The Invisible Exhibitor: Incubate Business on the Show Floor

By Michael Hart, Event Consultant and Journalist

This article is part of our follow-up series to our original study from 2008 on The Invisible Exhibitor

Just as storm clouds were gathering for what would quickly become the most serious global recession in decades, the first “Invisible Exhibitor” report was released. That Great Recession changed much of how business is conducted. Eleven years later, as the American economy continues to work its way through a long recovery, many of those changes can be viewed in hindsight as positive developments.

One shift may be taking place right before our eyes: Companies now participate in trade shows for different reasons than they did in 2008. The exhibit hall is no longer just the place where, as we have said for years, “buyers and sellers meet.”

It is now often viewed by companies as the place to go when they look for partners for more complex reasons than to simply sell products.

For instance, in the wake of the recession, many corporations slashed their R&D budgets substantially. As business conditions improved, business leaders learned there might be another way to find innovations.

Some are “outsourcing” their R&D functions in a sense, identifying startup companies they can acquire that will supply innovations needed to sustain their businesses. They are finding that more cost-efficient than nurturing their own science labs and incubators over long periods of time.

Evidence of this is the unprecedented merger and acquisitions activity over the last decade. Worldwide, 50,000 M&A deals have been struck in the last 11 years, according to Thomson Reuters. M&A activity in the first nine months of 2018 amounted to $3.3 trillion; in the U.S. alone, it was $1.3 trillion.

While mega-deals like CVS’s $69-billion merger with Aetna or Amazon’s $13.7-billion acquisition of Whole Foods captured the most attention, thousands of companies bought up startups because they wanted their fresh ideas, innovative thinkers and possibilities for revenue enhancement.

And where are companies going to find these acquisition targets? Often it is in the rows of 10 x 10s at trade shows, staffed by bright young entrepreneurs taking their first timid steps into the marketplace.

Large anchor exhibitors will always capture most of a trade show organizer’s attention, but the same organizer might benefit from the knowledge that the events their industries or communities serve are incubators themselves.

Companies come to shows looking not just for products and services, but for new ideas, new information and new partners. This is true for those on either side of an acquisition.

When trade show attendees evaluate the success of their event participation, they no longer think about whether they found what they were looking for in the exhibit hall. They also ask themselves, “Who did I meet that can help me in the future?”

Exhibitors ask themselves the same question. If the answer they come up with is, “No one,” the odds are good they will not be back next year.

There are several things event organizers must do to meet this new challenge presented to them by their exhibitors:

  • Make sure opportunities exist for exhibitors engage with all those who want to meet them, and that includes other exhibitors.
  • Guarantee your team understands the latest innovations in the industry you serve and that those are on display in your exhibit hall.
  • Invite the community’s most influential thought leaders to deliver the latest news and research that impacts your participants and their businesses.
  • Give first-time exhibitors, who your large corporate exhibitors are so eager to meet, all the tender loving care they need to show up and show off.

Next up? How to Turn Your Show Into a Business Incubator

Download the full white paper The Invisible Exhibitor today!

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