Vendor Booths at Conferences Need a Shakedown

Vendor Booths at Conferences Need a Smack Down
Time for a new model?

I was lucky enough to attend the first day of the ITSMF conference in London yesterday. Having spent most of the day in the exhibitor lounge I can’t really comment on the speakers and content, but the whole event was very well organized and it seemed to have a great atmosphere, great networking and great people.

I have previously attended this event as a vendor so it was interesting to see the other side of the fence. Getting people to your stand is an age old problem but the disconnect between vendor booths and delegates seems to be getting worse, especially for tool vendors. This is not a criticism of the ITSMF conference per se, but conferences generally.

Exhibitor Booth – A Twenty-Year Old Concept?

The rest of vendor marketing seems to have moved along with the times with the introduction of email, web seminars and to a degree, social media. But with the exception of electronic swipers and polluting hashtag streams – has the conference vendor booth concept really progressed in twenty years?

The ITSMF team did a good job of delivering a compelling agenda with varied content and speakers. But most of the exhibitor lounge seemed to be disconnected from the delegates like awkward boys and girls at a teenage disco. We’re in the same room, we have shared interests but I’m not sure where to start…

In dating terms the current exhibitor booth model is like a nightclub – your luck in finding a suitable date is strongly dependent on serendipity; who is there at the time and who you happen to bump into. Whereas exhibitor booths should be closer to speed dating – aligning customers with problems with pain with solutions.

I don’t claim to have an answer for this issue, but one idea that springs to mind is breaking the traditional vendor hall into themes as chosen by delegates prior to the conference. So for example some key themes might be consumerization of IT, doing more with less / accountability and maturing your operation.

Exhibitors could populate ‘zones’ dedicated to certain subjects and delegates with an interest in that topic could immerse themselves in what the industry has to say, and offer. For exhibitors – If you don’t feel confident speaking about the key concerns of the industry – what are you doing at the conference?


I believe the disconnect can be boiled down to permission. The marketing guru Seth Godin refers to permission based marketing; the tectonic shift between outbound and inbound marketing. I strongly recommend Seth’s book for anyone trying to grapple with modern marketing, it is very readable and accessible (The much hyped clue-train manifesto remains half-read on my bookcase gathering dust next to ‘A brief history of time’).

Outbound marketing refers to ‘if you throw enough at the wall something will stick’; cold calls, leaflets, advertising. Inbound marketing refers to getting found by prospects and ‘earning their way in’ by providing value.

Let’s start a conversation based on something I know you are interested in, have a brief discussion, then we can both walk away from the show knowing we have something of interest to talk about in the future. I have your permission, a topic of conversation and a common interest. I don’t think swiping my badge in exchange for jelly beans whilst you tell me about your latest release constitutes value.

An intangible part of the conference process is networking, catching up with old colleague in the industry and having a bit of fun. Daft toys , in nothing else, are a bit of fun and good ice breaker. However if I were a marketing manager looking to justify my attendance at such a show it has to be based on hard economics.

These conference are important. Many people in the industry get great value from them. Exhibitor booths are an important part of the financial model of a conference – either the exhibitors need to up their game or the model has to change.

7 thoughts on “Vendor Booths at Conferences Need a Shakedown”

  1. I remember going to the annual travel show at Earl’s Court. All the exhibitors were congregated into the parts of the world they represented, which made it very easy to compare between them. So yes, I think your idea of putting similar vendors together is a great idea!

  2. Thanks Martin. It’s not just a case of assigning them into groups – one vendor might be in several different camps depending on what subject they wanted to cover.

  3. Something similar was going through my mind whilst wandering round the show. Many of the stands felt like closed spaces, a feeling reinforced by how their perimeters were patrolled by those manning the stand. Oddly it didn’t seem such an issue at SDITS.

  4. Maybe with the zone idea we could have a presentation/demonstration area in each zone, with all their stands close by. All exhibitors are given the same number of slots and therefore the same opportunity. The slots would have to be fairly short, with the speed dating principle being applied in that they have to get their key points across in a few minutes. Delegates could then see which ones they are interested in, and seek more information at their booths/stands.
    I’m not sure how many zones you would need to make it work. At least one for tools vendors (but maybe more split in to categories of tools), one for consultants, one for trainers, etc. etc.
    We could schedule specific time in the event schedule so that delegates will be in the exhibition space for a set amount of time so they have the chance to see all the presentations – maybe a service desk tool hour for example, with the vendors each having 5 minutes. We could even do this in the main pleanery room at the beginning of the conference before the breakout stream sessions start. All attendees would get an overview of which exhibitors are there, a very quick pieces of information to help them decide which stands they want to visit.
    The other option is maybe using video which is running on a loop somewhere, so anyone wanting to get a shortlist of service desk tools can watch the video, see all the vendors who are going to be there, and create their own shortlist.
    I know some exhibitors do presentations on their exhibition stands at SDITS, but any of these ideas would give a much more balanced opportunity, and hopefully more chance of a level playing field regardless of marketing budget available – might allow us to get back to value and quality over marketing gimics and prizes.
    What do you think?

  5. Hi Matthew,
    Thanks for your comment and good to see you on Monday, albeit briefly.
    I think all of your ideas are great, anything to increase engagement. I’m not sure about video though, the whole point of a conference is human interaction, if I visit a stand to watch a video I may as well just visit the website.

  6. Martin
    Good to see you too.
    The video idea wasn’t for the stands, it was a suggestion for one of the rooms or made available online so that people could view it without hassle and make a shortlist of the stands they wanted to visit (to see real people and the product/service)

Comments are closed.