Are B2B events past their sell-by date?

Thank which ever deity you prefer for exhibition and events revenue - especially with other streams under pressure. But why is the B2B events format so dull, so tired? Surely it doesn't have be?

Three years ago, I was lucky to head up a team which created the multi award-winning New Scientist Live festival. This fantastic annual consumer event - just held again at Excel in London (Sept 2018) - has (mainly, since I departed) set new standards by combining:

  • Hands-on exhibits for everyone to play with

  • Speeches, presentations and panel sessions from best-in-class scientists.

  • Appropriate stuff to buy

 Also in September, I went to a couple of B2B exhibitions and an Awards night.  What a difference!

 I know the organisers of both B2B shows were very happy with performance. Visitor numbers are steady and 60-70% of exhibitors re-book on the spot. But you only needed a few minutes walk around to know their buy and sell side were both unhappy. 

 The visitors said things like: “The show app doesn't work”; “I want to network but I can't find anyone”; “The conference sessions are dominated by sponsors trying to sell me something.”

And the exhibitors said: “The show app doesn't work” (!); “I'm seeing existing customers but I want to meet new ones”; “My customers disappear for half the day into conference sessions”.

The Awards were worse. I must have been to over 200 black tie nights in my career - and they've all been just about the same. Useful networking rudely interrupted by an hour or two of often irrelevant and badly presented awards which are simply a chore to sit through. 

I had a glimpse of why the exhibition organisers are so loathe to change. I was working with a global organiser determined to disrupt the format, who invested time and money into working out how to improve visitor experience through technology and community marketing. This innovation would have made the shows themselves the climax of a year-long programme of activity intended to inform and educate the visitor - and logically, to make them loyal to the brand. 

Just before the programme was due to launch, the organiser had an opportunity to mirror an existing European event in South America. No discussion - the investment went into the new show instead. The programme never happened.

Hard to blame anyone for that decision - but there comes a point when the industry's notorious pragmatism is going to damage its future. 

Is that time drawing nearer? In the last few months one client has been asking advertising and sponsorship customers where they'd like to see their industry doing more. Almost half wanted more networking - but only one in ten wanted more exhibitions and conferences. 

In my next blog I'll look at the options for providing that engagement - without a stand, a name tag scanner or pair of comfortable shoes.

Trevor Goodman