Behind the Scenes: Seeing Shows That Compete for Your Audience As Rivals Is an Outdated Approach

Concentrating on outsmarting your competition isn't the most sound business strategy.

Author: Michelle Russell       

Michelle Russell

As we were putting the final touches on this issue, I received a press release about how the North American Veterinary Community’s (NAVC) annual continuing-education conference, which serves 17,000 veterinary professionals around the globe, has grown 30 percent over the past few years. It struck a chord, since our cover story this month showcases five trade shows that are expanding, at a time when many are contracting.

According to the release, Veterinary Meeting & Expo’s growth can be attributed to CEO Thomas Bohn, CAE, who brought smaller associations’ events under its tent, thereby offering broader and deeper educational opportunities.

I’d imagine that at one time, NAVC saw some of those associations as competition, because they serve an overlapping audience. Bohn apparently recognized that by partnering together — rather than shunning them as a threat — they could better reach the end goal of improving veterinary health care.

During ECEF (Exhibition & Convention Executives Forum), which I attended in Washington, D.C., on May 31, two other association CEOs spoke about the benefits of cooperation. By co-locating their shows, National Kitchen & Bath Association CEO Bill Darcy and National Association of Home Builders CEO Jerry Howard in 2014 launched Design and Construction Week, which has become a big success. Sure, it was an attempt to shore up their events, both of which had been hit hard by the housing-market crash of 2008, but their overall goal was to broaden their respective audiences’ business opportunities.

Concentrating on outsmarting your competition isn’t such a smart business — or business-events industry — strategy anymore. Tara-Nicholle Nelson, whom Business Insider identified as the No. 1 woman Silicon Valley tech companies should name to their boards, thinks you need to shift your focus to be successful. In “Obsess Over Your Customers, Not Your Rivals,” a recent Harvard Business Review article, Nelson writes that the question wise leaders and organizations should be asking “is not who your competition is but what it is.” Her answer? “Your competition is any and every obstacle your customers encounter along their journeys to solving the human, high-level problems your company exists to solve.”

By way of example, when Nelson was vice president of marketing for MyFitnessPal, she didn’t “rattle off a list of other nutrition-tracking smartphone apps” when asked about her competition. On a mission “to make it easier to live a healthy life than an unhealthy one,” the company’s chief competition, she said, “was anything that makes it harder to live a healthy life.”

Nelson acknowledges that someone in your organization needs to understand the marketplace at a basic level, but paying too much mind to what your competition does often leads to “me-too” offerings. CEOs like Bohn, Darcy, and Howard are proving that an “us-together” philosophy in the events-industry space is often a better way to serve our audiences.


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