How to Get Young Professionals to Your Trade Show

A recent exhibition survey showed that young attendees prefer printed programs, weekday events, and email communication.

By Mitra Sorrells August 14, 2014, 7:15 AM EDT

When deciding what booths to visit, young professionals look for products that will solve problems for them and for opportunities to interact with the products.

Photo: Steve Maller Photography

Exhibitions looking to attract young attendees should offer interactive education sessions, hands-on opportunities with exhibitors’ products, free Wi-Fi, and printed programs. Those are some of the findings from CEIR, the Center for Exhibition Industry Research, which completed a report on the needs and preferences of young professionals who attend trade shows.

CEIR’s director of research, Nancy Drapeau, presented the key findings at the Society of Independent Show Organizers' Executive Leadership Conference yesterday at Revel in Atlantic City, New Jersey. SISO sponsored the online survey, which was completed this summer by 300 people between the ages of 23 and 40 who have attended at least one trade show for work in the past two years.

“The results suggest resoundingly, yes, there is a very strong connection to the exhibition channel,” Drapeau says. “I don’t see abandonment on the part of young professionals because of digital media. But that does not take away the need for organizers to do their homework to make sure their show is in alignment with their particular audience’s needs and preferences to keep bringing them back.”

The full report will be available from CEIR by next week, but here is a summary of the findings:

1. Three characteristics emerged among all respondents regarding their career attitudes: they are ambitious, they want work-life balance, and they want to develop their skills. “The interest to build skills is an opportunity for organizers to offer the right education content to help them achieve those goals, but the challenge will be to make sure their event aligns with the preferences of young professionals to maintain that work-life balance,” Drapeau says.

2. Young professionals attend trade shows primarily to shop (86 percent) and learn (83 percent), which are also the top two reason for attendees of all ages. “That bodes well for the channel,” Drapeau says. “It’s important for them to attend to find solutions to their problems.”

3. Because of the priority they place on work-life balance, having an event during the business week is more apt to resonate with young professionals than one during the weekend.

4. Ninety-seven percent of respondents said they are involved in the decision-making process within their company as to whether to attend events. The primary role they play is as a “recommender.” Drapeau says planners should market directly to young professionals to encourage them to advocate for participation in events.

5. Email is still the most effective way to communicate directly with young professionals, before, during, and after an event. “The social media element plays out in word of mouth more than in the direct marketing,” Drapeau says. “If they hear about something other people are going to, it might motivate them to pay attention, but it’s not the biggest resource relied upon when they are on the hunt.”

6. More than half of respondents said they do research before walking an exhibition floor, and they are at the event to interact with the product and to find solutions to their problems. “The results here speak to the importance of delivering an interactive, immersive experience. Give them the product, let them experience it. Inspire them through delivering content for the senses, whether it’s feel, touch, smell, whatever. They are thirsting for it,” Drapeau says.

7. Sixty-six percent said friendliness is the most important characteristic for booth staff, while only 40 percent report that enhancements such as video, touch screens, and digital media are important in a booth. When they are ready to talk, these attendees prefer a one-one-one discussion with friendly, knowledgeable booth staff. “They are not looking for anything theatrical or souped-up, and that’s the same with attendees in general,” Drapeau says.

8. Fifty-nine percent prefer a printed program as the primary source of information on site, whereas only 26 prefer the mobile app version of a program. When asked why they don’t use a mobile app, about one-third said they don’t like to download apps for one-time use, one-quarter said they don’t like to download apps for this purpose, and 14 percent said they don’t trust apps from sources they don’t know. “There’s a contingent that wants an app, but it's not everybody. You’ve got to offer paper, even with young professionals,” Drapeau says, and that goes for information both from show organizers and exhibitors.

9. Eighty-three percent said free Wi-Fi is essential.

10. More than half of respondents said they bring mobile technology to the show floor, and the primary way they use it is to take pictures to look at later or to share with others. Drapeau says exhibitors should capitalize on this natural inclination of attendees to take pictures since it can expand brand impressions through the power of social sharing.

11. Regarding education, 51 percent of young professionals prefer a hands-on workshop. The second most popular format is a facilitated discussion (41 percent) followed by short, 20-minute presentations (39 percent). “They want to participate actively, so the days of doing straight lecture is not going to work for these young professionals. You can offer some, but you need to mix it up with some more engaging options as well,” Drapeau says.

12. Young professionals are interested in networking with all participants, and a casual meetup at a nearby bar is the most popular format.

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