With exhibit halls dark, top nonprofit leaders share challenges and advice

by | May 11, 2020

When the coronavirus pandemic hit in early March, leaders of trade associations and professional societies – like those in most other sectors of the global economy – found their bottom line fall away beneath their feet. In particular, the cancellation of annual conferences meant the end of one of their most profitable endeavors: The exhibition hall, where equipment and service vendors pay associations to set up booths, hand out brochures and chat with members.

On May 7, Mod Op Strategic Consulting principals chatted on Zoom with the leaders of seven nonprofit professional and trade organizations – representing science, medicine, technology and the CAE (construction, architecture and engineering) industries – who shared their challenges and ideas for recapturing at least some lost exhibit hall revenue in the virtual world.

Leaders of nonprofits of all sizes can benefit from hearing what these executives had to say. Below is a distillation of the conversation, with names and organizations kept anonymous. 

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Changing how buyers meet sellers

Many of the services professional societies and trade associations provide, including publishing, continuing education and certifications, had already largely migrated to digital environments before the pandemic hit. Most nonprofits also were at least experimenting with offering remote ways to attend conferences and events.

Hardest to replicate virtually, however, is the physical marketplace of the exhibit hall, the trade-show equivalent of the ancient Greek agora, which means not just where “buyers meet sellers,” but also where useful information is exchanged for the common good.

Recreating that marketplace online is fraught with complications, the executives agreed:

  • It’s a completely different business model. Gone in the virtual agora is the $900,000 expense of putting on a million-dollar show in an exhibition hall. “We have to come to terms that we’re not going to be able to replicate the lost revenue,” one executive said.
  • How do you replace human interaction? The power to convene is the most important asset an association or society has. Convening, by nature, is a game of scale, yet the power lies in the one-to-one conversations that happen, often through serendipity. How does that even translate?
  • Getting vendors to spend. Marketing budgets are the first to get slashed in economic hard times – and vendors typically pay for booth space out of their marketing budget, rather than treating it as a sales expense. Also, getting them to see the value in making connections online will require associations to be able to provide solid data on engagement (more on that below).
  • Appearances are everything. If done poorly, promotion of corporate messaging on nonprofit web properties can compromise the integrity as a mission-based organization. For the most part, the problem is solved with good design. Nevertheless, members who would think nothing of seeing vendor logos, promotions and advertising in their society’s conference exhibit hall may recoil if they see a corporate presence on their society’s website.

The obstacles, in short, are formidable. As one participant put it: “We need to learn to make lemonade out of lemons, then make the lemonade into champagne.”

Below are some of the ways in which the executives on the call are working through the problem:

Hold your exhibitors close

Staying in close contact with exhibitors is a critical first step, even if you don’t yet have all the answers for staging virtual events or exhibit halls. “Our strategy has been to say, ‘hang on, work with us, be creative and let’s do the best we can,’” said one leader of a technology trade association.

Now is also a good time to educate your exhibitors on the best ways to interact with your members. Exhibit halls, after all, are less about overt sales and more about gathering user experience research and sharing information and education with prospective buyers. “We’re really going to have to double down on making sure our exhibitors really understand how to talk to our members,” one professional society executive said. “It’s not about sales, it’s conversations about workflow and how the equipment works.”

Create an experience

Vendors will support a wide variety of virtual events and content showcases, assuming you create the “inventory” for them to do it. First, remember the difference between a “sponsor” and an “exhibitor.” Sponsors put their name on an activity (scholarship, event, etc.) or piece of content to affiliate their brand with your organization’s mission. Exhibitors pay to cultivate potential sales leads, by putting their product information in front of potential buyers. Create experiences for both types of revenue.

Recognize that the rules are different: Lots of people will gladly spend three days at a conference, but nobody wants to look at a Zoom screen for eight hours. Break events into short segments, held at different times, and make them available on-demand afterward. The important thing is to create not just an “online event,” but an engaging experience.

One example, from the technology association executive: Create an online awards show, with live and pre-taped segments, and announce when you will air it on YouTube Live. Organize watch parties and send attendees a celebratory gift box including cocktail recipes, confetti and noise makers. “Make it fun,” he said.

Embrace intimacy

Translating exhibit hall value to the virtual space involves taking something physical and offering it in a medium that is actually quite intimate, one executive said. “Is there an opportunity to seize the intimacy and monetize it?” asked one executive. “Bring the right people together. That’s what the sponsors and marketers are looking for. If you can get the right 20 people in the room, you can get a sponsor for that and they’d be willing to pay.”

Platform choice matters

It’s critical to understand the power of various platform options: YouTube Live is a great way to reach the largest audience. Also, there is longevity to the content, including the ability to preserve chat transcripts from a live event. Zoom or other video-conference platforms are best for intimate gatherings where multiple people are speaking. But it’s more difficult to create a long-term asset that you can use for sponsorships. Longer, broadcast-format webinars may require more sophisticated conferencing platforms. But Twitter and Instagram can be used to socialize bite-sized nuggets from those events.

The problem with most video platforms, one executive pointed out, is the lack of ability for communities to gather in one place and discuss the event once it’s over: “What’s lacking in most webcasts is the sense of being able to talk about things later. There is a huge opportunity for anybody trying to deconstruct or reconstruct their events, having that post-event interaction.”

Overcome the data obstacles

Because they have a 360-degree view of all the potential buyers in their conferences, associations and professional societies have the potential to create huge value for vendors. What they know about their members’ interests (through publishing, presentation, course consumption, etc.) and specializations (committees they serve on, grants they’ve received, etc.) could – with members’ consent, importantly – tell a seller a lot about members’ ability and intent to purchase, their likes and dislikes and trends in the profession that could affect product development.

The nonprofit leaders cited two main problems with data: Their organizations remain slow to embrace data-aggregation and analytics, due to cost and fear of members’ privacy concerns. Also, vendors are loath to give up information in their client database that could be profitably augmented with nonprofit data.

Transparency, data security and the ability of members to opt-out are critical to making data work as a revenue stream. Some executives said such resistance from members and vendors may be fading: Data, after all, is increasingly part of their own business plans. Also, younger members are more willing to see the power of data in delivering value to consumers.

The bigger problem is that nonprofits lack the tooling and expertise needed to collect and leverage their own data. “We have pockets of data across the organization from different customer groups, but we are still challenged with bringing that data together across customer groups, topic areas,” one executive said.

One thing all the executives agreed on: It’s up to the associations and societies, not the vendors, to solve the dilemma of creating a virtual marketplace.

“Exhibitors are looking to us for how we can come up with innovative ways so they can still do what they want to do, using a remote format,” said one leader of a sciences nonprofit. “That’s going to be a real challenge.”


The principals at Mod Op Strategic Consulting have many decades combined experience in senior operational roles in digitally mature organizations. Feel free to contact us to set up a conversation about how we might help your organization assess and implement the strategies required to build resilience and improve your organization’s ability to adapt and respond to the challenges ahead.

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