Arthur Rabier, founder of Tradefest shares his experience as an event manager, using trade fairs, conferences and event sponsorship for an international digital start-up (120 employees) to expand internationally:
In 2016, I was working for a very successful French start-up that raised more than €20m to break into new markets. The company simultaneously opened offices in London, New York, Cologne and Sydney.
As part of my role, I was in a team in charge of developing the business in the UK, Ireland and the Nordics, so it was clear that we would need to plan a clear and sound events strategy, finding the best trade fairs to exhibit at.
Most people would agree searching for new trade fairs to can be a tedious process, but few understand why.
Word of mouth: The best way to find events?
Building an event strategy was something I was used to. My colleagues and I had previous experience and had exhibited at many industry events in France. In our new markets it was easy to come up with a list of a few well-known fairs that we could look into. Then we asked for recommendations from people in our respective networks to try and learn from collective experience before allocating our budget. Word of mouth is a good qualitative start but has many limitations.
First, it is only as good as your network and, of course, there’s cultural challenges which factor in: Although we had shortlisted many events in big cities like London, Manchester, Birmingham or Dublin, we had no idea about events outside of our comfort zone, especially in the Nordics.
Now, imagine you are looking for events further afield in say China, the task becomes even more difficult.
Furthermore, word of mouth is always very subjective and biased. You can agree or disagree, it’s not scientific. If someone had a good experience of this fair but someone else didn’t, who to believe? You need to have a large sample of data to draw accurate conclusions.
Where to find information on trade fairs online?
After word of mouth our next reflex was to collect information online, check out the websites of the events we knew, and Google search for others we had missed. This turns out to be more difficult than expected. At the time, there was no one digital space dedicated to professional events. Yes, there were online directories but the information was sparse and limited.
We could however look at which events our competitors and similar companies were exhibiting at and find some inspiration. But this is also not really sustainable, as we don’t want to just follow their lead, and go to the same fairs. Our brand strategy was to try and differentiate ourselves in a crowded competitive landscape not go with the flow.
Enter the cold callers
We were receiving an incredible number of cold calls and emails from event organisers. At peak times, the phone would seem to ring every two minutes and unfortunately it wasn’t incoming leads, the pitch always went something like this, a once in a lifetime opportunity to exhibit at “the best event of the year”, “decision makers from major companies like Microsoft, Google and IBM would be in attendance”.
It seemed too good to be true. Very often the caller would have a weak understanding of our business and what types of potential clients would be a good fit for us, a one size fits all generic pitch.
And once you show just a bit of interest, you may as well change your phone number, email and move office as once they bite their difficult to shake off and who can blame them they work in sales and they’re just doing their job. When there’s potential all we want is more information and an idea of what to realistically expect before we drop $20k, but we’re obviously not going to get an unbiased account.
Are we missing out on business opportunities?
As a result of our struggle to find adequate information to help us choose the right events, we rolled the dice and exhibited at the most famous and well documented events we found online. They also represented significant investment, so what about the returns?
On the whole ,quite mixed. In hindsight choosing better locations at the events themselves, larger booth sizes, as well as sponsorship or speaker slots, would probably have been worthwhile.
Due to the impressive scale of these events and the sheer number of exhibitors, standing out and getting noticed is more challenging. Concentrating on fewer but injecting a larger budget would’ve been the better way to go.
So then we went to the other extreme. We thought smaller events and conferences could be a better opportunity. We exhibited in niche shows and conferences. Return on investment was surprisingly high for several reasons:
• Costs were drastically lower compared to regular trade fairs
• The audience was, although smaller, much more qualitative. At small conferences access to key decision-makers was easier
• Fewer exhibitors/sponsors meant less competition
• Atmosphere was more relaxed, and we found it easier to break the ice and have meaningful discussions
So, leads were more qualitative. However, there were fewer of them, so acquisition cost per lead was much higher.
This experience raised some intriguing questions: Are we missing out on business opportunities because of a lack of data? What if we could have a better understanding of the lay of the land early on? How could we get qualitative and quantitative insights and feedback from other companies to help us choose the right trade shows?
Will trade fairs embrace digital?
Trade fairs have definitely started their transition to digital. Many innovative start-ups focus on bringing digital innovations to trade fairs and it benefits the MICE industry overall but there is still room for improvement.
I launched Tradefest, the world’s first events discovery platform as an attempt to solve many of the pre-event research challenges I had faced. Users can read trusted reviews and get insights from verified industry professionals.
We invite people to share their experience with a fast growing community who believe that through actionable data we can revolutionise the global events industry for the better.