CONFERENCES AND EXHIBITIONS: THE IMPORTANCE OF EVALUATION - Exhibitions may be big business, but how do stand holders assess the quality of their visitors? Robert Dwek reports on the latest hi-tech developments

Marketing is increasingly a science rather than an art. Accountability has been the watchword of the money-saving 90s. But conferences and exhibitions still lag behind the likes of advertising, PR and direct marketing in this respect.

Marketing is increasingly a science rather than an art.

Accountability has been the watchword of the money-saving 90s. But

conferences and exhibitions still lag behind the likes of advertising,

PR and direct marketing in this respect.

Most exhibitors and conference organisers still rely on gut feeling to

gauge the success or otherwise of their investment. This was confirmed

by a recent American Express survey in which more than a third of

respondents claimed not to use evaluation methods.

Exhibitors will often book a stand without first identifying their

objectives - do they want to focus on sales, sampling or brand building,

for example?

For much of the time, expenditure is fuelled purely by insecurity, the

’we can’t afford not to be there’ syndrome.

But the exhibitions industry has grown enormously recently - a

reflection of the 90s niche-marketing trend: why have one large

exhibition when you can have three better targeted, smaller ones? And

conferences have been massively boosted by the increasing importance of

internal communications as well as by new technologies and business

techniques that are best explained and compared face to face.

All Association of Exhibition Organisers members now audit their trade

shows over 2,000 metres and most exhibitors collect visitor data ranging

from buying power to job responsibilities. Conference organisers are

increasingly using questionnaires to generate feedback, and some use

outside contractors for small-scale telephone research.

Exhibitions targeting a business audience are traditionally much better

at evaluation than their consumer counterparts. This is partly because

the latter have only taken off in a big way in the last five years. But

they are catching up quickly, as the recent Big Bash show (organised by

BBC Haymarket Exhibitions) demonstrated.

The very different objectives of the four exhibitors at the show reflect

this year’s more focused approach to evaluation: Nintendo was there to

launch its Nintendo 64 product, Dr Martens wanted to raise brand

awareness, Friends of the Earth was on a member recruitment drive and

the US fruit company, Dole, was primarily concerned with sampling. All

claim to be very satisfied customers.

Dole took a relatively small stand but made sure it was close to the

entrance. This ensured it was able to offer ’a tremendous amount of

product’, Claudia Reizner, a Dole marketer, says.

’We got access to a key consumer group which would have been very

expensive to reach via magazine couponing or direct mail.’

Other exhibitors, however, are not so sure. Lionel Thain, the chief

executive of ICD, the direct marketing company, believes exhibitions are

’a big rip-off’. He says: ’I would never sanction that kind of

expenditure if I was acting as a consumer.’ Despite these grievances,

ICD will appear at all three major direct marketing exhibitions this

year, at a cost of pounds 50,000 a time.

Michelin, the tyre manufacturer, uses pre-show direct marketing to drive

people on to its stand and, once there, it captures their details with a

Light Pen (see box, below). Value for money comes from the quality, not

quantity, of people visiting the stand. Keith Davidson, the marketing

services manager, says: ’If you have four or five good sales leads from

important new customers then it can be classed as a good show.’ However,

he would like to see more ABC audited shows since the numbers quoted -

especially for new shows - are ’often a figment of someone’s


Miller Freeman (a recent mega-merger which incorporates what was

Blenheim Exhibitions) audits all its exhibitions and believes its

exhibitors are increasingly sophisticated in the way they set and

evaluate objectives. Now that it has stolen Reed’s position as the

world’s largest trade exhibition organiser, Miller Freeman says it will

work even harder to encourage evaluation.

Clive Ellings, the marketing director for UK exhibitions, comments: ’We

feel the need to show people that we are delivering a certain profile of

visitor. It’s no longer about getting as many people as possible through

the doors. You have to segment the audience and ensure that the right

consumers are attracted to each stand.’ Miller Freeman is currently

recruiting database analysts but Ellings would also like to see

exhibitors doing a bit more to evaluate on their own behalf.

Nick Lamb, the managing director of Crown, which organises conferences

for clients such as BT, Cellnet, Railtrack and the Halifax Building

Society, believes evaluation is about to take centre stage. ’It’s a

similar situation to advertising in the 60s and sales promotion and

design in the early and mid-80s. They all had to mature very rapidly in

order to maintain their dramatic growth rates, and the same is now

happening here.’

His main interest in evaluation is the Internet and digital


These innovations enable an event to be measured ’in a completely new

and revolutionary way’. A high degree of interactive response from the

delegates will bring both qualitative and quantitative feedback at

relatively low cost. If used well, he says, the results could herald an

era of ’unprecedented growth and change for our industry’.


IML specialises in group response systems for conferences. Delegates

will often be asked at the end of a conference to give their feedback on

the speakers, which they can do using IML’s hi-tech handsets. The

advantage is that the questions usually generate a 100 per cent response

rate, but the disadvantage is that delegates may still be too close to

the event to give a meaningful response. Longer-term tracking is

generally advised as well.

Coventry Data Services sells two evaluation tools. The first is called a

Light Pen. It scans the barcode on visitors’ badges. Demographic and

personal information about the visitor will already have been entered

into the barcode format. The pen converts this information into disk

format or hard copy. It gives exhibitors time to build relationships

with potential customers.

The second CDS product is similar. Called Compulead, it is more popular

in the US and on the Continent. The difference is that the visitor’s

badge has to be removed and scanned, but the information can then be

uploaded directly into a PC or printed out. There is a time-lag with the

Light Pen. Compulead is becoming popular in the UK as exhibitors become

comfortable with computer technology. Letters can be printed as soon as

a visitor has left the stand and sent to their office for their return.