Fix the Conference Exhibit Hall - Part Two

Most attendees go out of their way to avoid being in the exhibit hall

In the first part of our post, we deconstructed the typical conference exhibit hall, and offered ideas about how to make it more attractive and useful for advisors in attendance. In the second part of the post, we'll look at better ways to pitch exhibitor products and services and whether or not any of this will actually happen.

Better Ways to Pitch Exhibitor Products and Services

Another challenge of the exhibit hall, and the general interaction between exhibitors and conferences, is that companies want the opportunity to demonstrate their expertise and value, and financial planners need to hear it - except so many companies have abused the opportunity over the years, that most financial planners avoid any kind of sponsored session or content where an exhibitor will be speaking, for fear that it will be nothing more than a veiled (sometimes thinly veiled) sales pitch.

An alternative way to handle this is to provide opportunities to learn more about exhibitors by providing a far more limited time for exhibitors to speak and share but including far more of them at once to maximize the financial planner's time.

A good example of this kind of format is an Ignite event. What is Ignite event? With Ignite, speakers have exactly five minutes to deliver a message to the audience, using 20 (Powerpoint) slides that auto-advance every 15 seconds. The basic premise is that any good, core, quality message should be able to be delivered in only five minutes, and with a standard format, everyone is on equal footing. The worst case scenario, where a speaker either does a poor job, or abuses the time by talking too much about his/her company and delivers too little value to the audience, is not a big deal - just wait five minutes, and it'll be time for the next (hopefully better) speaker anyway. Although in this context, talking about the company's products and services is entirely acceptable - if it's useful information, the audience can follow up for more, and if it's not useful, it'll be over in five minutes. Think of it as a series of controlled and systematized pitch sessions.

Given the number of exhibitors at a conference, content could be made even more relevant by, as with the organization of the exhibit hall itself, grouping Ignite sessions into relevant chunks. For instance, a 30-minute Ignite session could give six CRM software providers their five minutes to make the case about why they're right for the people in the audience, or the most unique, or have the most value, or however else they want to differentiate themselves. Another Ignite session could be featured for broker-dealers, another for marketing consultants, etc. Imagine how useful it would be if you came to the conference knowing you needed new financial planning software, and had an opportunity to sit down for 30 minutes and comparison-shop six providers who each had a focused five-minute session explaining why their software was the best, so that you can decide which software, company, and presentation was most relevant for you to follow up further.

Although Ignite events started in other industries and are used in a variety of contexts, the basic principles of how to produce the event are

now well-established, and could be easily adapted to financial planning conferences.

Practical Changes or Idealistic Dream?

While some have suggested that the difficulty in bringing financial planning conference participants to the exhibit hall is something that will never change, recent experiences I've had at a number of conferences suggest this is a problem that really can be fixed.

For instance, in the early years at the T3 Technology Tools for Today conference (which I recently recommended as one of the best conferences of the year), the conference organizers had to adjust the agenda to allow more time between sessions, because attendees complained there was too little time for the exhibit hall. Simply put - the exhibitors were so quality and so relevant to the needs of the attendees, they wanted to be in the exhibit hall. In later years, the conference not only expanded breaks to allow time to meet with exhibitors, but also worked harder to incorporate quality exhibitors into the agenda, because they provided content and information that was truly relevant for the conference participants.

Sadly and ironically, the T3 conference has succeeded in part because so many other conferences are not supportive of technology providers (because they are pushed out of exhibiting by the pricing built for multi-billion dollar asset management firms). But it nonetheless makes the fundamental point: when the exhibitors are truly relevant for the conference attendees, the exhibit hall is not a terrifying experience but instead a popular place to go (and a way to meet the planner's fiduciary obligation for due diligence). When it's better organized and laid out as well, and provide additional opportunities for attendees to learn about the products and services, all the better.

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