John Fisher questions their value
New Year? New fiscal? New opportunities? And what better opportunities could there be for new sales growth than attending an industry exhibition in 2018!
But there are rumblings amongst professional attendees that the ‘hosted-buyer model’ may be creaking a little. At a recent industry gathering, actual buyers - not exhibitors - were asked if they were happy with the exhibition format, where they have to commit to 8-10 ‘meetings’ per day in return for free travel and accommodation.

Over 80% of customers were not at all happy.

This comes as no surprise to me. In times gone by I would regularly attend national, international and global exhibitions with the express intention to meet with 5-10 suppliers to discuss specific projects, all in one place. As soon as the big exhibition companies began to force me to attend 8-10 meetings a day, often with people I had no interest in at all, it all started to pall a little. I stopped going.

I was being treated like an idiot, led along like a donkey, to put my head into any destination bucket the organisers wanted to dangle in front of me. Often the exhibitor would not even be there at the appointed time, as someone more important had come along and I was ‘cancelled’.

At one event I was told that the destination representative could not see me, because his boss had just arrived and wanted to hold an internal management meeting. Could I possibly drop by later? You can probably guess that I didn’t.

The problem is that the hosted-buyer model is back-to-front. In sensible marketing, you would start with the customer, ask them what they want and then try and deliver it. With the hosted-buyer model, they start with what the suppliers want - lots of guaranteed meetings - and then bully, cajole and threaten the customers to comply, otherwise they would charge them money (they even ask for a credit card when they register), boss them about to attend ever more meetings or even ban them from future events for being ‘time-wasters’.

But, you may say, it’s free. Buyers do not have to pay and therefore they will see it as a benefit. I don’t know how many event buyers you talk to on a regular basis, but I have never met one yet who is time-rich and desperately eager to get on another plane. Professional buyers will pay for their own seat. It’s only amateurs, blaggers and students who go to exhibitions because they are free.

Of course, I can see the commercial logic. Exhibitors won’t pay the stand fees if they are not guaranteed customer visits.

Advertisers won’t sponsor unless the organisers can claim that there will be thousands of eager buyers. Speakers won’t commit unless they know they will have bums on seats before they deign to offer their services.

But what’s wrong with good, old-fashioned marketing? Suppliers have to have a story to tell, a proposition to make and a deal in their briefcase to get an order. For this reason I would rather have one customer who seeks me out than ten punters who have been forced to tick the box for a meeting they don’t want on the final afternoon of a show they have found exhausting.

Arise, ye exhibition delegates and refuse to attend meetings with suppliers you will never use! Pay for your own travel and do the deals you want to do!

It would be no surprise to me if in future there were less exhibition delegates but of a much higher quality than before. Because exhibition organisers would be giving delegates what they want and not treating them with commercial contempt.