Therese Dolan, joint chair of ABPCO, considers an ongoing dilemma discussed at its latest roundtable debate.
For many organisers, particularly in the association sector there is a battle raging between content and consumerism. It needs to be carefully fought as they try to balance the professional development needs of their attendees through conference sessions with the potentially vital revenue streams that an exhibition can deliver.
ABPCO’s recent roundtable kindly hosted by Manchester Central and IHG explored these issues in more depth among a group of in house organisers who frequently have to consider this vital decision as part of their own event planning process.
Our attendees unanimously agreed that the place to start was with the event’s business plan, although in some cases that could spill into the wider association strategy. The key issue when balancing an exhibition and conference are value for the attendees, exhibitors and the association itself. The only way to understand this is through audience research. What do both your delegates and exhibitors want from their attendance at an event? Do the exhibitors for example, understand who your audience is and how best to on their needs. Do your delegates want to actually talk to exhibitors or do they just appreciate the value they bring to the event and the financial impact they have on keeping a conference running.
As part of the planning process it is also vital to think in terms of promises – is content really king for your delegates? Are you genuinely delivering on all your marketing collateral that sells knowledge exchange and continuing personal development? On the flip side are the exhibitors actually going to see the right people? Do you have good footfall throughout the exhibition area and are there quality leads for the exhibitors to achieve value from?
As an organiser it is up to you to facilitate the success of both the conference and the exhibition, which can be achieved in a number of ways – starting with the language you use…should your exhibitors and sponsors be referred to as partners? Can you introduce delegates to exhibitors where you see benefit for both parties? Is it worth creating activities around the exhibition area to make it more popular? Where do the food and catering outlets fit into the mix?
Throughout the whole process it is of course critical that you consider context. Some conferences are far more suited to an exhibition than others, as are some audiences. In particular you should be wary of what you are allowed to do if your event falls into the realms of the healthcare industry with its myriad compliance requirements.
The ABPCO roundtable event, like so many others, covered a huge amount of content in a short space of time and I feel that I have really only scratched the surface. However, the most important part of the whole process is the need to gather and respond to feedback from everyone involved. What worked? What didn’t? How can it be improved on next time? Which, truth be told, is the key element to every successful event.