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We plan to host a hospitality event in conjunction with our trade show exhibit. What are some of the biggest dos and don'ts to be aware of as I plan my inaugural off-site event?
One of the biggest "dos" is something you're already doing, i.e., asking questions. Every rookie event planner needs a bit of coaching. So before you step onto the field with your first off-site event, seek advice from everyone from show management to venue representatives. Doing so can often mean the difference between a fabulous event and one that flops. So bravo for your smart start.

In addition to this No. 1 "do," here are some of the key dos and don'ts that I typically pass on to my clients. While this info just skims the surface of event management, it should help you sidestep some major snafus and ensure that your first time at the plate is a home run rather than a strikeout.

Read your exhibiting contract to determine what rules, if any, show management has regarding off-site events. Often, contracts prevent exhibitors from hosting events that conflict with scheduled conference functions, and some shows even have regulations against any kind of marketing activity outside of sanctioned show sponsorships. So your first step in the process is to check your contract for any stipulations that may already govern your event.
Contact your show liaison for a list of off-site vendors. While show management may tell you what you can and can't do in relation to the trade show, your reps can also serve as a valuable source of vendor information in the show city. More likely than not, show management has already done a considerable amount of legwork and has established contacts at the surrounding hotels, restaurants, event venues, and catering departments. Plus, reps likely have a decent list of reliable local suppliers such as destination-management companies (DMCs), transportation providers, entertainers, etc. who are already familiar with the conference demographics and show schedule. Simply asking your representative for a list of recommended suppliers could literally cut days from your event-planning timeline.
Shoot big with the guest list. To ensure that you meet your targeted head count, the guest list should exceed your target attendance by nearly 50 percent. That's because you'll likely be competing against other events, and there will be "falloff" from your RSVP list once attendees are on site and are lured away by destination-related activities. It's far better to have an off-site event that's a tad bit overcrowded than one that's embarrassingly underattended.
Consider an incentive. If you want to lure show attendees to your event or extend its reach afterward, think about incorporating a valuable giveaway. This could be anything from high-quality branded swag you distribute to departing guests as a visual reminder of your gathering, to a luxury item such as high-tech software or trendy electronics that you raffle off during the event – the latter of which can serve as an attractive lure to get people in the door.
Select nearby venues. Off-site events are best attended when they are convenient to get to. To accommodate trade show attendees, then, you typically want a venue within walking distance of the show hotel and/or convention center. To create a successful event out of walking distance, the venue, its location, or your content (education, entertainment, food and beverage, etc.) needs to be tempting and unique enough to draw guests out of the "convention zone." Plus, by choosing a venue to which attendees can walk, you eliminate the need for, and cost of, transportation.
Don't select an off-site event venue until you've defined your objectives. Researching event venues often tops an event planner's to-do list; after all, it's kind of fun to see what's out there and devise creative ways you could utilize the spaces. But before you sign a venue contract, be sure that the space you've selected is the best fit for your objectives. For example, if your main goal is to educate attendees, you'll probably want to minimize entertainment and keep attendees focused on your presentation. In this case, a seated dinner service with a focused educational presentation works well, so your venue search might include small venues with excellent catering. Or perhaps your goal is to network with and entertain attendees. Then you might want a venue sizeable enough to accommodate live entertainment yet with acoustics that allow salespeople to hold intimate conversations. The point is, don't try to force your objectives upon a chosen venue; use the objectives to guide off-site venue selection.
Don't invite guests too early. Unlike a wedding, you don't need to get your event onto attendees' calendars months in advance. At that time, people aren't even thinking about what they're going to do during their free time at a conference. Four weeks prior to the show is a good window to start the process, which should include a series of tactics. I typically tell my clients to mail the first invite, and then follow up with an online-registration forum like Evite. Then they need to continue the invitation process weekly – via email, online invites, and personal phone calls – until five days before the show begins.
Don't go it alone. Enlist the help of a DMC to source vendors and venues, which will cut your research and planning time in half. A DMC will use its local knowledge and resources to get you a short list of venues within your budget that will achieve your goals, ultimately freeing up your time to focus on event content.
Don't sacrifice quality. If you can't afford a quality gathering for the number of guests you intend to invite, rethink your approach. It's far better to have a quality function for fewer people – in terms of food, drinks, entertainment, atmosphere, transportation, and so on – than to host a hospitality event where these same components suffer due to budget limitations. Treat a few people to a fantastic event, and they'll shout your praises to the masses. Lure a ton of people to a lackluster event, and their negative perceptions could extend to your company and brand – and to everyone they know.
Don't forget the follow-up. Many event managers assume that the event ends the minute the venue closes down the bar and security guards start shooing guests out the door. In reality, almost every soiree should have some form of post-event follow-up. At the very least you need to thank your guests for attending, which also means you need to track exactly which invited guests showed up in the first place. But any post-event communication is a valuable marketing and communications opportunity for your sales staff to foster relationships and perhaps even help move prospects closer toward a sale. So before you close the books on your event, ensure that every guest has received at least one form of follow-up.

As you can surmise, off-site events require a significant amount of thought and planning. But armed with these dos and don'ts, you can ensure that your rookie event-marketing season is a smashing success – and that your company scores big returns in the process.

— Stephanie Arone, DMCP, president and general manager, Activity Planners Inc., Las Vegas

Help Wanted
Send your tough questions about exhibiting to Linda Armstrong, larmstrong@exhibitormagazine.com.

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