Setting Lead Expectations for ProMat 2021

By Greg Baer, MHI Director of Sales

The last six months have been the most challenging I have experienced since I began selling trade shows for MHI on September 19, 2005.  That statement more than likely applies to you and your work life and personal life as well.  We have all been through good and bad times, but 2020 has been uniquely difficult to say the least.

Warren Buffet famously said, “be fearful when others are greedy, and greedy when others are fearful.”  The current pandemic and its resulting uncertainty give these words special impact.  While your company’s goals and messaging might have changed this year, the quest to find new business and strengthen relationships with existing customers can never stop.

I remember 2009 and 2010 when the tanking economy placed a huge strain on MHI Members and their customers.  Trade shows and marketing dollars were being dialed back or cut completely from budgets, and my role changed from selling the value of trade shows to evangelizing on the importance of continuing to market products, especially, during tough times.

There is no lack of studies that demonstrate how companies that increase or keep marketing budgets and activity the same come out of recessions faster and more successfully than companies that reduce or cut marketing budgets.  Trade shows, even during times of economic downturns, have historically been opportunities to invest in face time with new prospects and existing customers.  The key was to stay the course, work to gain market share, and acquire more business while the competition was pulling back.

I have always been able to answer or find answers to the questions my exhibitors and prospects have had about MHI trade shows.

“What is drayage?” – Piece of cake!

“Why should I exhibit in your trade show?” – Let me show you all the reasons why!

“Why is your trade show 4 days long?” – Allow me to tell you why it should be 5 days long!

“Why is there a giant cement pole next to my booth?!” – I’ll be right back with a jack hammer!

Then came 2020:

“Will there be attendees if a vaccine for COVID-19 is not available?” – Hmmm.

“Why should I still bring equipment if attendance will be down because of COVID-19?” – Whoa.

SKREEEEEEEETCH!!!  Pump the brakes.  I’ll need to get back to you on that.

2021 Will Not Look like 2019

Those last two questions are humdingers.  They are hard, because these are not just questions about economics, they are about the health and safety of people.

My short answer to those last two questions is yes, you should still exhibit and display your products because if ProMat is held at McCormick Place, there will be prospective customers in attendance.  However, things are going to be different.  The trade show industry is adapting and developing new safety protocols and standards to make expo halls safer for everyone and we continue to see good news coming in from around the world.  The world’s largest RV show, for example, was recently held safely in Germany and saw over 105,000 attendees.

Trade shows sell face-to-face opportunities, so big numbers are important.  We sell the euphoria and excitement of live events and the more people we pack into the hall the better.  Bringing thousands of customers and prospects together into one venue is exciting and leads to real business opportunities for our exhibitors.  My first MHI show, NA 2006, had just over 18,000 registered attendees.  ProMat 2019 saw a whopping 49,718 registered attendees.  When you talk about numbers the growth in MHI events has been very impressive.

The simple and unavoidable fact is that even if a COVID-19 vaccine is announced tomorrow, it will take months to widely distribute the vaccine and many employers will still be worried about sending employees to trade shows and large gatherings into 2021.

On September 17th, the Chicago Tribune posted an article by Will Johnson, CEO of the Harris Poll, a public opinion research firm.  The article featured results of a poll with the following question in mind:  Are the 1.5 million people that attended in-person trade shows/expos in Chicago last year ready to return?  The article featured results from a poll of 2,049 American adults.

The poll asked a few questions that you can read about in the article but with ProMat 2021 opening around seven months from now, I want to focus on two that are relevant to this article.

The first question was when attendees would feel comfortable driving or flying to another city to attend an in-person trade show or convention without conditions like the availability of a vaccine.  Thirty six percent (36%) said immediately while twenty five percent (25%) said within six months. Understandably, the comfort level drops a little when the same question was asked but flying, instead of driving, was the mode of transportation required to attend.  When flights are a factor, fourteen percent (14%) said they would attend in-person events immediately and twenty six percent (26%) would do so within six months.

The second question was about the preference of in-person events versus virtual events.  While the article shows there are some folks who will never return to mass gatherings, it also reveals that by a 2 to 1 margin, respondents prefer in-person over virtual.  As I am sure you’ve experienced in your own business, virtual has a role that can be used and leveraged but it does not replace the productivity and spontaneity that comes through face-to-face events.  In the trade show world, virtual can supplement but never replace the product demos, lead gathering, new business development, education, product sourcing, and networking that occurs on a show floor.

MODEX 2020 was the last major trade show to take place in North America as the early impacts of COVID-19 were beginning in the United States.  Literally over the span of two days during show set-up, we watched our exhibitor numbers take a dramatic drop as companies pulled out of the show.  What was once going to be a record MODEX in both exhibitor and attendee metrics was now in jeopardy.  It was a difficult situation, no doubt, and I am not downplaying the impacts.  However, in talking with MODEX exhibitors over the summer here are some of the positives I heard coming out of a show:

– More REAL buyers; quality focus
– Less time wasters; qualified
– Able to spend more time with buyers
– More time to understand buyers better
– Less exhibition booth staffing cost
– Faster turn-around time for lead follow up

Pam Lawless, CTSM, Exhibit Manager, for Big Ass Fans, sent me the following email from her booth during MODEX 2020: “Hi Greg, I just wanted to thank you for not canceling the show. We’re having a great day and are probably going to hit our daily goal today. It’s obviously not as busy as usual but it’s been a good one so far.”

The 2021 exhibit hall experience- QUALITY OVER QUANTITY

What does a reduction in attendance change for your experience at ProMat 2021?  Frankly, outside of onsite booth staff numbers, it should not change much.

I did not speak with one exhibitor who told me they scanned 49,718 badges at ProMat 2019.  A) It is physically impossible to see every attendee and B) not every attendee needs what you’re selling, no matter how awesome your product might be.  Even the most seasoned booth staffer would struggle to speak meaningfully to more than three or four prospects per hour.  I think we can we all agree that, even in non-pandemic times, creating ideal target rich and realistic goals is very important heading into a trade show, with the emphasis being on connecting ideal targets.

Jefferson Davis of Competitive Edge, MHI’s resident exhibiting productivity expert, has said for years…

“The MAJOR question whether you should exhibit at a show is not whether it has 30, 40 or 50,000 attendees. The MAJOR question is will there be enough of the right attendees for you?”

If you’ve applied the Exhibit Interaction Capacity formula he’s been teaching for years, you will quickly come to realize that for you to succeed at the ProMat show you probably only need to interact with a couple hundred of the right people.

For those of you who have not participated in an MHI ShowPro Live exhibitor training workshop in the past, here’s the formula for ProMat and MODEX:

26 exhibiting hours X __ exhibit staff x 3 to 5 interactions/per hour/per staffer= ___ interactions

So, what is my point?  I have counseled thousands of exhibitors to focus on those prospects that can turn into your customer.  You should never go into a trade show with unrealistic lead goals.

If I told you today that I will deliver 2,000 prospective customers to your doorstep and of those 2,000 prospects you could speak directly with 250 of them, would you take me up on it?  If you are in a 10×20 booth with three booth staff, regardless of the total attendance count, your realistic lead goal is going to be around 250.

Do not focus on total attendance, give total focus to those in attendance

The fact is that there is pent-up demand for events and for supply chain solutions.  There are exceptions to every rule, but humans need and crave face-to-face (6 feet apart and wearing a mask for now) interaction with other humans.

Gardner Business Media Inc. recently released the 2020 Industrial Buying Influence Summary which surveyed 884 industrial manufacturing professionals. The research was conducted pre-COVID-19, but the numbers highlight the importance of the trade show experience to buyers.  61% said they utilize trade shows in the purchase decision process.  In the same report, trade shows ranked second behind Word of Mouth in evaluation influence and deciding what vendors to use.

In many cases, getting facetime with your customers and prospects will become harder to do.  But conditions that are out of your control should not diminish the importance of filling your sales pipeline.  Reaching potential buyers is even more important during tough times.  The markets you sell to will always exist and reaching those buyers is vitally important.  Before COVID-19 disrupted our world, I was a big believer in exhibitors focusing on the top 100 to 200 prospects as they prepared for ProMat and MODEX.  Of course, the branding message can speak to the larger audience, but the meat and potatoes should zero in on those A-List prospects.  The conditions we will face at ProMat 2021 should drive exhibitors to hone-in that focus even further.  Focus the message and target your top 50, top 25, or even top 10 prospects.

MHI will not waiver in our commitment to do everything in our power to keep the ProMat 2021 experience at the level our exhibitors have grown to expect and trust. We are invested in the success of every exhibit on our show floor and ProMat 2021 will be a partnership like never before.  While MHI is investing heavily in health and safety protocols, we are also investing in new digital tools to reach attendees that might be prohibited from traveling to Chicago, including a new AI driven platform to help with exhibitor/attendee matchmaking both on and off the show floor.

One example of this investment is The Grip matchmaking platform.  Grip will provide ProMat 2021 exhibitors with tailored recommendations of the most relevant people to meet at the event and that address their professional networking goals.  Grip will help our exhibitors:

– Network smarter with personalized recommendations for a higher return on time at the event
– See which of your existing clients is attending and arrange meetings with them
– Showcase your products and company to get more leads and meetings during the show
– Book meetings at your booth during the event within the new networking tool
– Manage your team’s productivity by booking meetings on behalf of your colleagues

Technologies like Grip will allow you to exhibit smarter than ever before.  Trade shows will return to normal eventually, but in the short term we must adapt, we must improve, and we must continue to find new ways to fill the pipeline and develop new business.

Now is the time to invest in marketing to your customers and prospects.  Investing in lead generation and customer relationships during these difficult times is imperative.  It is critical to keep your company and products top-of-mind with your prospects.

ProMat 2021 is an opportunity to invest in new business

Will we miss the buzz of 50,000 people in McCormick Place?  Absolutely, without a doubt.  But the people who do attend will be there for a reason and should be your focus.  They are coming for facetime with exhibitors.  They are coming to experience the innovative solutions our exhibitors produce. They are coming to get everything they are unable get out of a virtual platform.   Additionally, the people who will not attend the face-to-face still need solutions and will most likely attend digitally.  MHI will provide state-of-the-art tools for you to connect with them as well.

I would like you to ask yourself these three questions:

– How important is face-to-face conversation with my new customers?
– How important is face-to-face conversation with my existing customers?
– If I opt out of exhibiting at ProMat 2021, where will my new leads and business development opportunities come from?

If the answers to questions one and two are very important and you are uncertain about the answer to question three, ProMat 2021 can be the solution.  Trade shows have always offered opportunities to meet new customers, accelerate the sales cycle, and revalidate existing customer relationships.

Total attendance will not matter in 2021, it will be the quality and seriousness of those who do attend that matters.  Set your goals and expectations accordingly and bring your A-game to Chicago.

Save the dates for MHI 2020 ShowPro Live.  We will be hosting an eight-part series in January 2021 on the 5th, 7th, 12th and 14th for our ProMat 2021 exhibitors.  Keep an eye on for details.  I look forward to seeing you.