The Show Must Go On: Why Expos and Trade Shows Still Matter

By Matt Skoufalos

As consolidation in the health care industry continues to define the future of its landscape, vendors of all stripes continue to seek access to the largest client, patient and supplier pools available. Whether communicating critical messaging, winning new converts, or simply keeping abreast of the goings-on of competitors, there’s few opportunities to accomplish as much as expediently as at a trade show.

When the biggest players spend on marketing, they spend big, which in the trade show setting means creating elaborate experiences designed to capture the interest of a handful of big decision-makers, said Brent Turner, senior vice president of solutions at Cramer of Boston, Massachusetts.

Turner’s clients look specifically to industry exhibitions as an opportunity to elevate the profiles of their businesses and generate high-value conversations with key prospects. The industry terminology for this strategy is called account-based marketing.

“Instead of trying to fish for the market, they’re going to prioritize 50, 100, 1,000 of the top prospects,” Turner said. “You go deeper. You try to talk to more people in the organization than you would elicit as your sole buyer or executive sponsor. Yes, the booth draws still matter; the interactive things you can do at your booth still matter, but the booth is becoming your outpost or your rallying point to get five or six people together and do something with them.”

In such an atmosphere, the booth must create an experience tailored for a broad audience; yet remain capable of sustaining high-level conversations with a handful of key clients.

Turner identified three popular trends in convention experiences: the use of novelty technologies; facilitating “playtime,” or fun-first experiences; and creating irreverent or memorable moments. Few novelties are as popular as virtual or augmented reality technologies, and one customizable option many companies are using is Google cardboard. It syncs up a mobile application with a customizable cardboard viewer into which users place their phones. The effect is one of an immersive, virtual experience – say, transporting a client to a hospital room full of the company’s branded equipment, for example.

“In VR, you can be transplanted somewhere else,” Turner said. “A piece of cardboard becomes a piece of collateral that you can take into the world with you.”

Alternatively, augmented reality technologies transform the visible world with a digital overlay. Phones and headsets allow viewers to take in the surrounding environment with transparent screens that provide a synthetic physical experience. Some displays involve huddling up groups under domes that project a larger field of display, with a sales representative to help guide the engagement.

“You put these two things together, and you’re talking about group theater,” Turner said. “How do we put two or three people together at once to experience things? Augmented reality is like a group feeder where you’re in there with the people.”

Turner also described the “playtime” convention trend, which involves creating a space for guests to unwind with an unstructured activity like Legos; its intention is to provide an alternative physical activity amid the hubbub of the floor. Similar to that is the trend of creating “irreverent or sharable moments,” like the tiny room concept.

“You take that emergency room and scale it down to a ridiculously small proportion. They can still see your products, [but now] you have a person crammed into a tiny room. They have a laugh; people take a photo and share with their colleagues. More people are seeing this fun, irreverent, skewed reality,” he said.

The tiny room trend is a carryover from marketing that’s worked in the consumer direct space, and Turner said it’s an offbeat idea that some brands might view as risky. So why would a client in the overly serious health care industry build a tiny room booth? Turner says it comes down to client-aggregation strategy: building a network of influence within the organizations to which a brand is marketing. And not everybody likes the same thing.

“You’re giving people a little more of a cultural, entertaining moment, but it happens to be in your branded house: the idea of a pop-up, micro-experience on its own that becomes a destination beyond the destination,” Turner said.

Breaking through the noise of the convention floor is critical to reaching the variety of decision-makers whose input goes into purchasing, said Jill Gilbert, who runs the Digital Health Summit at CES, the International Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas, Nevada.

“At CES, one of the things I hear the most is, ‘How do I not get lost?’ ” Gilbert said.

“People come to the show with their own glasses on and looking for what they want to look for,” she said. “Content drives the quality of the show, including the quality of the exhibit floor. We try to enable that as well as help provide interaction.”

Participating in summits, seminars, TED talk-style presentations, and panel discussions are all ways for exhibitors to form new relationships. Putting speakers onstage or sending employees to thought leadership and professional education sessions allows brands to engage with conference attendees in a variety of settings. These broader engagements can facilitate individual networking, as they drive what Gilbert calls “pre-qualified traffic” to a booth; there, vendors can capitalize on that interest at a one-on-one level. Of course, it’s up to the staff at the booth to enrich their experience.

“I can help drive the traffic; I can’t improve your product,” Gilbert said. “What you can do is really bring someone on to help you create some briefing meetings. You’ve got to take the time. Everyone in the booth must know exactly what the goals are. Is it press stories, buyers, meeting new partners? You make sure that everyone knows what you’re there to do. It’s less about standing out and more about needing to accomplish.”

In her observation, Gilbert said more and more health care professionals are making their way to non-health care-specific trade shows, like CES, and are bringing their experiences with them to the health care space. That can make it more important for exhibitors to provide a CES-like experience in order to capture their attention.

“When you think about the large contingencies from different types of retailers, what’s really changing over the years [at CES] is hospital administrators, medical groups, CTOs and CIOs, are coming too,” Gilbert said. “You’re getting more specific health care utilizers, and people that are acquiring new technologies and are into processes. They’re also interested in clinical-grade devices, and people integrating them into pharma and different types of health care practices. Then, on top of all of that, you have the cross-pollination of industries: the auto industry is looking at us to connect with the doctor in your car.”

Connecting across industries is something with which Holly Sherrill of the Birmingham, Alabama-based consultancy Marketech360 has a great degree of familiarity. Sherrill said her market research shows that consumers, vendors and professionals of all stripes attend trade shows for two big reasons: consumer education and keeping abreast of key markets. On the show floor, they’re still interested in product information, Sherrill said; like Turner, she noted that they’re also seeking an experience, which challenges vendors to leave a lasting impression.

“The same-old, same-old, or build-it-and-they-will-come doesn’t work anymore,” she said. “No matter if you’re in a 10-by-10 or a 100-by-100-foot booth space, it’s coming up with an experience that sets you apart. Memorability goes up greatly when you can actually do that.”

Part of the reason Sherrill said vendors contract with agencies like hers is to analyze the effectiveness of their own exhibitions. She described a client study in which a vendor operated multiple attractions at a single exhibit booth, but couldn’t determine which was the most valuable of them; whether any aspect wasn’t working or should be discontinued. Research revealed that the most successful approach involved offering multiple experiences to capture a breadth of interests.

“Something got them to stop, a different element was what they learned from, and what they found the most value in was yet a different experience,” Sherrill said. “You have to incorporate several items so they hit those checkmarks: learning, value, attraction. An attraction that might work with one audience, don’t assume it’s going to work at a different event or at the same event itself.”

Sherrill, like Gilbert, also places a premium on the booth experiences that vendors offer their guests. She stressed the importance of exhibitor staff training in helping company representatives make an initial active engagement that closes the deal for prospective clients.

“People want to talk to reps,” Sherrill said. “Eight of 10 people said the reason they returned to an exhibit every year is the quality of interaction they had with the people [there]. I think the people you hire can be effective in actively engaging [the audience] and then qualifying the interaction. The rep is then able to start talking product.”

Sherrill also pointed out that there’s still something to be said for showmanship. Party gimmicks like champagne toasts and cake-cuttings at product launches still create a noisy fuss. Those experiences can be heightened by keeping new technology under wraps until the moment of the launch, or by only revealing it to one visitor at a time. Cultivating exclusivity to create mystique around a product is a surefire way to generate interest. It’s also a way to drive pre-set appointments at your booth, which Sherrill said is one of the most successful ways to attract clients.

“Creating buzz in the hall makes everyone stop, and that starts the conversation,” Sherrill said. “By the time everybody gets to the trade show floor, they already have decided on who they’re going to see and what products they want to try. You’ve got to get on the must-see agenda to make sure you get the audience to come to your booth.

“You can’t just rely on event organizers to get people to the event,” she said. “People still do mailers, but there’s so much more during the event and after the event as well.”

Some convention formats take the by-appointment approach a step further, like the MD Expo reverse expo, in which prospective buyers meet with vendors in a five-minute, speed-dating arrangement. Ray Laxton of the West Sacramento, California-based Sutter Health eQuip said the experience helped him connect with vendors he’d have never encountered before, and to drill down to his specific needs with the ones who captured his attention.

“I was dreading going to it because sitting there for a few hours while people come up and try to sell you something was not my idea of a good time,” Laxton said. “But I was very, very pleased and surprised at how effective that is. It was only five minutes, and pressed for time, they knew they had to get to the point. I really didn’t anticipate the amount of value I got out of that.”

Laxton’s account reinforced Gilbert’s and Sherrill’s perspectives that convention-goers visit a trade show with a foreordained plan.

“When I walk through the expo, unless I have a specific need or company that I want to meet with, I tend to kind of walk by, just glancing,” Laxton said. “If something happens to catch my eye, I’ll stop; I’ll stop and talk to people I know. [Through the reverse expo], I wound up following up more with companies that I met with than I probably would have met with had I not done that. There’s six companies I’m going to follow back up with, two of which I knew of at the beginning of this.”

In short, Laxton described the reverse expo as “very, very productive” and an experience he’d sign up for in the future. As a 14-year board member of the Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation (AAMI), Laxton has a breadth of experience with a variety of convention environments. He described the MD Expo as an intimate setting with high-quality educational seminars and a place to meet people of interest.

“Because it’s not so spread out, you run into more people [at MD Expo],” Laxton said. “I have had times when I’ve intended to attend two or three classes, and only got to one of them because I ran into someone. The forum is conducive to learning and sharing and catching up, and the hallway conversations are always a part of that.”