Friday, October 21, 2011

Convene On Site: PCMA Masters Series

Great conversations begin with great questions, and yesterday's PCMA Masters Series program at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., kicked off with 10 of them. Presenters Jeff Leitner and Bryan Campen cut right to the heart of the topic -- "The Bold New World of Convention Exhibits and Trade Shows." Leitner, founder and dean of Insight Labs, which "deconstruct[s] things for a living, and then we reconstruct them," told the more than 200 attendees: "This is a conversation about 2016, and the bad news is that no one knows what is coming in 2016. ... But we have to try, because your companies and clients all depend on you to have a sense of what's coming so you can help prepare them for it."

Why do we need to have this conversation? "To get people to realize that the future" is much closer than it used to be, said Campen, social media director for Manifest Digital, which is conducting the Future Meet project (co-sponsored by PCMA). "The future is actually crashing into us at this point."

Then Leitner and Campen offered a series of quick-answer provocations intended to leave no assumption unchallenged:
  • The majority of our vendors care or don't care about our association?
  • Better to have 100 solid leads or five dinner dates?
  • Trade shows are a must-have or a nice-to-have for our vendors?
  • More important for our vendors to get leads or to get recognition/thought leadership?
  • Trade shows are a must-have or a nice-to-have for our attendees?
  • Better to have more vendors or more compelling displays?
  • Giving access to the general public increases or decreases the value of a trade show?
  • In 2016, the best trade shows will be more like work or more like a vacation?
  • In 2016, the best trade shows will have hundreds of attendees or thousands?
  • In 2016, attendees will pay more or less to attend trade shows?
Signaling their answers via audience-response software, the more than 200 attendees veered toward the optimistic -- 82 percent said their vendors care about their association; 67 percent that vendors consider trade shows a must-have; more than half that attendees would pay more for trade shows, etc.

Leitner was blunt in response: "I disagree with a lot of where you guys are." The trade-show model worked well for a long time, he said, but is being undermined by exhibitors' ability to "get in front of your attendees" in other ways -- facilitated by social media and online technology.

Can that be fixed or reversed? Maybe. "It is possible to create an experience so profound," Leitner said, "that all business gets done there." To start, you have to think about what a trade show really is. "What you are creating on the trade-show floor," he said, "is the greatest market-research space in existence."

From there Leitner and Campen had attendees break into small groups, aligning themselves with one of five possible models for future trade shows -- from "This is just a downturn, the current model is solid" to "The current model is dead." Tables talked about what a trade show organized around their model might look like in 2016, then reported out their thoughts to the entire group.

"My candid assessment is that as a group, this group is beginning to inch toward the future, but it still looks a lot like what today looks like," Leitner said. "And that's okay." He had three pieces of advice for attendees: First, imagine something you can do with exhibitors that will make both of you money "and has nothing to do with a show floor." Second, reach out to Millennials in a way that capitalizes on the fact that while they probably won't attend trade shows, "they're still going to live events in droves." And finally: "Your challenge is to create something more interesting. ... Your challenge is not to do the same thing more efficiently, because then you're a bank."

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