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The show will go on

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Getting the marketing mixright is tough. Traditional advertising and direct selling are now supplemented with videoconferencing, .NET-based Web services, and even the ubiquitous Internet itself. All impact the modern promotional program, calling the effectiveness of traditional marketing formats into question. And the trade show itself hasn’t been immune to criticism.

You’ve heard the complaints—falling attendance figures, not enough new products on show, tired format—and probably even made some of them yourself; prepare to be surprised.

“In isolation, Austronics has grown 10 percent this year compared to any other year, which shows the electronics industry has stood behind the exhibition,” Australian Exhibition Services (AES) Austronics exhibition manager John Psalidas says. “It will probably be the biggest component of this year’s overall exhibition [which includes Automate and Electrix].”

Sydney vs. Melbourne

In 2002, visitor registration figures for Austronics came in at approximately 2,835 people, slightly less than Electrix and well short of Automate, which attracted some 4,000 visitors alone.

Yet, despite the 10 percent growth in the Austronics exhibition this year, Psalidas is still unsure whether this year’s attendance figures will eclipse those in Melbourne last year.

“The Melbourne show will always attract more visitors because Melbourne is more of a manufacturing centre and is closer to Adelaide, where manufacturing is also strong,” Psalidas explains. “We find people from the electronics industry come to Melbourne more readily than they do Sydney.”

But Psalidas is quick to reassure Austronics will not be abandoning Sydney anytime soon. “There’s a market in Sydney, and if we cancelled someone else would step in and take up the opportunity,” Psalidas says. “We’ve considered Adelaide but we still don’t think it’s big enough to sustain an exhibition the size of Austronics.”

Apart from affecting visitor numbers, exhibition location can also affect the number of exhibitors present. “We have a retention rate of between 60 and 70 percent of exhibitors each year, with a 30 to 40 percent drop-off, which might have something to do with [alternating the venue between] Melbourne and Sydney,” Psalidas adds.

Getting a response

One of the key problems with trade shows is it’s often difficult to quantify visitors’ response - and tie that back to the bottom line.

“The key thing from an exhibitor’s point of view is to make sure the majority of attendees are appropriate to your target markets,” Agilent ’s Australian T&M marketing manager Mark Isherwood says. “Whether there’s a positive return on investment (ROI) that’s measurable directly by participating in the show is hard to tell.”

Electro-Com managing director Chester Lennard agrees. “It’s always very difficult, if not impossible to measure direct sales,” Lennard explains. “Typically you don’t take orders at a trade show and it’s always difficult afterwards to measure which orders are directly related to being there.”

Tying sales back to an exhibition appearance is even more difficult with “big ticket” items. “We’re pushing a relatively big ticket item in the QuickCircuit PCB prototyping system,” Satcam manager Rob Leslie says. “Because we’re talking about an item in excess of $10,000 it frequently takes people a while to get it into their budget so by the time a purchase order does eventuate it’s often difficult to attribute it directly to any one promotional tool. We try very hard to get the correlation but because of the time frames involved it is often too difficult,” Leslie adds.

This blurring line between exhibition and placing of the order is common in the electronics industry, according to Backplane Systems Technology marketing manager Kristy Comb. “We’re in an industry where people don’t turn up and order 100 items,” Comb says. “You start with a contact and build the relationship.”

The size of the exhibition is also a factor affecting response rates. “From my experience, in smaller exhibitions you tend to know most of the people there anyway, so it’s a matter of strengthening existing relationships, whereas at larger exhibitions like Austronics, the major opportunity is to find new customers,” Agilent’s Isherwood says.

Forging new relationships in a show environment requires careful pre-show planning, Backplane’s Comb confirms. “At the show we have strategies in place so you can assess whether it’s a serious customer so you’re not wasting your time and missing opportunities with possible serious people,” Comb says. “Preparation is a must - it’s not just a case of [us] turning up at the stand.”

Making it happen

AES describes the pre-promotion campaign as a joint effort between exhibitors and the exhibition organiser. Both rely heavily on direct marketing. For the organiser, this means mass mail-outs and general promotion informing industry that the show is on, while for the exhibitor this means sending out invitations to existing customers to come down to see new products and network with other industry figures.

“We often say it’s our job to get visitors to the door, but ultimately it’s the exhibitor’s role to get them to their stand,” AES’ Psalidas says. “We can’t guarantee anyone at the door will attend any particular stand. The only way to do this is for exhibitors to organise and promote their participation to their customers.”

Psalidas also says that attracting visitors to your stand need not be an expensive process. “It is all in the presentation but that doesn’t mean you need to pull out the big bucks,” Psalidas explains. “An effective stand can simply be one without too much clutter, presenting staff with a professional and consistent corporate image (for example, logo shirts), and just standing and being open to talk to people. Visitors will think twice about interrupting you if you appear to be working on something else.”

Opportunities can also be lost with inadequate follow-up. “We send out a general letter after the show to keep the brand at the forefront of people’s minds, while our sales people go through the contacts and follow up any business opportunities from there,” Backplane’s Comb says. “The big thing with trade shows is making sure your brand name is out in the industry in front of a large audience. Even if they’re not all interested in you, at least you’ve put your name out there.”

Your call

As Psalidas confirms, his organisation and the exhibitors can only do their best to promote the event. Ultimately they can’t guarantee attendance, that’s down to you, as a member of the engineering community.

True, times are still tough and justifying a visit to a trade show is increasingly difficult. Or is it? Precisely because times are tough makes an excursion potentially more important. Capital equipment suppliers, component manufacturers and test & measurement companies among others, are focusing their efforts on this one event; and the next one isn’t for another 12 months.

Attending Austronics allows the visitor to take a snapshot across the entire industry; something that’s almost impossible anywhere else. The end result is an excursion that’s a lot more cost effective than it might first appear. (See this issue page 20 for show information and details of conference events.)

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