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Three Cornerstones of a Winning Association Event or Trade Show

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Mike Bruley
Mike Bruley

Senior Vice President - Territory Leader


Bend without breaking and transform your trade show with these key trends

There is the old saying that the more things change, the more they stay the same. That is not the case for events recently, it seems. Tech and design breakthroughs, as well as innovative creative and design, are transforming the industry before our very eyes, and it is almost a full-time job to keep up with so many evolutions.

How do show organizers take advantage of the flurry of incoming trends and embrace the right changes that fully serve attendees­­­, exhibitors, and sponsors — without breaking budgets or compromising an association’s vision?

As always, a strong foundation preserves association objectives while allowing for appropriate innovations to maximize brand experiences. So maybe some things never change after all!

For that strong foundation, there are three cornerstones I recommend that allow an association to build an event house that supports the right trends for the future while still protecting what works in the present.

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Incremental disruption

Many associations have remained steady for the last 20 years in how they approach events. In the digital transformation, however, leaning too much on tradition without evolving could compromise success now and later.

The key word in the last sentence is “evolving.” Associations don’t need to or should not be expected to change and disrupt as a mega brand, such as Google or Salesforce, would. After all, trade shows have been effective and valuable for so long for many reasons, so a gradual philosophy is the best approach.

But how do you know the “gradual” is going in the right direction? Consider a design thinking approach. This proven method of producing preferred outcomes manages disruption by applying sensible design principles.

Here are the four simple steps to design thinking that can assist show organizers when assessing an area for incremental disruption:

  • Identify the opportunity: Determine how the idea, product, or service potentially benefits the event or your organization.
  • Formulate: Find a way to phase in the concept on a scale that doesn’t disrupt the event or strain budgets.
  • Build: Test the product/service during an event.
  • Debrief: Review your results. Did the idea work as planned? Would it be useful the following year, in a larger rollout, or with certain modifications?

For instance, if second screen technology seems too robust, perhaps only using it at the keynote first is a good idea (and easily quantifiable as well). Then measure results and engagement, perhaps increasing or tweaking its use the next time.

A subsection of incremental disruption is supporting clients with rigorous budget stewardship or, as I like to say, “helping put your investment in the right place for the right price.” In short, when considering innovation, there is nothing wrong with dialing down while testing.

Still wondering if a virtual reality display is worth the resources? Consider using Google Cardboard or augmented reality instead. Don’t know if you should employ live streaming services? Try a Facebook Live session, and then upgrade if remote audiences were activated by the solution.

As they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day, but it certainly was built brick by brick, and that’s the approach that can help build a solid foundation for any trade show.

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Embrace Brandhood

A stubborn myth in the industry is that associations are not brands. Tell that to the teams that produce some of the most notable brands and events today: SXSW, Comic-Con, CES, MWC, and VidCon.

And just like these examples, your association is a brand, too. Ask yourself (and your stakeholders) these three questions:

  1. Does your organization have an origin story and a destination it would like to reach?
  2. Does your organization seek to create valued customers and loyal audiences that want to share your story and destination?
  3. Do you provide personalized services to individuals and/or groups?

If you answered yes, then guess what: your association is also a brand! (Still not convinced? Head here for more reading on the topic.)

As with incremental disruption, this is a measured change, albeit a mainly mental one — but much will be revealed once you explore these questions more deeply and embrace strategic thinking for your organization.

Case in point: SXSW, Comic-Con, CES, MWC, and VidCon are not just brands but cultural events in themselves. They consistently stick to a visionary narrative and strategic message, ensure their audiences are inspired, and provide custom experiences to attendees.

But how can you deeply engage if you don’t have superheroes, rock music, revolutionary tech, or YouTube as part of your brand identity?

Simple: By understanding, amplifying, and (yes) evolving your association’s value to audiences.

Take, for example, the American Society of Hematology (ASH), which brings in more than 25,000 healthcare field attendees to its annual event. That didn’t happen by wishful thinking. ASH embraced its brandhood, developed a strong central strategy, and worked hard to communicate its messaging while ensuring its event provided unique, tailored education not found anywhere else. At the same time, it gradually embraced breakthrough tech like second screen, presentation management, and private Wi-Fi, as well as a design-thinking mentality that created cozy networking lounges and a live-streaming theater.

ASH may not be Comic-Con, but its event is considered a must-attend for those in the lifesaving business as it relates to blood diseases.

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Expanding boundaries

Today, people live a large chunk of their time in digital spaces. We do a lot of buying, selling, networking, and content consuming online. This reality, somewhat ironically, actually offers associations many opportunities to bolster face-to-face experiences, if the right balance of digital solutions is adopted. As bestselling author and TED speaker Rachel Botsman explained, effective digital tech facilitates physical relationships and communities.

Therefore, it’s important for associations to provide a virtual/online dimension to their events — whether it’s live streaming, content capture, social media integration, or you name it if it fits marketing and sponsorship objectives.

Here are more benefits of an online ecosystem:

  • The ability to reach global audiences
  • Extends brand presence and sponsorship across the year
  • Event is further monetized when leveraging an e-commerce page or portal for content

What’s more, it’s a good time to integrate online and offline! According to Market Research Media, virtual events will grow from $14 billion in 2018 to $18 billion by 2023.

The erasing of boundaries also affects physical spaces. According to a report published by Eventbrite and Peerspace, audiences increasingly seek nonconventional venues or spaces. These include airport hangars, castles, rooftops, and even parking lots. The study highlights that attendees are looking for one-of-a-kind experiences. Again, this event pivot doesn’t mean reinventing the wheel; a simple tweak like a speaker presentation outdoors or a session at a nearby hip warehouse can elevate audience experience.

We’re not done yet, because space is indeed becoming the final frontier.

The last boundary that will dissolve is that of the association and event partner. Boundaries are dissolving everywhere in business. After all, Amazon is far more than just an online retailer, delving into cloud computing, media production, and even food delivery (like Facebook and Uber do as well). Companies like the New York Times have bought advertising agencies and smaller studios, and most successful companies are publishers of content in some way or another.

These are some big players I mentioned, but there are takeaways for all of us. The point is that the lines are blurring in fast-changing and competitive times where being adaptable and nimble is essential for growth. Associations must lean harder on their partners to gain insights and data on industry trends and competitors (both local and global), and offer as many affordable “make-sense” solutions as possible. If your association does well, your partners do well — so in this new holistic paradigm, one-offs are less important than strong communication on objectives and integration (even for creative ideas).

With these three cornerstones, show organizers can build a sturdy event house, even in these seemingly quicksand times of innovative tech and intense competition. Trends come and go, sure, but audiences and show objectives will stay if they are sheltered under a strong ceiling of branding, adaptability, and relevant services.

Feeling trendy? Keep your events on point by exploring the Freeman Trend Lab website.

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