Most of the member research I do is core member research, but I have had the chance to conduct a good body of exhibitor/sponsor member research over the years. There is a common thread in the research across many associations, and that is exhibitors are tired of feeling like “the wallet.” They know that the sometimes exorbitant fees they pay for exhibiting and sponsoring underwrite not only the event but oftentimes the other benefits members receive as well. Because of these high costs and the transactional nature, exhibitors and sponsors can’t help but focus on the ROI on every event. “Did we make more in new customer fees than we spent on the booth+travel+time out of the office,” they wonder?
10 years ago, the answer was probably yes, but by 2019, even before the pandemic, expo traffic and interest were waning, making the ROI calculation even less attractive.
So the downward trend was already there, and then the pandemic hit, and conferences moved to virtual. Virtual expo halls and sponsorship 1.0 were nearly always a poor substitute for in-person with few potential customer contacts for exhibitors and uninspiring web display ads for sponsors. The awkward execution was totally natural because 2020 was our first experience with virtual conferences. As with virtual networking, virtual exhibiting and sponsorship will improve, but for now, while we figure out how to add value to virtual exhibiting and sponsorship, there is a more pronounced ROI issue to contend with.
While we have this ROI issue, there’s also another problem. In many associations, there is almost an adversarial tone between the association and exhibitors/sponsors. Exhibitors/sponsors sometimes feel that association staff/volunteer leaders/core members think of exhibitors/sponsors as slimy salespeople out to make a buck. And this worldview is waaaaay out of character with the way many exhibitors/sponsors think about themselves and their businesses.
Many exhibitors/sponsors love the industry, profession, or field they serve, and they took a huge risk in starting a business to solve that industry’s, profession’s, or field’s problem(s). Many exhibitors/sponsors think of themselves as partners, advocates, and connectors. Many exhibitors/sponsors provide huge value because they have access to information from hundreds or thousands of customers, which gives them a 30,000-foot view of their industry, profession, or field that people working in the core member organizations usually do not have.
Perhaps when we solve the adversarial relationship between the association and our exhibitors/sponsors by making them true partners, we’ll solve the ROI issue as well.