First published in C&IT Magazine, Nicola Macdonald looks at the new ways organisers have found to engage with clients and keep in regular contact when events aren't taking place.
As an industry that evangelises about, and thrives on, face-to-face interactions, adjusting to the lockdown and relying on remote communication has been quite an abrupt adjustment to make.
When interacting remotely, it’s difficult to pick up on the social cues and almost imperceptible body language that shows what someone is really thinking and feeling. This has created new challenges for salespeople and business owners as they strive to gauge the emotional and financial state of their clients.
For exhibition organisers, it’s meant a fundamental rethink of their business and what they can offer to exhibitors. How do you keep those lines of communication open and those relationships strong when there’s a black hole at the centre of your business where an event should be?
Raoul Monks, founder of Flume Training, describes the rise of ‘permission selling’ during the lockdown. Many businesses may be open to sales calls but the standard cold call just won’t cut it any more. Clients’ time is more precious than ever and they will appreciate booked-in conversations over pitches out of the blue.
“What should have always been the way people sell now has to be the way people sell,” he explains. “Clients will not engage with you unless every conversation feels like it’s worth paying for in itself. They will be much more emotive and sensitive to the approaches that they get from organisers and salespeople.
“It’s not up-selling but updating. It’s about letting clients know what other people are doing; what’s working and not working. Ultimately the way that organisers interact with their exhibitors, sponsors, clients isn’t going to be forgotten during this time.”
“Right now it’s about frequent, open and supportive communication,” agrees Raccoon Events CEO Mike Seaman. “Don’t be afraid to sell but do it in a sensitive way. Prioritise the long-term relationship.
“There was a period of about three weeks where no one sponsored and we were tempted to furlough, but we kept going and kept being present and it has stood us in good stead. We need to play the long game and support our clients so they’ll support us in time.”
The first few weeks after the lockdown began were a shock for organisers, adds Laura Shapiro, group event director at CloserStill Media.
“We couldn’t sell exhibition space or sponsorship,” she explains. “We had to think about our purpose and why we are here – what can we do to fill the void? As exhibition companies, our major strengths are our data and our content.”
Like many organising companies, CloserStill has been running thought leadership webinars and content for its audiences (which includes healthcare workers) and is in constant contact with clients building a longer-term strategy.
“It’s been a steep learning curve,” Shapiro continues. “We’re human beings and we love face-to-face contact, but until there’s a vaccine we need to be incredibly careful. We’re looking into recreating trade shows online in the interim, but we’re exhibition organisers and ultimately we want to return to that with digital as a back-up and an add-on.
“We’ve got great people in this industry, great brains that can and will adapt. We just need to know what we’re adapting to.”
A catalyst for change
In a recent LinkedIn article, Simon Foster spoke about the potential of adversity to breed innovation, arguing: “We’ve been comfortable and complacent because exhibitions have strong and growing margins. We encourage our events and teams to change, to evolve, to innovate, and then in the next breath, urge them to manage their margin – no matter what.”
Lyndon D. Baptiste, co-founder of FFair, an online platform for exhibition organisers, says: “Now more than ever it’s important for organisers to look critically at the exhibitor experience. Not only will they need to make a strong case for decision-makers to part with their money, but organisers' ability to provide insights, audience, ROI and a seamless customer journey will be vital to proving their value.”
“Innovation is hugely important,” agrees Monks. “The way you interact with clients has never been more important. The way your clients make decisions has changed forever, so have you changed your sales approach?”
While face-to-face interaction is the cornerstone of live events, what organisers need to provide at the moment is connection: connecting buyers and sellers, connecting brands and audiences, connecting businesses experiencing the same challenges and connecting thought leaders with the communities that desperately need their insights.
The context has changed, but the mission remains the same.