Association Shows: Forging Important Partnerships


When you are presenting your exhibit marketing plan to colleagues, brand managers, and senior leadership, you can promote your program by explaining the types of shows in your schedule and the challenges each represents.

There are for-profit shows, and for the most part, they follow a for-profit model that is easy for everyone to understand. On the other hand, association shows are a breed apart. They can wither under intense scrutiny unless you have a good understanding of the part these shows play in a larger marketing context.

How does the association exhibiting world work?

Your contact within the association is the exhibits manager whose responsibility includes maintaining relationships with exhibitors, contractors, and sometimes for booth and sponsorship sales. The association exhibits manager is answerable to those who govern the association—usually professionals from the industry the association represents, members who have been elevated by their peers to be officers. Translation? These are people who know little to nothing about exhibits, and the exhibits manager must not only keep them informed but also happy.

The exhibiting program at association shows provides a significant—if not the largest–part of the association’s revenue. In the past, associations had other income, such as publishing programs. But many of these have fallen on hard times, such as the demise of the “hard copy” in a world where everyone is used to instant digital access. At the same time, raising association dues is not popular with either the leadership of the association or the membership.

When you go to an association show, you will notice that color coded badges identify members and non-members. By allowing non-members to attend the show and charging them a premium registration fee, associations are tapping into another revenue stream. The good news is that this gives exhibitors access to additional professionals; the bad news is that these folks rarely pay their dues to the association and often see the show as the only value accruing to the association.

The relationship between you, the corporate exhibit marketing person, and the exhibits manager at an association is extremely symbiotic. Without the other, neither of you has a job. You both exist in an ecosystem that can at times appear fragile. How can you strengthen that environment? Here are some ways.

  • Get to know the exhibits manager on a personal level. Talk about your challenges—pressure to downsize your exhibit or to drop the show completely for one year; adamant internal refusal to consider a sponsorship that would deliver excellent brand visibility; the demand that financial transactions between your company and the association show become more transparent. Listen to the other side as well—and see how you can arrive at an arrangement that works well for both of you. You will more often than not find your counterpart at the association willing to work within your budget parameters.
  • Take advantage of exhibitor advisory committees (EACs) or other initiatives designed to elicit feedback from exhibitors. If there is no such vehicle, suggest that the association put one in place.
  • Let it be known internally that some key customers or prospects are officers in the association and that it is critical for your company to show association support by participating in the show in a significant way.
  • Ask the account team at your exhibit house to help you navigate association rules and regulations. In all likelihood, they not only work with other clients at the show, but they have probably been involved with this show for a number of years. Your account team is a valuable resource; lean on them!
  • Ask for the exhibits manager’s help in forging a relationship with the show’s contractors—not just the general contractor, but floral, furniture, and the rest, particularly if you don’t have your own preferred vendors. These are important partnerships, and you don’t want to be left out. The most successful exhibitors get to know the floor managers and the people at the service desk.
  • When the show is over, acknowledge the role the association exhibits manager played in helping you be successful. Sending a heartfelt handwritten note to an overworked, overextended ally is a good stepping stone in forging your relationship with the association.

To learn more about navigating the world of association shows and how you can promote your program, contact us for a free strategy session.

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