by Gary Slack
For seven years, from 2009 to 2015, I organized and ran the world’s largest annual business-to-business marketing conference.
Sponsored by the Business Marketing Association, the conference in 2015 drew just over 1,000 B2B marketers from 550 companies, 36 states and 12 nations. At least one-fifth of the attendees were senior directors and above—VPs and CMOs.
Every B2B marketing medium and channel was represented, including vertical business publications, horizontal business newspapers and magazines, pure-play web publishers, online community owners, Google, LinkedIn, database providers, PR and social media purveyors, cable TV networks and software and marketing technology providers galore.
But just two people attended from the trade show industry, one of whom I invited to serve on a panel discussing event trends—a topic that, as a big believer in face-to-face marketing, I made sure was melded into the conference every year I ran it.
To her credit, this person, who was a regular past conference attendee and one of the very few ever from the exhibition industry, had to make a difficult choice every year between attending the ECEF or the BMA event. Thank you, Nicole.
And to his credit, Jim Wurm, the executive director of the Exhibit & Event Marketers Association (E2MA), had persuaded me to carve out a session at BMA13 for Liz Miller of the CMO Council, which E2MA had contracted to do a study on exhibition and event engagement. An exemplary but solitary effort.
However, in 2016 and 2017, with nobody in program development looking out for exhibitions, nothing. For two full days for each of the past two years, there has been no mention or discussion of trade shows at BMA16 or BMA17. With one very interesting and perhaps telling exception. In a first in BMA history, experiential agency George P. Johnson won the Large Agency of the Year award at BMA17.
More than any other B2B medium or sales channel, the exhibition industry—meaning trade show producers, contractors, CVBs—is remarkably unconnected with senior B2B marketing leadership, the people who set marketing budgets and make the ultimate decisions on how much gets invested in face-to-face marketing.
Go to any B2B marketing conference—not just mine—and rarely if ever do you hear exhibition industry execs attending, much less speaking or even exhibiting. Yet practically every other recipient of B2B marketing dollars is represented, either in the audience or on the dais or in the exhibit hall, or all three.
As an industry, the exhibition ecosystem as a whole has never been able to effectively market itself. With the exception of certain efforts led by CEIR, it has never been able to match the share of voice and influence of other even lesser media and channels.
As long as exhibitions themselves remain so essential to B2B sales success, maybe you don’t have to work as hard trying to grow your slice of the big B2B budget pie. But by not engaging directly with senior B2B marketers at the events they attend to learn the latest, you are jeopardizing mindshare that some day may be critical to your survival.
It is ironic that the exhibition industry is an extreme laggard when it comes to engaging its own medium—face-to-face events—to stay top of mind with, deliver thought leadership to and forge enduring personal relationships with B2B marketing leaders.
My advice as a long-time observer but also an outsider who maybe can better see the forest for the trees: circle the wagons and start aggressively attending, exhibiting and speaking at major B2B marketing conferences and events.
Gary Slack is founder and chief experience officer of Slack and Company. Opinions are his own. He can be reached at Gary.Slack@slackandcompany.com.