurture the relationships that you have allowed to go fallow and get people outside the company excited to re-engage with you and who can share the promise of a re-energized show.

  2. Get plugged into the market- Take some time to find out where the market is going. Recapture the excitement needed to build a market and how your event can become one of its leaders (perhaps helping the market recapture its past glories.) Make sure this enthusiasm is visible in your new show content.

  3. Wake up your marketing- Assuming you have assembled the content, test drive a new ‘event resume’ with focus groups to get their feedback. Get to know your best customers and figure out how to attract more of them by both cleaning up and segmenting your lists. Create target personas as if the people were sitting in front of you. Find out what’s exciting and ensure your messaging reflects this. Get your marketing staff trained on the latest tools and copywriting in order to attract the kind of attention that gets people to take action and register. 

  4. Change the pricing- Look at what you’re charging exhibitors and attendees. Is it too much? Too little? Make sure that what you are producing is worth 10x more than what they are paying. Create new revenue streams by adding programs that are worth additional fees, whether they be workshops, certification programs, golf outings, etc. Sharpen your pencil and get creative. If you’re not making enough profit for your efforts, why bother?

  5. Get rid of what’s not working and streamline your processes-Some things can kill an event; others are just not worth doing or can be done more efficiently. Make sure you redeploy valuable resources to those tasks that are contributing to the bottom line.

  6. Build a membership club with a supporting rewards program–Much like the airlines, develop special perks for your loyal customers. Consider things like attendee lounges, first peeks at the exhibits, exhibitor/attendee matching programs, one-on-one receptions with key speakers, or special premium content. Give the club an exclusive name, that you have to qualify for to become a member.

  7. Build an awards program that showcases the best in your industry– Make your event the venue at which market leaders are recognized, thus making your event attractive to the leaders, as well as those who will want to meet them at your event.

Turning around a dying event is not for the faint of heart. Make the commitment and roll up your sleeves; you might be surprised as to what you can accomplish.

The Penalty of Not Knowing Your Exhibitors

I know of a company which wanted to launch an event in a crowded market. Now of course to have a successful show you need to have attendees and visitors. For a profitable show however, you also need to have enough sponsor and exhibitor revenue, ie exhibitors on the floor. This is because the revenue you get from an exhibitor is many times more than a single attendee. So therefore to make money on a show, you need to be able to sell exhibitors.

In launching a show, you need to have a good idea which of the companies in the market will sign up for your show and for roughly how much they will pay, so that you can make an educated guess as to whether will at least break even in year one, given your expected costs.

In a crowded market, no exhibitor is looking for another show to do just because one pops up. They don’t have extra budget just because you came along. Therefore, in launching a show you have to take exhibitors from your current competition, and enough of them not to ‘take a bath’ on the show and lose money.

How do you do this? Well if you have done your research before you launch and you can get the major companies in the market to take your call, then you might find out which of your competitors have good exhibitor relationships and which competitors are weak in this area, in addition to how all of the competitive events are faring.

It’s my opinion that if you want to launch a new show, you have to do what it takes to kill a competitor (of course take actions which are legal, moral and ethical). This usually means you need to know you can get the audience (read decision makers) and that you can make the money after all the bills are paid. I like to make at least a 25% margin in the first year of a show, so it means that I need to sharpen my pencil to make sure a client really has the grit the resources and knowledge to kill a competitor.

The reaction to your new event entry by your market competitors is to try and kill you before you can get traction. The battle is therefore where the money is, so you have to make every effort to get enough of the top companies on your side as quickly as possible.

Back to the company I mentioned, although they did some amount of pre-launch homework and successfully started the show and made a 21% margin in year one. However, their interest, attention and care of their main sponsors waned as years went by-in other words they took the customers for granted. The exhibitor revenue sank in year four leading to a loss and end of the show. A huge waste, considering the effort expended.

The lesson? Make sure you know your exhibitors intimately and establish a solid bond with all of your major ones (listen and act upon their feedback!), so you don’t have your own show killed by a competitor, new or old.

Keeping Your Head When All Else is Crumbling

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 just attended a six-day show (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. Periphery 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!

I’ve given you the beginning and ending lines, but you can find the entire poem at the link below:

To keep your head is just another skill that will help you rise above your competition.