Nothing has higher value in the world of B2B than events. Markets and valuations all reflect this. In a world of digital transformation events have a comforting certainty along with high margins. Attendance at some shows may have fallen during the recession, as well as exhibitors, but this is an industry well used to the economic cycle and generally unconcerned by temporary shifts which always seem to right themselves. I was present this week in Seoul at the 80th Congress of the UFI, the Paris-based trade association which represents both conference and exhibition organizers, and venue owners and managers. I found it hard to work out what was strangest: re-visiting one of the largest cities in the world after an absence of over 30 years, or speaking of things digital to a wonderful audience (at an appropriately well managed conference) who either thought that what I feared would never happen, or that, since people would always want to meet face to face, it was mostly irrelevant.
Which is exactly where the interesting arguments begin. It appears that for many in this industry the challenges are elsewhere. How can the event be made more compelling? Do we do it IKEA-style and force everyone to march past every booth? Will China’s vast plans for another great conference and exhibition centre in Shanghai de-stabilize the world market and drive down floor prices in Hanover and Frankfurt, traditional heartlands of the Great Trade Shows? Will the US cease to be self-contained as a market and compete on the global stage? How can more value be added for the user (one speaker talked of concentrating on attendees after two decades of concentrating on exhibitors)? Yet in all this discussion it was hard to keep on reminding people that a Great Event – a CeBIT, a Frankfurt Book Fair, a CES, etc – is above all a mighty data engine. I came away thinking not how impregnable these market tenancies are, but how easy it would be to compete with them. And they reminded me strongly of the newspapers and magazines of yesteryear when they dwelt on the importance of their brands and the trust and authority vested in them by generations of visitors. Does no one recall anywhere that the Google brand was built in the network in five years without effective monetization – or a single page of display advertising?
My plea here was really to shift the underlying base of the business to a wholly digital operation. Instead of creating data around users and exhibitors as a part of the organizational workflow of the event, build that data out through web analysis to the point where data on both gives real indications of where the event lies in the entire workflow of these populations. Then one can begin to do analysis that supports ideas of what people would like to see, what input they need to have, and how their valuable time and scarce attention is best used. This data needs to have the depth and quality to suggest and create introductions and meetings, support those connections through the year to the next event, create localized satellite meetings or virtual conferences where necessary, and develop in sophistication alongside the needs of users. In other words, the event needs to re-characterize itself in two data-driven ways – both as an encapsulation of the community (or communities) present at the event, and as a vital part of the workflow of participants.
Well, my kindly friends said, with understanding expressions of sympathy tinged with pity on their faces, what if we do none of this? We have these good margins, these strong brands, no competitors, our valuations soar: what could be better. One delegate took me aside and told me that the key topic was trust: you needed to meet the people you traded with in order to know who to trust. When I responded that trust is created in networks by people recording their trading experiences of each other, and that events organizers might be working with credit rating agencies as data partners, he shook his head in disbelief that someone so innocent should be allowed out alone. This must be one of the last marketplaces on earth where it is necessary to say that around 1993, as far as I can now see, a door closed in History The birth of the internet marked changes, slight at first but now gathering force, which generation by generation change the way mankind communicates, and expects to be communicated with. The media industry in the last decade has been in the Tom and Jerry situation – over the cliff and pedaling pure air while realization dawns that the terrain beneath our feet has altered entirely.
In this world turned upside down the events businesses will draw the competition of – everyone. Its started already – just the other day the Huffington Post announced a conference. Meetings and exhibitions do not present high barriers to entry and can, in skills terms, be readily outsourced Big digital market brands – Alibaba around these parts, for example – would find these an easy option. They may not succeed entirely but they could ruin some existing brand positions. And they would be much better organized for digital marketing, using social media effectively and creating community that few real world events seem to have in depth.
But by embracing the data driven world that I tried to describe, the event brand could become a leader in advising the exhibitor on his market penetration and positioning; telling the visitor who wants to meet company X that other visitors with similar interests also met y amd z; enabling the visitor to plan 3 hours to do what formerly took 3 days, and positioning the exhibitor in four different places to catch visitors looking at clustered specialisms rather than relying on a super-stand where the sub-specializations were lost. So data gathering becomes a part of adding fresh value to the existing world, and then part of launching into things entirely new. I have never been more convinced that the virtual conference and exhibition will have their day than this week. Not at first, not to the exclusion of all other things, but importantly and commercially invaluably as one of the tools in the sector armory. We are in the foothills here, but the old lesson of the web is that you have to fail before we succeed.
The UFI organization distributed a splendid App for the event, detailing speakers, schedules and vital information. A perfect information gathering tool, I thought. And once serious data around participants in these shows is assembled, think of the data analytics, the visualization, the predictive analytics that will result. I enjoyed being with the events people and I look forward to meeting them again – in the world of data.keep looking »