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Satisfy Exhibitors and Sponsors through Collaboration and Tough Love

For the Association of Proposal Management Professionals’ annual meeting, financial success comes from being stingy with space but generous with consultation plus pre-event exposure.

There’s no doubt that any association’s leadership team would be supremely happy if their 2023 annual meeting had 20 percent more attendees than in the pre-Covid benchmark year of 2019. In fact, the temptation might be to aim for similar growth with the 2024 event. And with exhibit space, many associations would hit the accelerator and expand the show floor as much as possible.

At the Association of Proposal Management Professionals, however, such promising 2023 results—1,200 attendees (up from 1,000 in 2019) and 27,000 square feet of exhibit space—did not shake leadership’s resolve to stay on a deliberate course rather than risk a situation where rapid growth compromises quality of experience and kills the show’s momentum.

Rick Harris, CEO of APMP, says that registration for the group’s June 2024 annual meeting in New Orleans has already been cut off at 1,300 attendees (even with a 10-percent rise in the registration fee), while the show floor is locked in at 30,000 square feet, just 10 percent more than in 2023 and with an eight-percent increase in booth prices.

Interestingly, all but a few exhibitors are given the same-sized booth, a change made by Harris’ team in 2022 as part of a new approach to satisfy all exhibitors and sponsors and retain their long-term business.

At that time, “we told them all that we were going to be their partner, not just their order-taker,” Harris notes. “We said, ‘It’s up to you to earn your traffic, but we want to help you do that in different ways.’”

AM0424APMPharris.pngTo start, “we took off some of the traditional restraints that many associations have around what can be done in a booth,” adds Harris (in photo). “Rather than saying ‘no’ to an idea, we use the old axiom from improv comedy: ‘yes, and...’ We’ll help them refine an idea to create an experience for attendees rather than simply sell them.”

In particular, the APMP team collaborates on ideas with some of the smaller firms that are exhibitors and sponsors. For example, one firm made their 2023 booth look like a small luxury shoe store where attendees could sit down and try on different styles while discussing their business, and then take home a pair that caught their eye. And for the 2024 event, that exhibitor will create a miniature art gallery in its spaces that connects to the message, “There’s an art to creating winning proposals.”

A Two-Pronged Approach
Harris explains that “we saw the companies that weren’t getting a lot of traffic in 2022 and offered our marketing help” to not only create an interesting booth experience but also to get the right pre-event messaging out to attendees. “Internally, we started reallocating our time,” he adds. “Is it more important for us to build and schedule another webinar, or to make sure that that a sponsor gets the messaging they need and consults with us on a dynamic booth that draws in those warm leads? We’ve chosen the latter approach. It’s a lot of work, but the payoff is great.”

The same goes for the approach to sponsors. APMP allows both sponsor and exhibitor firms to post educational videos on the association’s website through a platform known as APMP TV, and “we make sure the content is truly useful so that a company is seen as a resource rather than an annoyance.” Each new video is mentioned in the association’s rolling marketing campaign, along with whichever fun activation or game the sponsor will host on site. Harris’ team will assist a sponsor with ideas in that area as well.

Two other tactics APMP uses to ensure the show floor is delivering for exhibitors is to have no educational sessions in the hall and to keep exhibits open as sessions take place. With the first, “we don’t want too much distraction on the show floor; let exhibitors get their one-on-one conversations without attendees just popping in on their way to a theater at the far end,” says Harris. And with the second, “we’ve noticed a slight decline in session attendance but the floor is buzzing; attendees want to be there, and exhibitors and sponsors are getting the leads they want.”

A Bit More Tough Love
One other way APMP creates scarcity on the show floor and keeps the playing field more level for smaller exhibitors: “We don't have a sign-up program for next year’s space; we don't want exhibitors to simply race for a position on the floor. Instead, we want them thinking about the dynamics of their booth, and that's where we see some breakout concepts that we have not seen before. When they do that, it's not so much that we need to market the show itself; it’s more that we market the activity within the show.”

The financial results coming from APMP’s deliberate approach—growing both attendance and exhibit space by a maximum of 10 percent each year—are impressive: The association has seen 34 percent more event-related revenue in the past two years. Quality is winning the day versus quantity.

Given the size of his staff, Harris says that’s a necessity. “We couldn’t use this consultative approach if our event was twice the size,” he notes. For any association, however, “if you're not acting as a sales partner for exhibitors and sponsors, you're missing out on opportunities. It’s what exhibitors and sponsors crave now, and it’s what their CFOs demand of them.”

“When an association helps exhibitors and sponsors generate warm leads and revenue, the cost to participate becomes much less of a factor in their decision whether to be there.”

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