Hosting Exhibitors: "The Ten Commandments"

If you’ve been producing events for a few years (conferences, conventions, annual meetings, colloquies, etc.) and you’ve started thinking about adding exhibitors to your event as a new revenue stream, may I share a little of my experience with you? As you might know, I’ve been working in the fund development space for a number of years now, helping nonprofits secure sponsors and exhibitors, teaching them how to nurture those relationships into long-term support. But my business, Tamarack Communication, works “across the aisle” as they say (but apparently don’t do) in our nation’s capital. By that I mean that I also represent for-profit corporations and companies that sell products and services to my nonprofit clients!

Now, if that sounds a little like playing both ends against the middle, rest assured: It’s just the opposite. I am sometimes able to bring my nonprofit clients, in need of fund support, to the table with my for-profit clients in need of marketing opportunities, thereby creating a win-win situation. So, you see, I walk a little in each of those two worlds and, because my clients represent both perspectives, I’ve learned to represent both views. That unique experience has actually afforded me a small measure of wisdom! That’s what I’d like to share today.

Bringing in exhibitors is a bit of a scary thing – and well it should be! Quite often nonprofits take the plunge, adding exhibitors to their events before they are mentally and emotionally ready to make the necessary commitment to “mutual benefit.” Companies, for their part, do not invest their money for no good reason. On the contrary, they have strategic goals in mind when they pay their exhibiting fees. Acknowledgement of those aims is an important part of the equation.

Today I’ve chosen to provide a quick overview of the “rules of engagement” I recommend, a bit tongue in cheek, but built on my real-life experiences in the expo hall. I hope you have some fun with my “ten commandments” – no disrespect intended, believe me. I chose the Ten Commandments because I believe this advice is more than suggestions or recommendations; I truly believe these are the rules a nonprofit should follow in developing an exhibitor function for its events. But my motto remains “get it right – but have some fun,” so I hope you get a few smiles too as you read my irreverent commandments for hosting exhibitors.

I. Your exhibitors fund your event and provide enhanced opportunities for participants; you shall not disdain them in your heart. Only when you are ready – “you” meaning everyone from the C-suite down to the lowliest member of the event production team – to welcome corporate and nonprofit exhibitors with an open heart, should you offer exhibit space at your event. Do not do this grudgingly, wishing you didn’t need their monetary support. Your disdain will be felt by your participants as well as by the exhibitors themselves, and your event shall not flourish in this land. Examine your heart to determine whether you envision potential exhibitors as an added dimension to your event, connecting your attendees with sources of valuable products, services and knowledge. If your heart says “no,” do not put on the exhibitor mantle at this time.

II. You shall not accept into your exhibit hall any organization unworthy of your admiration and respect. Choose wisely, and reserve the right to say “no.” For it has been written (in #1 above) that any disdain you feel for an exhibitor shall poison the well from which all concerned must drink. Do not throw open the floodgates and accept any group that produces a checkbook, credit card or bitcoin. Feel good about the exhibitors you will host; know that they bring added value to your event. For all others: forget about it.

III. You shall not merely tolerate your exhibitors as a necessary evil; they are neither necessary nor evil. Remember that exhibitors bring additional funding to your event, but you have probably been producing events, lo, these many years. Therefore, do not entertain the possibility of inviting into your space an entirely new dimension if you (or anyone in a position of leadership or power) secretly view this change as an unfortunate addition made necessary by a fraught budget. Your pecuniary distress shall not induce you to bring under your roof anything you perceive as evil. A successful expo hall cannot flourish if built upon a foundation of resignation or suspicion.

IV. Remember your exhibitors, and exhort your participants to remember them also. Thou shalt commit, in taking this new step, to a win-win situation. You shall win as soon as you collect the exhibiting fee. Your exhibitors shall win, however, only if you make their presence widely and warmly known to all. As you open the day’s activities, remember to mention your exhibitors. As you adjourn for a break, remember to mention your exhibitors. As you adjourn for lunch or for any other worthy purpose, remember to mention your exhibitors. A special dispensation shall be given, however, to those organizations that physically incorporate their exhibitors directly into their activity space, for unto those made visible shall be the gift of being seen and remembered.

V. Honor your exhibitors by providing for them a superior marketing opportunity. Keep it always in your mind that exhibitors pay to participate in your event for one reason, and one reason only: meaningful access to your particular audience. This is part of the win-win bargain: You shall reap the exhibitor fee only if you are able and willing to provide that marketing opportunity. In so doing, you honor your funders.

VI. You shall not sideline your exhibitors as a lesser, non-vital part of your event. While it has been said that the curriculum, presenters, learning and networking opportunities are, yea, the heart of your event, do not therefore relegate your exhibitors to a lesser rank. Again I say unto you: If you cannot embrace these corporations and associations and their representatives as worthy, meaningful and respectful, let them not into your home.

VII. You shall not forget to promote your exhibitors on your web site and event app. Sing praise to your sponsors. Sing praise to your keynote speakers. Sing praise to the recipients of the awards you shall present. But be not silent in your digital communication regarding the paying exhibitors who shall come to your event with inspiring swag, drawings and prizes, helpful glossy brochures and amazing, cutting-edge products and services. Their praises also shall you sing.

VIII. You shall not hide your exhibitors from your event participants. Never let it be said that you hid your exhibitor lights under a bushel or in a dark hallway or, even so, in a far building unlikely to be visited by attendees. Whenever possible, bring your exhibitors into your fold where they shall be one with your flock and easily share conversation, inspiration and good humor.

IX. You shall not fail to promote your exhibitors in your program and from your podium. When your participants are on-site, they shall peruse your printed program and harken to the words emitted by the sound system. Let your exhibitors be named and extolled in these sacred places, that their presence be made known and your respect for them demonstrated.

X. You shall not host exhibitors until the collective heart of your leadership is ready to embrace them as good and worthy partners. To everything, there is a season, and a time to every purpose related to the success of your event: a time to host exhibitors, and a time to cast away the very thought of an expo hall; a time to keep silent about exhibitors and a time to speak about the possibility of inviting them. When your organization can host an expo hall with an open and welcoming heart, then invite good and worthy partners as your space will allow. Until then, do you keep silent about exhibitors.