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

to Haroutunian, organizers very much need to curate a show — keeping all exhibitor categories in proper balance according to relative attendee interest — and sometimes must deny new companies from coming in because, for example, that particular product category might be saturated. “We also deny a lot of expansion requests,” he said, meaning an existing exhibitor that wants to increase its booth size — and pay more money to do so. Although Haroutunian hates walking away from that business, which has added up to 25,000 net square feet of denied expansion requests and $500,000 in revenue, he says he has to keep the attendee experience top of mind. “There is expansion that is required and expansion that is desired,” he said. “At the end of the day, we reserve the right to design the show for the attendees.”

Getting Creative With Space

Maximizing your available square footage is another way that a constrained show can avoid having to move. Robbi Lycett, vice president of conventions and conference for the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), says that the BIO International Convention, which rotates venues each year — next year's show will be held June 23-26 at the San Diego Convention Center — is “kind of bursting at the seams in a couple of facilities.” This past April in Chicago, BIO drew 13,594 attendees.

While BIO hasn't reached “the fire marshal's maximum like Comic-Con might do in San Diego,” Lycett said, it has run into the problem of not having enough exhibit space to sell, which hurts revenue and as a result negatively affects BIO's lobbying and advocacy efforts. To address that, BIO has transformed a 30-foot-by-40-foot area in the center of the show floor into a business forum, with two-foot-by-three-foot conference rooms where exhibitors can meet one-on-one with attendees who request appointments via a partnering system that BIO makes available to exhibitors.

For the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society's (HIMSS) Annual Conference & Exhibition, space constraints “have come up a few times,” said Karen Malone, HIMSS's vice president of meeting services, “when we were committed to a city, and we knew that we were going to run short or very tight on space but wanted to maintain our commitment to the city.” That happened at HIMSS 2013 in New Orleans this past March. “At the time we booked [in early 2009],” Malone said, “we would have fit in absolutely fine.” But during the time in between committing to the convention space and the show dates, not only did the HIMSS show change, nearly doubling its exhibitors since the last time the show had met in New Orleans, in 2007 — from 889 exhibitors to nearly 1,300, and from 24,081 attendees to just under 35,000 — the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Convention Center changed as well, adding a ballroom but reducing its total exhibit-hall square footage.

“We had to go back to the drawing board,” Malone said. She and her team thought about how they could not only move some things that were typically in the exhibit hall to other parts of the building, but also “re-engineer” the show's education schedule, so they could “lighten up on meeting space” and shift some of that square footage over to exhibitors. Eventually they moved HIMSS 2013's 40,000-square-foot Interoperability Showcase, devoted to health-care information technology, off the show floor and onto the meeting-room level upstairs. Malone was nervous about the switch, because the showcase had “always had great foot traffic,” but she felt HIMSS had no choice. “We needed to free up some exhibit space to meet the demand of exhibitors who wanted to be on the floor,” Malone added.

To mitigate the expected drop in foot traffic through the Interoperability Showcase, Malone and her team created a “thoroughfare” through the area, running between one set of meeting rooms and another, so attendees were compelled to traverse it. The education schedule also used fewer concurrent rooms. To compensate, HIMSS ran more time blocks. “We had always been a show where we tried not to run the exhibit hall against educational sessions,” Malone said. “But we have come to believe, with the size of our show, we can no longer use half of the building at a time.”

HIMSS tested out another innovation in 2012, when it met at the Sands Expo Convention Center. For exhibitors who registered in the last 30 days before the show opened, HIMSS created a 3,000-square-foot area of kiosks on the show floor where they received a stand-up highboy station with two chairs where they could talk to clients. Exhibitors who purchased space in the kiosk area had mixed feelings about the setup. HIMSS tried to draw attendees to the area with F&B, but it was “a little difficult to see,” Malone said. Nevertheless, the area was able to accommodate three times more exhibitors than it would have if everyone had had a standard 10-foot-by-10-foot booth.

Working With Venues

San Diego's Comic-Con International has become the poster child for what can happen when an event gets too popular. In 2010, the 125,000-attendee show, which has been held in San Diego for more than four decades, started to discuss its space challenges at the San Diego Convention Center — specifically, the fact that, in the midst of soaring popularity, it didn't have any room for expansion. “We didn't have any,” said Joe Terzi, president and CEO of the San Diego Tourism Authority (SDTA). “They take every square foot of the building.”

Wanting to keep the marquee event in its city, SDTA facilitated negotiations with Comic-Con's hotel committee and most of the major hotels attached to or associated with the convention center. The hotels agreed to commit meeting space to allow Comic-Con to grow while the convention center works on a $520-million, 740,000-square-foot expansion project that was approved last month by the California Coastal Commission and is scheduled to be completed by 2018. The good thing, though, Terzi said, is that even under the current, pre-expansion configuration, “you can go from the Hilton [San Diego Bayfront] to the convention center in less distance than from one end of McCormick [Place] to the other.”

Outdoor Retailer's ‘Pavilions at OR’ occupy 150,000 square feet of space outside the Salt Palace Convention Center.

But some shows, such as Haroutunian's Outdoor Retailer, don't have a wide variety of nearby convention hotels to expand into. Instead, they have to create “tent cities” in parking lots or other ancillary areas of the convention center property. It's not as desperate as it sounds. Salt Lake has been a “really helpful partner” in helping construct external space, Haroutunian said — something the city might not be quite as willing to do if it were a first-tier meeting destination like Las Vegas or Chicago. Last year, Outdoor Retailer built some 150,000 square feet of exhibit space outside the Salt Palace Convention Center, with high-quality wood flooring, steel beams, air conditioning, and “proper lighting,” Haroutunian said. The area is called the “Pavilions at OR,” and historically — for three years now, since the program's inception — has been where new exhibitors are featured. Some big, established vendors, such as Dickies and Mountain Khakis, also prefer to exhibit in the Pavilions, Haroutunian said, “because they can get the footprint and configuration that they want and couldn't get in the main hall.”

Planning Ahead

In exhibitions as in sports, the best defense is a good offense. In that spirit, one thing that show organizers can do, whether meeting in San Diego or Salt Lake, is

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