Survey Reveals Key Factors That Maximize Attendee Retention at Events

A recent Center for Exhibition Industry Research report revealed the education, show floor details, and special amenities that keep attendees coming back year after year.

Center for Exhibition Industry Research survey results found that one of the most important factors for turning attendees into loyal alumni is staffing exhibit booths with knowledgeable product experts who can answer questions on the spot.
Center for Exhibition Industry Research survey results found that one of the most important factors for turning attendees into loyal alumni is staffing exhibit booths with knowledgeable product experts who can answer questions on the spot.
Photo: Courtesy of Jack Morton Worldwide

People who repeatedly attend a specific trade show or large event have clear preferences when it comes to the exhibit floor, education programming, and special activities being offered. The Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR) has wrapped up a five-part series of reports that examine those preferences and offer insights for planners on how to motivate their attendees to come back year after year. The results come from online surveys completed by more than 9,000 attendees and 75 planners, as well as in-depth phone interviews with 11 of those planners.

BizBash asked CEIR's director of research, Nancy Drapeau, to share some of the key findings from the 2016 Attendee Retention Insights reports related to features of a show floor, education offerings, and special amenities that are important to repeat attendees.

Exhibition Floor
Drapeau says, “When we look at what motivates folks to come to a show in general, it’s about seeing what’s new, what’s hot, new products, and the like. But when we ask alumni—people who go to a specific show repeatedly—what brings them back is the quality of the interactions on the floor with people. I would have thought it was the product, but it’s the people first. It all comes down to that face-to-face connection that’s really the crux of a well-done event, and turns a professional into a fan that comes back time and again."

She continues, "The importance of exhibit staff training and the dynamic of selling is shifting as you see more millennials and Gen X-ers in those buying roles. The nature of the pitch has to shift. If all you’re doing is pushing information at people … that’s not going to work. It needs to be a concentrated selling approach, engaging smartly. So it’s all about the quality of booth staff. You need people who can support an attendee’s information interests when they are ready to have that kind of engagement. Having just temps in a booth is not a good choice.” 

Education
The report indicated that education is a major influence in driving attendance at smaller and association-run events, but it's not as much of a factor at independently run and larger events. Education sessions are most appealing to repeat attendees who are younger and work in lower levels in their organizations.

Drapeau has this advice for organizers who use research: "I would encourage them to think about their competitor set. Associations by nature of what they are, [have a] mission [that] is broader than an independently run trade show. The big factor is size of the show. And who’s the best speaker for education sessions? Time and again I see this, even with young professionals, experts in the field are the ones that are most impactful. If you’re going to spend all your money on somebody who’s got nothing to do with your industry, if it’s just a 'wow' factor of celebrities coming in … your money might be better invested to make sure you are bringing in the rock stars in your industry. And secondly, think about peer-to-peer learning.” 

Activities and Amenities
Drapeau says, “Sixty-seven percent of attendees travel with at least one other person from their organization and, on average, it’s seven others. They come in groups, but the results suggest that organizers are not necessarily paying attention to groups, and they really should. It ties back to tracking retention. You should be worrying about attendee retention at an organization level, at least for your bellwether organizations, your buying groups, to keep them happy and give them what they need. So perhaps organizers are leaving money on the table in terms of how they can help drive higher retention rates among attendee organizations."

Examples of amenities that planners can offer groups to help them be successful at the event include a dedicated meeting space, access to a concierge, and appointment-setting services.

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