Seybold's 365 Degree View of the Trade Show Today

This was the year of steak—lean steak—and little unnecessary sizzle at the Seybold San Francisco 2003 conference held in early September. The Seybold Seminars management team—faced with contemporary economic realities in the IT industry and recognizing that past exhibitors needed at least as much bang for fewer show-budget buck—reinvented the event, implementing a modular, homogeneous booth design for all participants.

Gone were the jugglers, baskets of company-logo letter openers, no-stress squeeze balls, and guys in gorilla—or guerilla—suits of previous years. Instead, the 85 or 90 exhibitors signed up for turn-key booths ranging from 8x10s to 30x40 footers, which all looked pretty much like the guys' next door and across the aisle. While economics may have been the catalyst for Seybold Seminar's inauguration of the modular approach for exhibitors, the strategy also emphasizes the teaching and learning intellectual transactions of such conferences.

"Seybold used to be a huge event at Moscone Center," says James Smith, Seybold vice president and general manager. "We found that model wasn't really working, so we set out to lower the vendor investment by half or more."

Seybold Seminars brought those costs down by offering everything an exhibitor would need for a flat price starting at $9,500 and working up to $250,000, the platinum-level sponsorship. Each pre-defined booth space came with the same modular steel trusses to support signage and standard backdrops, the same black, blue, and aluminum booth furniture, the same standard carpet and Internet connections. The price differences reflected not just booth size and pieces of furniture, but also promotional links—sponsorships of panels and training sessions—with Seybold Seminars.

What the modular approach means for the exhibitors is no invoices from exhibit designers, builders, over-the-road truckers, drayage companies. or unexpected fees from local electricians. Such savings are not trivial. A study by the Center for Exhibition Industry Research found that 40 percent of the exhibition dollar goes to exhibit design, show services, and shipping.

"Those numbers haven't changed much from one year to another," says Douglas Ducate, president and CEO of the Center for Exhibition Industry Research. According to Ducate, the entire meetings and exhibitions industry is a $100 billion slice of the U.S. and Canadian economic pie.

Even before the show started, corporate marketing folks and exhibit coordinators were speaking positively about the change.

"The costs would appear to be reduced," says Julie Mandell, director of marketing for Artesia Technologies. "Seybold alleviated stress, and everyone is on the same playing field. This certainly makes us more open to attending the shows with this kind of offering."

Caroline Michaud, director of marketing at Percussion Software, publishers of Rhythmyx, thinks the turnkey booth is "much more cost-effective." Equally important, though, is that "the people who are coming to shows are more serious. People are doing their homework on who will be exhibiting because it's harder to justify coming just to a trade show," she says.

At the end of the day, the success of an event like Seybold Seminars comes down to the number and type of sales leads generated.

According to Smith, the Seybold marketers then did what they could to make sure those individuals were in San Francisco, including direct invitational calls and picking up the cost of some hotel rooms for a handful of important buyers. "We went to our exhibitors and asked them, ‘Who are the top five customers or potential customers you want to come to the conference,'" Smith said.

Will this highly focused tactic generate appropriate sales for exhibitors? The Seybold approach seems a logical, rational path, but one that's not always as much fun as the old days.

"One of the joys of an exhibition is how the designers differentiate a company from their competitors," says Ducate. "An exhibition is an experience" he continues, "it's the people, the noise, the promotional products, the food, and the drink."

Nonetheless, Seybold Seminars plans to use the same approach for a smaller, 600-800 attendee meeting in New York City, December 2-4.