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The exhibition industry is unique because it doesn’t just serve one sector but many very different sectors. This brings benefits but also challenges, as show organisers have to tailor their team set-up to the specific show and industry they are serving at any given time. It can also make cross-departmental exchange of marketing and sales techniques harder than for other industries. For example, in the finance industry, product portfolios can be different but they ultimately all still cater to financial requirements.

To successfully promote a show in a specific industry, the strategy should be focused on that particular industry and should not be a simple duplication of a generic show marketing campaign. In the same way, the sales processes should be set up to serve this specific show. This approach, more often than not, will result in a marketing and sales team that is highly specialised in the industry that their show serves. It also results in the sales team becoming extremely familiar with the exhibitor and visitor group, making them more effective in creating a targeted sales campaign that is unique to the industry and show itself, forging stronger relationships, links and hopefully show loyalty, as the years progress.

While there are many benefits to this typical setup, there are also disadvantages to be aware of. A good example is when the lines of business and camaraderie become blurred. Although a close relationship between the sales team and exhibitors can promote great sales results and can often guarantee repeat business, such familiarity can also hamper sales. A sales person who considers contacts as friends first and clients second, may not be as assertive when it comes to upselling.

Another disadvantage is that a dedicated show team set-up can work against the ongoing organisational need to balance sales and marketing resources to increase profitability and work efficiency. A show cycle requires different resources at different times, so sales teams that only serve one show are often under-staffed at times when sales need a push or over-staffed when a show is just over and exhibitors need to reflect on results before rebooking. Balancing resources is much harder to manage when a team is only committed to one show.

A further disadvantage is that dedicated sales teams often have a lower success rate in closing new business leads. This is because the potential client is only offered one option and they are more likely to say “no” if that option does not fit their needs. A show portfolio offering a range of shows gives a client more choice and is therefore more likely to be successful. In other words, a portfolio of shows enables a customer-centric sales and marketing strategy that is focused on what the exhibitor needs and not what the show organiser is trying to sell.

The challenges above may cause a show organiser to underutilise their resources as they are not able to leverage their team as effectively and efficiently as they would like to. To solve this problem, there are two potential solutions:

  1. To set up a sales and marketing matrix spanning different business units that sells a portfolio of shows serving the same industry. This approach is something that some show organisers have already started to do. The idea is that show teams serving the same industry are trained to sell a range of shows in different countries and continents, depending on where the customer is most interested in and on which sales lead is most likely to be closed. To serve this sales and marketing strategy, common systems for pipeline management and internal company communication are extremely important. Sales departments must learn how to collaborate across the normal boundaries of business units and show teams. This can generate push back as change is never easy. However, in practice, this set-up can prove very rewarding for teams due to the international nature of sales. This solution works well for larger show organisers because many shows in the same sector are needed to execute such a strategy.
  2. To set up sales and marketing teams that can operate across different industry sectors. The idea here is that sales functions, such as lead generation, lead nurturing or rebooking, can be executed by specialised sales teams that are trained to jump across industry sectors, whilst lead closing and key account management is taken care of by show-specific teams. The same applies to marketing functions, where generic social media campaigns and marketing automation processes can be organised by a more central team, whilst industry-related marketing can be managed by the show team. This second solution can work well for small to medium-sized show organisers that run different shows in fewer locations across different industry sectors.

Both sales and marketing strategies, if executed correctly, can liberate sales and marketing resources and substantially increase a company’s per-head turnover. This is something we as an industry should not ignore as the fight for clients’ marketing budgets will only get harder in future.

Trying to change a team’s structure can often trigger push back at the start, as most people don’t like change. However, I’ve seen how a well-devised, cross-unit and cross-cultural sales and marketing strategy can provide new purpose to the business life of our sales and marketing colleagues as they act in a wider and more international field. What’s more, it can trigger profitability and enhance show quality.

Some of our industry’s sales and marketing processes are quite under-developed compared to those of other industries. This means we are leaving money on the table for our competitors. It’s time to change this so that we can invest more money in innovation and quality for our tradeshows.

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