14 Feb 2019

Time for a New Toolbox?

Time for a New Toolbox?
Sam Lippman

Exhibit sales are up. Sponsorship sales are up. That’s what U.S. organizers reported in the 2018 Benchmarks and Trends in Exhibit and Sponsorship Sales. This trend has been strengthening over the past several years.

It almost makes us feel just a little guilty to point out signs of weakness in data this positive. However, weakness for some is often an opportunity for someone else.

Reading the data closely, it becomes clear that all this good news is primarily a function of expanding markets and rising demand. America’s exhibition sales revenues are strong and growing because the markets they serve are thriving.

Respondents who reported increases in exhibit space sales reached a four-year high of 72 percent. On the sponsorship sales side, respondents who reported revenue increases reached a 3-year high of 66 percent. The research was conducted by Freeman and Lippman Connects and released at  the Exhibit Sales Roundtable (ESR), produced by Lippman Connects.

If strong market demand is doing the heavy lifting, the flip side is that  some of America’s sales professionals are not  finding ways to resolve persistent challenges.

A case in point is the long-standing challenge of proving an exhibition’s value to the customer. It tops the list of sales challenges year after year. Likewise, year after year, respondents claim that attendee demographic data is the most effective tool to address this challenge.

Let’s face it, attendee demographics cannot prove return on investment (ROI). Yet, year after year this remains the status quo.

Nevertheless, U.S. respondents consistently say it is their most effective sales tool. The reason is obvious: attendee demographics is the one tool everyone has at their disposal. There are better tools available to help fill the void, like data on attendee actions. The study suggests that such tools have not yet achieved widespread adoption.

Let that sink in for a minute. Customers are unwavering in demanding proof of ROI. And rather than respond aggressively with better solutions, sales professionals keep using a tool that does not meet those demands. That sounds to us like an invitation to disruption, or at least competition.

The data also showed signs of other possible disruptions that we will continue to monitor.  Most significantly, 40 percent of respondents report that over the past few years they have seen an increase in customers that use agencies to purchase space or sponsorships. Should those increases build to a critical mass, the  exhibition industry will be forced to adapt to a different kind of customer.

Another area deserving further observation is the growth of sponsorship at the expense of exhibit space. Although revenues from both sources are currently strong and growing, cannibalizing one to feed the other would be a game-changer. In the 2018 study, 22 percent reported more customers downsizing exhibit space to increase sponsorship spending.

A two-page Executive Summary of the 2018 study is available for complimentary download at The complete study is available to clients of the Exhibit Sales Roundtable. The 2019 study is in the field now and will debut at ESR.