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September 15, 2010

Bill Blenkarn :Selling the dream

Events are changing but the way we sell them hasn’t moved on from the heydays of the 90s. Auxilium Events’ Bill Blenkarn believes that a new, intelligent model that moves away from the traditional “churn them out” sales mentality, can inject life and money back into the events sector.
Historically, budgets for participating in events (be it as an exhibitor or delegate) have not been that large – although they have certainly been big enough to enable companies to attend a reasonable range of trade shows. The tough economy is further compounding this and increasingly companies are seeing the idea of their staff taking two or three days out of the office at a conference or exhibition as a non-productive activity.

This is making the role of sales in the event space even more challenging. The days of the early 90s when you would turn up to work, sit back and watch the faxed orders rolling in are long gone.

I believe this has actually made the role of sales more interesting. The economy is driving event organisers to look at the format of their events to see how they can drive return on investment (ROI) for both delegate and exhibitor. This in turn means that, as sales professionals, we have a clear and powerful business benefit to hang our sales message off.

The problem is that while events are changing, most sales teams aren’t. Many sales people are not motivated or are targeted in the right way to drive success. Too often, we hear the same tired excuses being rolled out by businesses and accepted by sales teams: “it’s a tough economy and there is no budget”; “marketing have pulled events from their budget but they will re-look at it for next year”; “we don’t seem to get any return from these events”; or “the show is not targeted enough”.
While it’s easy to say that these are sloppy objections, at the end of the day that is exactly what they are. The economy is not the excuse, nor marketing, nor ROI. The problem is the way that sales teams are approaching prospective clients or delegates.

While, in many cases, I believe, that event organisers need to change their approach to focus on the benefit a sponsor gets or the experience a delegate receives, what the sales team needs to do is take on more of a consultancy role. In short we need to think outside the traditional “churn them out” sales mentality and take the blinkers off. Exhibitors want more than just a shell scheme booth, and we need to understand the potential markets that the prospect is looking to target and how the event we’re selling can help them reach those markets. We also need to appraise these opportunities with a sense of realism, and not be afraid to ask ourselves whether it is worth our time chasing this or that company. You get many proud sales people saying they’ve made 80-100 calls in one day. While that is great, what value did those calls actually have?

It would be better to identify key areas within an event and then target that audience more creatively. The events sector has been quick to embrace virtual technology, and this can work well for sales too. For a recent show we were working on we broke the agenda down into sections, then indentified which suppliers would be potential sponsors for each area. From this we created a small amount of content for each of those areas and created a webinar. To this we invited a previous delegate to join and tell the audience about their experience and, more importantly, what value the show brought to them.

The session drove a high level of interest and in the end 29 potential exhibitors registered for the webinar. OK, this is not the 100 calls in day, but the time spent to actually understand and break down the agenda, create targeted marketing/sales campaigns meant that we had a far higher conversion rate. So, it was money well spent.

The reality is that events are changing and we need to change the way we sell and market them. By moving to a more targeted and intelligent sales model which is about helping people to understand the benefits an event can bring to them rather than trying to force feed it to them, event organisers can reap serious rewards and cost savings, and bring a struggling industry back to its feet.

Bill Blankarn is director at business relationships at Auxilium Events

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