Your Customers are ComingBy Nicole Hallada, AEM Senior Vice President of Exhibitions and Marketing

A little over a year ago I was in Las Vegas at CONEXPO-CON/AGG. As I walked from one team meeting to the next to share the news we would close the show one day early, I passed a group of local workers and my heart sank. I knew they would be out of work for an indefinite amount of time.

Since then, we’ve had to watch as the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic led to the postponement or outright cancellation of many in-person events. The impact on AEM members, exhibitors, attendees, the equipment manufacturing industry, and the customers it serves – particularly in the short term – can’t be overstated.

A Return to In-Person Events

I have been spending the better part of the past year reviewing research, trying to understand people’s sentiment to return to in person events. Was this it? Are we really going to stay on video forever? Turns out, the answer is no. There’s much data out there that supports this, for example a recent report from Freeman found 85% of attendees and 86% of exhibitors are expecting to return to in-person events by winter 2021. In addition, a recent survey of past attendees of The Utility Expo found:

  • 81% plan to send the same number or more individuals from their organization
  • 91% indicated are likely to make purchase decisions at the show
  • 98% say they are excited about the show

Attendees of AEM-owned trade shows have also made something else clear to us: Brands need to have a presence at in-person events. Arjun Chakravarti, formerly of GES (Global Experience Specialists) explained this expectation, saying, “show attendees consider the investment of time, effort, and resources on the part of exhibitors as an investment in customers’ needs and education.” More than that, though, the consequence of choosing not to exhibit signals the brands they’re interested in are quite simply not invested in their growth as individuals or companies.

More simply stated, brands need to be where customers go to obtain their insights. That means maintaining a concerted focus on face-to-face meetings, as research found:

Of course, the last year has challenged the ability to be together so up sprang the race to compensate for the distancing. Fortunately, based on the timing of AEM-owned exhibitions and events, we did not have to immediately respond to the pandemic by bringing our exhibitors and attendees something that didn’t meet their unique needs and expectations. Instead, we engaged with other leading exhibition organizers across a variety of different industries, watched what happened, learned from it, and – most importantly – determined what will work for show stakeholders, both now and in the future.

As such we stayed the course with the development of a strategic plan that began prior to COVID-19, the challenge issued by our AEM Board of Directors was specifically to protect the future of trade shows. To help us in that process, we established an Exhibitions Strategic Task Force to lead our efforts to reimagine the future of exhibitions and events, as well as secure AEM's role in that future.

Where We're Headed

So, where are we headed? As we undertook our strategic planning process, the evolution of exhibitions and events presented itself on a continuum ranging from Exhibitions 1.0 to Exhibitions 3.0. In many aspects, our shows are well beyond 1.0. In others, we’re still toward the front end of the continuum. Ultimately, our goal is to move every aspect of our shows toward 2.0 and, eventually, 3.0.

The task force identified multiple priorities that we will be sharing with you over the next year, such as our move to provide exhibitors and attendees ways to connect digitally 365 days a year. While digital has long been a priority for us, its importance and value to exhibitors and attendees was underscored by current events and changing marketing models. The watching and learning we’ve done has led to a refinement in that digital strategy. Ultimately now, if an exhibitor wants to engage its customer "365," or reimagine its exhibitions strategy, we’re prepared to offer options to meet that need through a more consultative approach, whether it’s pre-show, onsite, or post-show.

Additionally, the strategic planning process is pushing us to become a more data-focused and insight-driven organization. Those insights will also be made available to exhibitors to help them achieve even better results when exhibiting at an AEM trade show.

While I don’t want to go into too much detail here and give away the secret sauce, I hope you get the sense we’re in a transformative place that will result in greater ROI to exhibitors and attendees. Of course, even as we broaden the ways in which we connect brands with their customers, we’re still as committed as we’ve ever been to offering live, face-to-face exhibitions for people to gather together, establish new relationships, and renew old ones. And while our strategy related to customer connections is evolving, our endgame is clear: execute on a data-and-insight-driven strategic plan designed to benefit AEM show stakeholders more than ever before. 

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