There is a special meetings industry breed of VIP that struts its stuff around the aisles and corridors of our leading trade shows. Feted by suppliers and exhibitors, paid for by organisers, these kings and queens of the meetings industry confex have access all areas and their numbers often provide the barometer for a show’s success.
But where did it all start?
IMEX Chairman Ray Bloom is accredited with being the architect of the hosted buyer programme. While running EIBTM in 1988 in Geneva, he says he realised that seven months out from the show the level of buyers being attracted was a concern.
So an offer was made through newspapers and the trade press to pay for top buyers to come to the show. The only hotel group involved then, he says, was the Sheraton.
“We brought in 650 hosted buyers that first year and 1,000 in the second and grew the figure thereafter,” says Bloom.
“Now,” he says, “the hotel sector supplies over half the hosted buyer numbers, although trade associations, trade press and agencies are also important.”
Today the hosted buyer is typically an agency, association or corporate buyer of meetings space, accommodation and events. Hosted Buyer (HB) programmes, whether they are part of a trade show programme, a destination fam. trip or a hosted site inspection, are one of the most effective elements of any business development strategy for the meetings industry. That is certainly the view of Paul Kennedy, MBE, who oversaw the Reed Travel Exhibitions HB programmes for many years.
“Hosted programmes are the cornerstone of the most successful trade shows such as IMEX and the Reed portfolio with EIBTM as its cornerstone,” says Kennedy, who now advises the Slovenian Tourism Board on the most appropriate strategy for its young MICE industry show (Conventa) which targets south-east Europe.
“Small shows such as Conventa are evolving their more modest programmes. Conventa is targetting 250 international buyers with an offer of full catering and fam trips for all who request them and pass the specific qualifying criteria,” says Kennedy, who underlines the real cost of these programmes can be high. “But,” he says, “the potential return on investment (ROI) is much, much higher, because generally they include travel, 4/5 star hotel accommodation, ground transfers, some business networking sessions (in some cases these are viewed as mandatory) or receptions and parties.
“In exchange for this degree of hosting, which for some long haul events includes Business Class travel, buyers generally have to undertake a minimum number of pre-scheduled appointments. The issue of mandating the appointments is one of the more controversial aspects of some schemes but the harsh reality is that without some form of penalty, history shows that compliance to pre-scheduled appointments is relatively low, with as much as 33 per cent no-shows.”
The planner perspective can be quite different.
“Some senior planners believe they should be hosted without any pre-requisites, while the majority are content to do a reasonable number of appointments while having sufficient time to explore the show,” says Kennedy.
“Some events require 7/8 15-minute appointments per day chosen by the buyer. The reality is that, even allowing for walking between appointments, this only commits buyers to three hours of the day for appointments. I believe this is a fair balance, exchanging professional time for the not insignificant cost of hosting.”
Bloom says eight meetings at IMEX is a minimum requirement for buyers.
There are group appointments and 50,000 individual, buyer-driven appointments at IMEX. “It is a two-way dialogue,” Bloom stresses, and notes there are also pre-show marketing opportunities for the exhibitors to reach the buyers.
SMS marketing and buyer webinars are other technology-driven methods of matching buyers with exhibitors.
Bloom emphasises that for all the checking no system is foolproof, but says that buyers who don’t conform to the minimum requirements are simply not asked again.
The back office systems to deal with such a body of very demanding professionals is obviously of critical importance. Gone are the days when the appointment scheduling is done manually.
Kennedy advocates using professional recruiters, hotel groups, and research companies to ensure the screening process is as good as it can be.
“Some form of qualifying panel or specialist company is one of the most important elements of the whole programme,” Kennedy adds.
“It still amazes me that the traditional bag ladies/men and the well known freeloaders still manage to get onto HB programmes. I believe this is simply down to organisers and destinations believing they know what to do without employing specialists.”
Such a tactic, Kennedy warns, can be “cheaper up front but perversely more expensive in the long run”.
At Conventa, buyers not recruited through a professional recruiter are required to pay a registration fee, “designed,” says Kennedy, “to ensure the well known freeloading brigade, who like to drink and stuff themselves with food, don’t attend.”
“The HB is a future client not a commodity,” Kennedy adds, saying that in the same way that the professional credentials of hosted buyers should be screened and a reasonable balance struck between the number of appointments and roaming time, the supply side must also step up to the plate.
“Sitting on your backside and paying lip service to the buyer who arrives for the appointment is unprofessional and simply rude. It is very common, however. Some exhibitors have so many desks they make it almost impossible to get onto a stand.”
Gripes from buyers include being herded around like cattle, and approaches more akin to selling a tourist product rather than a business solution.
“Too many exhibitors talk about space, numbers and rates and fail to listen to the buyers’ needs and the actual objectives of their events,” Kennedy says, stressing that if these programmes are managed properly a highly effective face-to-face business development environment is created.
“The ROI from HB expenditure can be measured and tracked precisely,” he adds, but warns that it involves “complex work and amateur nights should be avoided”.
Real buyers, after all provide real ROI.
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