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For more than half a century, Dick Swandby, founder of Exhibit Surveys Inc., has helped take the mystery out of measurement. The first recipient of the annual EXHIBITOR Legends lifetime achievement award, Swandby discusses why the exhibition industry resisted statistical measuring, how trade show metrics evolved over the decades, and what he predicts you'll be counting in the future. By Charles Pappas
photo: Exposures, LTD
Dick Swandby

A graduate of the University of Minnesota with a degree in chemical engineering, Dick Swandby later received his MBA from New York University. After stints with Monsanto Co. and the U.S. military's Army Chemical Center, he found his way to the International Nickel Co. Ltd. in New York. Out of his experience running the company's trade shows, Swandby founded Exhibit Surveys Inc., pioneering the use of then-exotic metrics such as audience interest factor and exhibit efficiency.
Like many exhibit managers, Dick Swandby entered the trade show world less by calculation than by chance. Working as a chemical engineer for International Nickel Co. Inc. in the fast-paced "Mad Men" era of the early 1960s, Swandby was finishing a book for the company on the ability of metals and alloys to resist corrosion. To fill his soon-to-be idle hands, management suggested he take charge of the company's trade show department, a position for which he had neither training nor expertise. Despite knowing as much about trade shows as most non-chemists do the ionic bond between metals and nonmetals, Swandby assumed the department's helm in the spring of 1962.

In his first exhibit-planning meeting for an upcoming Design Engineering Show, Swandby discovered to his profound dismay that determining which products would be promoted in the company's booth was based not on who presented the choicest data, but who possessed the loudest voice. Determined to find a better way, Swandby developed a survey to pin down what potential attendees most wanted to see. The results convinced him that measurement owned a prominent future in the trade show world, and so, on the sly, he started Exhibit Surveys Inc. in his basement.

With an infrastructure consisting of his wife, a couple of neighbors, and an electric typewriter, he began conducting research at expositions such as the American Society for Metals and Materials Show, selling the resulting reports that at $50 a copy. Within a few months, however, management at International Nickel caught wind of his extracurricular activities, and released him on the spot. The pink slip turned out to be providential, however, as Swandby and Exhibit Surveys went on to develop standard metrics that formed the bedrock of measurement in the trade show industry.

Over the last five decades, Exhibit Surveys has conducted research at more than 5,000 exhibitions and events, with a client base of trade show organizers, convention and visitors bureaus, and industry suppliers, all spread over six continents. Swandby showed exhibitors that if you can measure something, you can understand it, and if you can understand it, you can improve upon it. For his work in transforming the exhibition industry through measurement, Swandby was honored at EXHIBITOR2014 last month with the first EXHIBITOR Legends lifetime achievement award.

EXHIBITOR Magazine: How did exhibitors and show managers assess the value of trade shows before Exhibit Surveys came along?
Dick Swandby: Most companies barely measured, if at all. At best, they might report just the number of leads they acquired from a show. But even that was often clouded in mystery, and possibly sabotaged by office politics. After leads were generated at a show, they would all be transferred to the sales department as you would expect. If the leads didn't turn into sales for a few months, though, the sales department didn't give much credit to the show. The perceived effectiveness of the show then suffered, which reinforced the idea that trade shows were a second-class marketing vehicle.

EM: Did show managers and exhibitors perceive the need for Exhibit Survey's services, or did you create that need?
DS: It's probably a combination of the two. The company's first full year was in 1964, when we did six shows, with three to five clients per show. About 20 percent of companies I contacted signed up with us. They knew there was a void in the data they had, and they understood measuring could help fill that void.

While we had a growing business, it wasn't until the computer trade shows like the Fall Joint and Spring Joint Computer Conferences kicked in that Exhibit Surveys really took off. They represented a new industry spending a good deal of money on trade shows – so they didn't really have a lot of entrenched conventional wisdom about shows, and they wanted an accurate accounting of how well that money spent exhibiting was working for them. With the raised profile we got from those events, we expanded from six shows a year to more than 20.

EM: Was there any resistance?
DS: Oh, yeah. One particular show-management organization that shall go unnamed – it specialized in engineering, machinery, and plastic expos – allowed me access to its show-attendee registration forms. It all went smoothly for two or three years until one exhibitor informed the organization that it was dropping out of a show after our research proved it was of very limited benefit to that company. After that, show management decided exhibitors would be better off not inconvenienced by facts like that, and so it cut all ties to Exhibit Surveys.

Fortunately, a few other shows and organizations recognized the value. Fifty years ago, the International Association of Exhibitions and Events wouldn't have anything to do with us. Then in 2013, it inducted Skip Cox, the current CEO and president of Exhibit Surveys, as chairperson at its annual exhibition. I was there for the ceremony in Houston last December. It was the ultimate moment, and proof of how far we'd come.

EM: Out of all the measurements you've instituted, such as net buying influence, total buying plans, and audience interest factor, which have had the largest impact on the exhibition industry as a whole?
DS: There was no one measurement that made a larger imprint than any other. Exhibitors who bought our service were looking for one or two measures that were particularly relevant to them, while others were less so. For instance, bigger exhibitors tended to want to gauge their ranking as the "Most Remembered Exhibit" to see what they were getting for their 2,000 square feet of space, while maybe those with a 20-by-20-foot booth might focus on other metrics, such as the cost per visitor reached. That was the beauty of the measurements: There was a tool for everybody, no matter their size, industry, or budget.

EM: Are there particular industry sectors that tend to measure more or less than other sectors?
DS: Computer, medical, and certain materials shows are the hungriest for measurement. A few that come to mind are the International Consumer Electronics Show, Radiological Society of North America Annual Meeting, and National Plastics Expo. The reason they tend to measure more is simple: The technology in those sectors is so volatile and the changes so rapid that measurement has to be an integral part of their strategy. Attendees' interests change just as quickly as the technology does, so companies have to measure constantly to adjust their exhibit programs accordingly.

EM: How has measurement evolved from when you started in 1963 to now?
DS: When I first created these measurements, a first-class postage stamp cost a nickel. The cost of a stamp may have changed since then, but the measurements haven't, probably because the structure of shows themselves hasn't changed all that much.

The real changes in what we measured didn't come from us, but from clients. One of my first customers, Republic Steel Corp., wanted to gauge attendees' interest in seeing various products, while later on IBM Corp. wished to know how many attendees planned to buy. Out of their needs, we added standard questions on product interest and purchasing intent. These questions allowed companies to fine-tune their exhibiting before the show, instead of wasting time and money with guesses.

Measuring how effectively exhibitors drew attention to themselves became another metric that we added along the way. So we began to test attendees after a show, asking if they recalled the name of the exhibitor that had a woman dressed in an Indian costume, or if they remembered the company that had a magician who performed a sleight-of-hand trick. It's a softer benchmark – it doesn't necessarily gauge direct interest in a product or a strong desire to buy – but it can show how well an exhibit was remembered, and possi-bly why its sales might have jumped, or how the company could build booth traffic at future trade shows.

EM: Even with all these measurements readily available, are trade shows and exhibitors measuring enough?
DS: How could I say "yes" to that? You're asking the guy who invented those measurements. Even today, many trade shows and exhibitors are not really measuring much of anything. Some do a "light" version of product- and buying-interest measures, but that's about it.

One basic measurement trade show organizers should adopt, but don't, is audited attendance numbers. Exhibitors should be screaming for this information, but they're not. Yet without it, how can they really know if that show they spent so much money on is reaching as many people as they've been told? It's been an problem for years.

EM: Are you suggesting shows falsify the data they provide exhibitors?
DS: Shhh! We don't talk about that. I'd have to say there was at least a bit of falsification over the years. Some show managers were juic-ing their numbers with a couple of tricks. Others would pump up the figures by adding staffers and others to the number of actual attendees. A few would double dip: If a show had an exhibition and a conference, they would count exhibit and conference attendees separately, although both groups would overlap. Those were acts of commission, but there were also acts of omission that are still prevalent today – again, not providing audited attendance data. That information is vital to show selection for exhibitors, and for evaluating how wisely their dollars are being spent.

EM: How will measurement evolve in the next decade?
DS: More attendees will be asked more survey questions more often – because technology and social media make it cheap, fast, and easy to do. For example, improvements in camera technology allowed Exhibit Surveys to become one of the first to employ time-lapse photography that we could use to analyze attendee behavior. Today, technologies such as tablets are allowing exhibitors to gather more information on the spot. This means you can better assess how attendees are responding to a product demo or display, right as they experience it.

Exhibitors and show managers will probably always count the traditional metrics, but they'll add in the newer social-media ones too, from likes on Facebook to retweets on Twitter. Technology means the picture they'll form will be larger, and, at the same time, more focused. It's exciting, and I'm glad I'm here to see it.

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