‘We Wanted to Break the Mold’; How Event Executives Are Rethinking In-Person Shows

For some B2B media organizations, like Questex, there’s no business like trade show business. But they did need to rethink what their floor looked like to succeed in 2023. At our recent events panel at BIMS, rethinking was a theme. “We’re thinking a lot about creating meaningful connections,” said Jess Tyler, SVP, events and sales, MJBiz, a division of Emerald. “What is going to drive [people] to get there? What is it that they can’t get somewhere else?”

Questex held their very successful, co-located International Beauty Show and International Esthetics, Cosmetics, & Spa Conference at New York’s Javits Center last month. Highlights, according to a report in Trade Show Executive, included a Look & Learn Stage—with cocktails and networking; a graffiti wall and selfie area; small couches and soft cubes vs. the traditional folding chairs; a Healthy You Pavilion; a Recharge & Hydrate Lounge; and a ‘Say Yes to You’ campaign.

“We wanted to break the mold of the traditional Main Stage setup from previous years to engage younger attendees with the exhibitors as well as the presenters on the stage, so we went a little off the rails and had some fun with this area,” said Elizabeth Fantetti, event & partnership director, Beauty & Spa Group, Questex.

It was good to read a lot of what we heard at BIMS in February play out on a major stage. George Yedinak, EVP of Aging Media, spoke about building new relationships through events—and revenue. Tyler doubled down on relationships by saying a couple actually got married at their event. Marian Sandberg, VP/market leader at Questex, spoke about the sheer joy of being back in person.

For most media organizations, it’s about getting on your audience’s radar again as they slowly get accustomed to leaving their comfort zone.

“People are adjusting to their normal lives again,” said Tyler. “Companies are sending fewer people, forcing audience acquisition teams to find new companies, go deeper. They can’t rely on mass marketing. We have to fight harder for our audience’s dollars. ‘Do I really need to go to that?’ they’re asking…”

Here are a few more takeaways from our panel mixed with news from the outside.

Diversity has to be a big part of the planning… “It’s super important,” said Sandberg. “We start with intention. It’s a responsibility. We have a DEI committee, 10 or 12 of us. It creates a safe space for us to ask difficult questions—addressing stuff that needs to go to HR. We can speak sensitively to each other. But we have to take it to the next step. We’re partnering with universities to get with people at that level and make our company more diverse. The bigger the pool, the better talent you’ll get… We’ve created scholarships to enter different verticals.”

…And it is. At the Questex shows, one of the new onsite experiences on the show floor was the Powerhouse Pavilion, “celebrating Black beauty industry entrepreneurs. It featured a gallery that offered education panels spotlighting the history of Black entrepreneurs in the industry.” (On the BIMS panel, Tyler said, “A large percent are coming for the show floor experience.”) Added Keya Neal, industry activist & DEI strategist, Kolour Kulture: “It means so much as a Black woman. It is changing the game to help give a voice to the unsung and those who have been overlooked for so long. It is motivating to me to use my voice to make change.”

Be creative. “At live events now, people don’t want to be talked at for 2½ days,” said Kerry Smith, divisional president, Access Intelligence. (Indeed, in our post-BIMS survey, 1½ days seemed just right for most people.) “We’re building white space into programs. Jamming as much content between 8:30 and 4:30 as we can but leaving more time for attendee interaction, especially with first-time people coming. [It’s about] creating beautiful experiences…”

Be patient. “Things are not going to be the same,” Sandberg said. “Look at how you are delivering things. People may not want to buy [an event registration] a year in advance. Maybe 6 months. We’ll hit our numbers, but it takes more work from the sales team.” “The sponsor and exhibitor sides came back quicker than the attendee side,” said Smith. “People are waiting longer to get things approved. Companies are looking harder at everything…”

Keep virtual going. “We tried virtual trade show floors, and our audience hated it,” Yedinak recalled. “We rebranded our virtual events to a webinar series. The mind shift has been impactful. Now the webinars are a kind of petri dish for the live events. Our virtual event webinar platform is key to where we’re going next. We’re able to charge fees to our vendor community. So they’re a money maker for us which not everyone can say.” Added Smith: “Virtual created a new pipeline for us, a conduit for people to come to us until we went back in person.”

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