Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

November 2013

How Do You Adapt When Your Show Gets Too Big for Its Venue?

By Hunter R. Slaton, Contributing Editor

How can you adapt when your show has gotten too big for its venue? From building outdoor 'tent cities’ to closely scrutinizing attendee qualifications, there are ways to make it work — but each comes with a price.

Squeezed for space, HIMSS 2013 moved its 40,000-square-foot Interoperability Showcase off the show floor.

Kenji Haroutunian is vice president of Emerald Expositions and group show director for Outdoor Retailer (OR), an outdoor-sports trade show held biannually — Summer Market and Winter Market — at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City. This past Aug. 6-9, Summer Market drew nearly 27,000 attendees and 1,300 exhibitors, spread across 516,000 net square feet — 2.5 percent larger than OR's 2012 Summer Market, and the largest OR show ever.

Haroutunian started with OR in 1999. “At that time,” he said, “the show was doing fine and growing steadily, but we fit in Salt Lake in a nice way.” Since then, the Salt Palace Convention Center has completed two significant expansion projects, in 2000 and 2005, the latter growing the venue to 679,000 square feet. And yet, Haroutunian said, “both of those times, by the time the construction had finished, we had already filled out the space.”

It's a problem that most meeting planners and trade-show organizers would be happy to have — and yet it's still a problem: too many attendees. What happens when a show that's been fixed in one city for years, or has committed ahead of time to a building that can no longer contain it, starts to press at the limits of its chosen venue? What do you do? Or where do you go?

Limiting Attendance

One way that Outdoor Retailer has dealt with its growing pains is by taking steps to limit attendance. And if s chosen to do that by raising the bar on registration requirements for attendees from within drive-in distance, meaning that people without a natural barrier to attendance — such as the necessity of buying a plane ticket — have to meet more stringent requirements. OR's logic is that if you're willing to fly in, if s more likely that you're not just coming to gawk at the latest in outdoor gear. “We have gotten more aggressive with improving the quality of attendance on behalf of exhibitors who are paying for the show,” Haroutunian said, “by keeping out those who aren't really qualified to attend.”

This practice isn't unique to OR. In fact, it's a step that the ever-popular International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) — which is always held at the Las Vegas Convention Center, and in 2013 drew more than 152,000 attendees — also has taken. According to a spokesperson for the show, “All International CES attendees must verify and show proof that they work in the technology industry or related industries.”

Outdoor Retailer works with officials from Visit Salt Lake, the city's DMO, to identify legitimate industry professionals who should be allowed to attend, “so that they aren't garage bandits,” Haroutunian said, meaning home tinkerers or outdoor enthusiasts without much real buying potential. In addition, the show has its own registration team and registration partner company who work on qualifying attendees. Who is the ideal attendee for OR? Broadly speaking, buyers and other representatives from outdoor retail stores. Even attendees based in or around Salt Lake City who have been on the registration list for a long time in some cases have been asked to re-qualify. “Maybe it passed muster five years ago,” Haroutunian said, “but it might not now.”

As for non-local attendees — anyone who must fly in to attend — Haroutunian isn't as worried about screening them. The cost of getting to the show is enough of a deterrent for people who aren't serious potential buyers. And while OR hasn't set a specific maximum number of attendees, exhibitors for the most part have responded favorably to the stricter registration requirements because they increase the average quality of attendee across the board.

Limiting attendance isn't something many shows are keen to do, however — for obvious reasons. “I don't think many shows would limit attendees, because that's the lifeblood... for exhibitors,” said Hugh Easley, vice president of meetings and exhibitions for the National Association of College Stores (NACS), which in recent years has held its Campus Market Expo (CAMEX) — drawing an average of 2,100 attendees, not including exhibitor personnel — in Kansas City, Dallas, and Salt Lake. “You want to have the most attendees you can put through your show efficiently to provide ROI for more exhibitors.”

Limiting Exhibitors

While CAMEX might be unwilling to limit attendees, the show has reined in its exhibit hall, so that the ratio of exhibitors to attendees doesn't drop too low. For the last five years or so, CAMEX has maintained its number of booths at about 1,550 to 1,600, balanced against total non-exhibitor attendance most recently, at the Kansas City Convention Center this past February, of 2,578.

One way to keep the number of exhibitors in check is through an invitation-only policy, as several groups that Lawson Hockman, vice president of association services at IMN Solutions, has worked with have done. “Vetting is done through the network,” Hockman said. “The groups I've worked with, they know the companies they want to do business with,” and they issue them a non-transferable invitation to attend the event. “Sort of like we get for [social] parties.”

But you have to be consistent when it comes to whom you do and don't invite. “If you have five rules to be a member or an exhibitor,” Hockman said — such as not having any intellectual property violations, or any restrictions on doing business with the government — you can't waive a rule. If you do, you leave yourself open to a lawsuit. Although the specific rules are particular to each group, the premise still applies. “If you change a rule for one,” Hockman said, “you have to notify other potential and present exhibitors that a rule has changed.”

You have to apply the same standards to awaiting list, as well — another way that max-capacity shows are able to contain demand and remain in their chosen venue. Indeed, for Sam Lippman, who as president of Lippman Connects produces the Exhibition and Convention Executives Forum (ECEF), the Large Show Roundtable, the Exhibit Sales Round-table, and the Attendee Acquisition Roundtable, a waiting list is the best option for “people who are wall-bound in convention centers.” When you are sold out, he said, “there is an excitement and energy that is positive for face-to-face events.” But of course it's not all positive. “You are leaving money on the table,” Lippman said. “And as the waiting list grows, the possibility of a new splinter event being created with those waiting-list people grows.”

So how do you manage your waiting list? Lippman relates the story of the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF). Three years ago, Chris Dolnack, NSSF's senior vice president and chief marketing officer, “took the pretty bold move of disinviting an entire product category” from the organization's annual 62,000-attendee SHOT (Shooting, Hunting, and Outdoor Trade Show and Conference), which for a “long, long time” now has been held at the Sands Expo Convention Center in Las Vegas. By doing so, Dolnack opened up exhibit space at the previously “wall-bound” show for new companies that attendees had been clamoring to see — as Dolnack knew from surveys that NSSF conducted — but couldn't, because of space constraints.

Outdoor Retailer has taken a similar but less drastic step. According

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