or the last 30 years, the industry has been at war with itself over attendance audits, and there's no end to the battle in sight. At issue is access to proprietary attendance data. Show organizers own the data and want to keep it secret. Exhibitors want the data independently verified. And that's when the bell rings and the bruising begins - or so one would expect.
As it turns out, the so-called war over verified audits is no war at all. Instead, it is the laughing stock of marketing insiders. More than 100 years ago in the publications world, the six biggest patent-medicine advertisers gave the largest newspapers in the country an ultimatum - audit their circulation or else - and changed print advertising forever. Today, more than 50 percent of all magazines provide verified circulation audits through independent audit bureaus.
Trade shows are an embarrassingly different story. Today, less than
1 percent of shows provide exhibitors with third-party audits. That means your chances of being attacked with a deadly weapon (one in 260) or having a heart attack (one in 77) are greater than your chances of exhibiting in a show that provides verified attendance data (one in 295, more or less).
So why do show organizers resist verification? The reason, I would suggest, is the fact that exhibitors haven't used the kind of ultimatums that worked so effectively for the newspaper advertisers, instead placing their faith in the well worn but misplaced belief that show organizers will be motivated by arguments of reason and right thinking. For the most part, exhibitors talk, talk, talk about the need for audits but never actually ask organizers to provide them. And on the rare occasion they do ask, organizers simply reject their requests, and that is the end of it. Instant acquiescence. No repeat requests. No demands. No line in the sand. No outrage. No retaliation. No response of any kind that would suggest the exhibitor's original request actually mattered.
Faced with rejection, exhibitors often do what small children do when they don't get what they want. They whine - to their colleagues, to their management, and to their associations about their treatment at the hands of show organizers, as if organizers were morally or ethically required to fulfill their request, which, of course, they are not.
Ironically, show organizers claim you are the problem. Or more precisely, they claim your indifference to independent audits is the problem. As one Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR) board member and Tradeshow Week 200 show organizer asked, "Why should I spend money on something my exhibitors aren't asking for?"
Why, indeed? If you assume he was telling the truth, does "not asking" suggest exhibitors either don't know or don't care about the value of verified attendance data? Or, as Garrison Keillor would say: Are exhibitors just shy Lutherans reluctant to make loud noises in broad daylight? At least some exhibitors know that show audits contain critical information that can, when used appropriately, decrease the risk associated with those event-marketing questions currently answered using intuition and guesswork. The information is there. The access is not.
To change all that, exhibitors need to demand transparency. When that doesn't work, build coalitions. Get colleagues in other companies involved. Present ultimatums with financial consequences, ones that will drive your needs to the top of the organizer's priority pile. Storm the fortress, catapult pots of unqualified lead cards over the wall of resistance, and threaten real pain from lost revenues and missing tenants. Get tough, get unreasonable, and get results. If a half-dozen snake-oil companies can change the policies
of the entire newspaper industry overnight, I'm confident that you
and your friends can put feet to fire
in the trade show industry.e