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Preparing for the Future - Part One

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Bob Priest-Heck
Bob Priest-Heck

President

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Ensure a viable future by being the best we can be today

In February, at the UFI Global CEO Summit, I was a panelist on a session that explored the sustainability of the exhibitions industry and what we should be doing to prepare for the future. Frankly, it’s a conversation I have almost every day with future-focused clients. Here are a few key considerations. 

Treat every Brand Experience (a.k.a., event, expo and conference) as if it’s the first one.

Everyone knows that you have one chance to make a great first impression. But it only takes one “meh” show to keep people away forever. That’s why we must plan each brand experience to deliver ultimate value to the various stakeholders – the organizers, the host city, the sponsors and of course, the participants. Consider their individual needs. Ask, how can we exponentially increase the value that the brand experience medium provides each group? 

Be a brand/community manager, not a margin manager.

Unfortunately, the very group that should be advocating for added value in the exhibitions industry – the individuals who should be brand managers for their events – are under pressure to behave like margin managers. (And I am not saying that margins are not important – we all know they are a reality.) There’s a huge temptation to just push the “same-as-last-year” button: it’s quicker, it requires less up-front work and therefore creates the illusion of saving money. But this misguided focus on minding the margins has caused a devaluation of net-new content and undermined the relevance of experiential marketing as a medium.  How much better to invest in the development of new solutions to share with event participants – which will give you both eternal youth and good margins.

New content is essential to sustained relevance.  

After more than 25 years in this industry, I have a lens into the world of “net new content.” When I started out working in expositions, there was a huge emphasis on the creation of original content. That was the draw. That’s what made us relevant. Over the last decade, we’ve seen content continuously defunded. Print has been deprioritized (for obvious reasons), and even some digital assets have been trimmed from budgets.  Event planners are forced to rely on exhibitor boards and committees that bring repurposed content. When conferences and shows become nothing more than content curators, it can begin a death spiral. Attendees discover that they can more easily and effectively find what they want for themselves, and the event becomes superfluous.

Don’t confuse short-term activities with long-term strategic, measurable action.

Another thing that threatens the viability of the expositions industry is the tendency we all have to pursue short-term activities instead of beginning the more challenging, long-term strategic action required to keep our brands relevant.  For example, we obsess about who will speak at our General Session and never stop to consider whether a General Session with wall-to-wall talking heads is even the right thing to do. Or we jam new technology into our conference without understanding what we want it to accomplish. We collect data, but we don’t use it. We fail to learn what works and what doesn’t, because we don’t design with a specific outcome in mind; we fail to design metrics into the execution. There is no substitute for strategy. 

In my next blog, I’ll pick up with this thought, and discuss how a design-thinking approach can help any organization prepare for the future. 

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