Hybrid Hour: Exhibitor Frustration

Ideas and solutions for the top complaints from virtual exhibitors

By Danica Tormohlen, Host of Hybrid Hour

Our Guest:

Donna Sanford is Senior VP Sales & Marketing for Ascend Media, a company that’s been producing digital and print dailies, as well as exhibitor guides, for more than 30 years.

Back story:

Ascend worked with a number of major medical associations to assist them with their virtual events in 2020. Sanford conducted in-depth interviews with about 40 companies who exhibited at medical association shows to find out what they want from virtual and hybrid events going forward. Here’s a PDF that Ascend put together with the top 10 complaints from virtual exhibitors.

Like exiting through the gift shop.

One of the top exhibitor complaints is getting attendees to come to their virtual booth. One solution: After a session or roundtable that is sponsored by the exhibitor, “drop” everyone who was viewing that session into the exhibitor’s booth. “I thought that was brilliant,” said Sanford. JUNO VP Communications Dana Freker Doody added: “It’s like exiting through the gift shop. That’s one of the benefits of the virtual space. You are more in control of the attendee journey.”

Put exhibitors on the program.

While it’s obviously not feasible or advisable to put every exhibitor on the education program, there are ways to help them be more involved. “I don't necessarily mean making exhibitors be speakers in the general session,” said Sanford. “Some events sold a sponsored roundtable and put them on the day’s agenda. A lot of the happiest exhibitors were those who sponsored content.”

Set standards.

“Keep in mind that exhibitors may be working on 10 shows at the same time, and they could all be on different platforms,” said Sanford. “That means they have to learn all of those systems and build their booth differently in each platform. For medical exhibitors, that means getting all 10 of them through compliance. That's a lot of work. One of the things that exhibitors would love to see is some kind of standardization.”

Onboarding is critical.

“Some events aren’t mandating onboarding of attendees,” Sanford said. “That's like letting people into an event without a badge. Nobody would do that. There needs to be a mandatory onboarding, and it needs to be with complete contact and qualifying information. If not, then AI matches can’t be made. You don't want to be an association whose members complained because they had to answer a six-page biography before they could get registered. But there's got to be a balance somewhere between what the exhibitor needs and what members are willing to share.”

Working around platforms.

“Exhibitors are building microsites,” Sanford said. “Basically it’s one booth outside of all the platforms. All exhibitors want to do is take that virtual booth and link to it because that way all they have to do is send that one micro-site through compliance one time.” One solution: “All of our association clients allowed exhibitors to do that, but they did charge for it.” The downside: Attendees leave the platform.

Don’t let digital opportunities fade when in-person returns.

“Almost all of the exhibitors I interviewed said they plan to put minimal effort into their virtual booth when in-person events return — which to me spells the death of the virtual exhibit hall,” said Sanford. One explanation for the reasoning: Most exhibit managers, who are used to handling in-person booths, have been assigned virtual booth duties by default during the pandemic. “As far as they're concerned, once they're back to physical, the virtual booth will take a backseat,” she said. One idea: Bring the exhibitor’s marketing departments into the discussion.

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Danica Tormohlen is an Award-Winning Journalist, Content Strategist and Omnichannel Media Pro. For trade show industry news and analysis, follow her on Twitter @DanicaTormohlen.