Trade show cancelled? Event postponed? Here are several ideas to refocus those budget dollars to other tactics that don’t require a large group of people all together in one big room.

I’ve seen a lot of cancellations lately due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While as of this writing (March 16, 2020) it is my sincere hope that the efforts taken to flatten the curve and slow the spread will buy us the time we need to better deal with the novel virus and develop an effective vaccine, in the present, life and business goes on.

Several of my clients have already experienced cancellation or postponement of key industry trade shows, or we’re forecasting they’ll be called off. The cost to the economy is in the billions of dollars already, and will only climb. Huge shows like HiMMS, E3, SXSW and others have been halted. Exhibitors are being refunded for booth space and other costs for everything from carpet to rigging of hanging signs. But some costs are sunk. In the next two weeks I will decide with a client if we cancel an expensive rental we’ve booked or place our bet on the show going on and incurring non-refundable costs for graphics production and other fees related to the rental. Our situation is not unique.

But, when trade shows are called off, the refundable and avoided costs (i.e. travel) go back into the budget. It’s not a windfall, because we’re losing out on the lead generation, brand building and relationship reinforcing opportunities that drive trade show and event attendance in the first place. So how do we refocus those budget dollars to other tactics that don’t require a large group of people all together in one big room?

Here’s some of my top recommendations for tactics to either try for the first time or more heavily invest in if they’re already part of your marketing mix:

1. Advertise. While it seems obvious, it’s worth noting that most people restricting travel will have more time in their respective offices (home offices perhaps), and I’ll bet they’ll spend a bit more time reading the trade journals, industry e-newsletters, and industry websites. I’ve been catching up on my reading, if for no other reason than I’m gaining back the drive time from in-person meetings that have transitioned to phone calls or video conferences. So, bumping up your ad spend is a solid place to put some reallocated trade show dollars. Your trade media will create the inventory if they don’t have it, trust me on this. And as I always say with advertising: “He who has a thing to sell, and goes and whispers in a well, is not so apt to get the dollars, as he who climbs a tree and hollers.”

2. Direct Mail. I love direct mail because the mailbox is less cluttered than it once was. The chance to speak directly with current and potential customers is a big benefit of exhibiting at a trade show. Direct mail can give you a similar opportunity to promote your message. With a show cancellation, contact the show management and ask them for the registered attendee list, perhaps get the prior year’s list as well. The show shouldn’t charge you for this as an exhibitor, if they ask for money, counter with the point that it’s goodwill for them to give it to you at no charge. Then, use the list and send something physical out in the mail that specifically calls attention to the fact your company was to be an exhibitor at the cancelled show the contact was going to attend. Extend an offer to them, something that will help you track the effectiveness of the direct mail. But get something in the mail as soon as you can, timing is of the essence to stand out from the crowd. Then send a follow up piece in another week. Most important of all I think is to be genuine in your message.

3. Webinars. Consider repackaging your message from the trade show into a webinar. If you’d planned to have product demos, do one virtually. New product announcements? Same thing. Get a decent camera and mic setup (or simply use a modern smart phone) and use your favorite software; a Google search will bring up several if you don’t yet have webinar capabilities. Don’t worry about the technical aspects, they’re easy, it’s more important that you create the content. Pick a date and promote your live event to existing customers. Perhaps incentivize some key customers who you know can help you out, to participate in some live Q&A, and record the live webinar. Then, promote the recording to prospective customers and others in your industry to establish thought leadership or fill your sales funnel. Webinars are also very trackable, and can be a good part of your marketing mix.

4. Promotional Email. Similar to direct mail, promotional email is simply another vehicle to reach your audience. You can’t spam people who have not opted in to receive your message, but you can get creative with email lists. For instance, you’re likely okay sending email to registered attendees of a cancelled show you were a planned exhibitor at. Use messaging that’s harmonious with your physical direct mail, and send email in tandem with the physical. This one-two punch increases effectiveness of your campaign. And treat promotional email like a campaign. Use an email marketing platform of your choice to do the sending and tracking. Promotional email can be perhaps the most effective way to promote your webinars. The benefits of promotional email over direct mail are primarily the speed of deployment, lower costs, and precise tracking. But, I don’t view them as one or the other. When reallocating your trade show budget, spend some funds on both. The whole is greater than the sum of their parts.

5. Existing Customer Gifts. Everyone knows it’s more cost effective to retain an existing customer than to get a new one, and when events are cancelled you lose the relationship reinforcing opportunities that help bring your customers closer to you. Oftentimes, businesses host cocktail hours or have dinners scheduled with key customers during trade shows. I’ve designed many trade show booths that include private customer lounges. It’s all in the name of making your existing customers feel valued. When these in-person opportunities are gone, consider doing something that may have a similar impact. Granted, you can’t replicate the value of a shared meal or chat over a cocktail via a gift or “thank you”, but you have the opportunity to create a new special moment. Everyone wants to feel appreciated, and sending a gift of value “just because” to your current customers is a surefire way to stand out from your competition. You may do this around the holidays, and very well may have different tiers of gifts based upon customer value. Follow the same plan here.

6. Website Updates. Websites are never done. But with a shift to more remote marketing activities, reallocate some of your trade show budget and your time not spent on the show to your website. Everyone likely has a “wish list” of updates and additions they’d like to make to their company website, but the excuses of not having the time or money for them should be much less compelling now. Plus, as you’re stepping up other marketing activities, enhancements to your website can have a positive cumulative effect. Add a section to host your webinar recordings. Refresh some older content. Expand product information or beef up the section that supports any planned new product announcements you’d have made at the trade show. Websites are always important marketing assets, but may become more valuable as travel restrictions take hold.

7. Videos. A picture is worth a thousand words, a video is worth many times more. Need new product videos? Work with your agency partner to create some. Live action, computer rendered or 3D animated, white board style, whatever suits your needs. Point is, video content that’s well polished and professionally produced becomes another marketing asset to help promote your product or service to prospective customers, reinforce the purchase decision existing customers have made, and establish credibility and thought leadership within your industry. Costs for video are like anything, the question may come down to “how high is up”, but a good place to start may be to expand some existing trade show video loops you may already have in the can. Or redo them if they’ve become dated.

8. Social Media. Get more social virtually. Take some of the new content you’ve been creating and share it to your social channels. Carve out some extra budget to boost posts and run some social media ad campaigns. Spend more time interacting with your social feeds. Don’t just publish, listen and respond. Follow hashtags that are relevant to you. Participate on posts that the organizers of the cancelled events are publishing. If you don’t have the time internally, lean on your agency partners to pick up the slack. They were likely working on your trade show for you, but with that off the table, they’ll have the available capacity to increase your social participation.

9. Research. Now may be a good opportunity to partner up with the trade show organizers to do some research. What would you like to have some data on in your industry? Sponsor a survey that the show organizers could promote for you. I’d recommend a blind survey, where your company isn’t disclosed as the one gathering the information, but it really depends upon what your goals are. It might be as simple as trying to identify future buying trends, have those in the industry planned to delay new investments? Or you can craft a survey to gain competitive intelligence. Research can take many forms, but in the time of tightened travel, an online survey or phone interviews are likely the best methods to pursue.

10. Public Relations. Trade shows are always a natural opportunity to issue a press release or hold a press event. But with events no longer an option, other public relations tactics can be of value. Press releases are a starting place and trade media will often provide coverage for most topics. Beyond issuing releases, look into pitching article ideas to the media, or making key executives available for quotes or interviews on relevant topics. It’s a good idea to work with a partner on your PR efforts as earned media is much more nuanced that paid media. But, you should have available time and budget to support your PR efforts.

The point of all of these ideas is to make the best of a potentially bad situation. I have some clients who allocate fully half of their annual marketing budget to trade shows and events. So, losing the opportunities the trade shows provide can put a big dent in the effectiveness of their overall marketing. Being able to pivot and shift your time and budget dollars to alternate tactics will help you come out of this temporary downturn in activity stronger. Rest assured, trade shows and events will be back, how quickly and effectively you adapt your marketing will dictate how much impact it has on your business.

Looking for guidance or just need to bounce an idea off someone new? Contact Matt Birchard directly at: 503-297-1791 ext. 1 or via email.