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The Future of Trade Shows – Luke Bilton on ‘In Case Of An Event’ podcast

The days of digital revenue making up a small amount of an event organiser’s economic model are “long gone”.

That’s the advice from Luke Bilton, ExpoPlatform’s chief growth officer, on the latest episode of In Case Of An Event – a podcast with industry leaders and experts to share success stories, inner secrets and lessons learnt.

Luke told host Hayley Haggarty how organisers can aim towards 25% of revenue being virtual, while also covering data control and the changing landscape of events.

In the interview, he described how his career went from first getting the “digital bug” at Future Publishing before moving into the exhibition business at UBM and Informa.

Luke said he came to believe that much of the future of events industry will belong to online marketplaces.

He told how he first became interested in ExpoPlatform when he was looking for something which could be an all-in-one platform, rather than a “Frankenstein’s monster” of different tools which have to “somehow” be integrated together.

That’s how he came to be involved with the online event vendor – “it’s the right time and it’s the right solution, I believe, for any tradeshow trying to digitise itself.”

Download our free Marketplace Blueprint ebook for a complete guide on setting up an online marketplace.

He added: “I think most organisers want to find a way to reinvent their model and make more money from digital.

“But there’s a lot of lip service being paid to it as well.

“If you are serious about it, then I think a really useful exercise is to forget about the legacy contracts and to start with a blank sheet of paper.

“The objective being to create a pandemic-proof budget where digital is right at the core of packages – and probably represents about 25% of revenue.”

Luke said that live events will still represent the “high-point of engagement”, but firms should place year-round digital subscriptions at the core of their business model.

That would include one or two main physical shows each year while also having some form of ongoing engagement.

Examples of this include monthly virtual meet-ups or webinar series as well as articles and other content.

He said: “It feels like the days of digital just being 5% of the profit and loss (P&L) are long gone.

“Most progressive organisers seem to be aiming for around that 20% – almost 25% – of the product mix.

“You can’t get to that by just adding an upsell to a booth contract – you do really need to think about how you are going to get to that 25% of revenue.”

That figure represents a massive rise from what was reported in the Reinventing Live publication, which found only 2% of exhibition revenues came from digital in 2020.

How to monetise digital events and communities

Luke advised organisers to segment different packages for each tier of customer, which would include a year-round digital listing price.

An entry-level option should be offered to “newbies” such as start-ups or anyone who is not yet a client.

This could be a low or no-cost “freemium” option to have a very basic listing in a marketplace.

Luke explains the benefits of this approach is that having more exhibitors makes the product more attractive to buyers.

It would also give suppliers “a taste of what they could get” from a full listing, gather contact details and nurture them through sales reach outs.

The next stage is to put together packages for clients who want to “make more of an impact”. through content, branding and lead generation, with a strong go-to-market strategy to confidently promote the offerings.”

He added: “Start by having a clear overall statement of intent to create a digital-first business – not just bolting on to the legacy business.

It’s a fairly straightforward process, but the main thing is having that mindset to say ‘I am going to make this work’.”

Who owns the data?

The move to virtual platforms has has created an explosion in attendee information and event data that is redefining the way organisers understand and shape the communities they serve. However, not all event technology platforms handle this information in the same way.

Luke said the industry was witnessing a “collision of two different worlds” – with the introduction of technology and social network capabilities transforming the conversation around data control.

Panellists from world-leading organisers recently highlighted their concerns over platforms owning data in  UFI Connects session in July.

Luke said: “I don’t think anyone’s trying to do it for evil reasons – it’s just a different business model to ours.

“It’s a very different investment pitch if you’re essentially building your own social network – if you’re going to be the Facebook of events – that’s a very different proposition to the one we have.

“I think that people just didn’t really see it coming.”

Luke said he recognises how an event platform controlling the data may create some convenience but questioned “at what cost?”

He added: “If you don’t keep control of your attendee and exhibitor data, there ain’t much left really.”

Pandemic-proof your budget

The interview also covered how events have had to adapt to a changing world – with Covid-19 still looming over the industry.

One of the main success stories in this has been the digital transformation of hosted buyer programmes, as it had proved an effective way to make sure that key buyers “make the effort” to turn up to an event.

Luke said: “We’re hearing from a lot of marketers that we speak to that it’s getting harder and harder to market to people to come to live events at the moment.

“Understandably, because people are out of the habit of it and they’re not sure what’s going to be happening in terms of the Delta variant.

“There’s still a lot of uncertainty, so implementing the right digital tools can help to mitigate some of that risk and help to pandemic-proof your budget.”