What's driving attendance for large business events?

New research by CEIR examines effective marketing strategies for attendee acquisition at B2B exhibitions.

Photo Credit: Adobe Stock/Dmitriy Danilenko

What are the most effective ways to attract attendees to business-to-business exhibitions? A new report from the Center for Exhibition Research examines the metrics behind current methods of rebuilding an audience base in today’s difficult business conditions. This is the first of a series of CEIR projects designed to give organisers and stakeholders insights that will help them recover and to surpass their 2019 performance.

Reaching those goals industrywide will be a slow process, as CEIR Index data shows a minority of organisers have achieved them. For most, 2022 was a year of recovery; that positive trend is expected to continue throughout 2023, with a full rebound for B2B exhibitions expected in 2024.

The future of large events
Is your large business event well-positioned for growth? How will you measure success? If you plan events for 1,000 or more attendees, take a moment to respond to this First Look Research survey, "The Present and Future Business Models of Large Events".

The new research, "Attendee Acquisition Trends Driving Growth, Report One: Planning, Performance Metrics, Costs, Gross Revenues and Outcomes", reveals the successful strategies and prevailing challenges event organisers are finding in the effort to grow attendance. Findings are based on responses from 273 producers of B2B exhibitions.

A survey now being fielded by Northstar Meetings Group, "The Current and Future Business Models of Large Events", addresses similar questions and challenges currently faced by organisers. According to early returns, fewer than half of respondents think their shows are well-positioned for growth. What differentiates these events from those expected to thrive? Northstar will publish a report on the complete findings next month. To add your perspective, take the survey now. Respondents will receive a pre-publication copy of the full report.

Attendees are waiting longer to commit

Per CEIR’s new research, reaching attendance goals can be nail-biting, as people are waiting longer to register. More than 6 out of 10 event organisers (63%) report that 90% of their registrations are secured within four weeks or closer to the event date.

"The last-minute nature of registration is a surprise and is higher than pre-Covid," commented Nancy Drapeau, CEIR’s vice president of research. "Though it affirms what has been discussed anecdotally in the industry."

In CEIR research conducted in 2018, fewer than half of registrants signed up this late, noted Drapeau. The change is likely due to the uncertainty wrought by the pandemic, the need for company approval and other related factors. "Now, with Covid receding, the lifting of travel restrictions across the globe and companies approving business travel for staff, we expect attendance will continue to rebound and normal registration patterns will return," Drapeau added.

Interestingly, attendee marketing efforts have begun later as well. Among organisers surveyed, 64% started their outreach eight months out or closer to the show dates. Compare that to 2018, when a mere 37% of marketers started that late in the cycle. Drapeau attributes this to the pandemic mindset as well: "It likely forced organisers to wait and see if the business environment was conducive to a successful and financially viable show."

Marketers must rebuild their attendee databases

Recovery remains uneven across industries, with exhibition success closely mirroring the recovery rate of each industry. Strategic marketers are setting their recovery goals and timelines accordingly.

Among the most effective strategies is the rebuilding of attendee bases with first timers, many of whom are replacing those who retired or left the industry during the pandemic, Drapeau explained. "Marketers are looking to target business segments with the most untapped promise, and aggressively marketing to them accordingly. Some are going even deeper, defining target personas and marketing to people fitting those profiles."

Partnerships and automated marketing tools are other powerful engines for attendee acquisition, the study reveals.

Interest in hybrid events is waning

Fewer than one-quarter of respondents (22%) used a hybrid model for their most recent exhibition. The largest shows are less likely to be hybrid: Just 13% of events with 10,000 or more attendees offered the option of online participation at their most recent show.

"This is not a surprise," said Drapeau. CEIR research in 2021 and early 2022 documented this steady retreat from hybrid events. "That doesn’t mean organisers will abandon curating event content for use online; but they might do so in different ways, even outside the event lifecycle. They are in the process of readjusting use of finite resources to where they believe it best serves an event and their communities," Drapeau explained. "I expect experimentation will continue in this area moving forward."

Inflation presents challenges for exhibitions

Clearly, rising costs are negatively impacting attendance. More than half of show organisers (57%) say the expense of travel is a primary challenge.

The cost to attend might also be a deterrent to people dealing with inflationary pressures: 83% of organisers charge a fee for participation, according to the report. Attendee registration fees represent 37.6% of gross revenues, on average.

Adding to the uncertainty, registration numbers are not always a clear indicator of attendance. For in-person events, only 84.4% of registrants, on average, show up. For hybrid events, online attendees are even more likely to ditch: Just 73.7% log on.

The full report, priced at US$49 by CEIR, is now available for download.


Source: Northstar Meetings Group

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