Who’s Counting

As the subject of auditing rumbles on in the media industry, the question of event auditing continues to be a subject many organisers choose to ignore. Let’s face facts: If show organisers didn’t have a reputation for exaggerating their attendance figures, the question of whether trade shows should be audited would be moot. But whether the practice is prevalent today or a relic of the past, it has marred the industry’s reputation and created an atmosphere of doubt.

What, you don’t agree that attendance figures are massaged?

Look at a couple of headlines from some recent events. “…it is the fastest growing exhibition of its kind. With an increase of more than 24% on 2016 attendance figures” “… said attendance figures for the first two-days of the event were double those in 2015”. Notice there’s no ACTUAL numbers. A 24% increase on 100 visitors would exactly float an exhibitor’s boat. A figure of 100% seems just a little to bit perfect, doesn’t it? The added worry about this claim was that it was made about an event that had been made annual. Now, the question has to be asked, “Do you really expect us to believe that a shows attendance grew 100% because you turned it annual?”

Those who’ve done shows for a while get to know which show producers deliver what they promise. Their number one interest in attending a show is generating qualified sales leads. If an organiser makes unsubstantiated claims about the number of qualified buyers at a show by saying they had 20,000 people at the last show, so what? Tell me something else. What was the buying power of those people? Who makes the purchasing decisions? How long before they buy?

Look at some figures and ask yourself, ‘What did they pad that with? Did they ring 0800-RENTACROWD?” Attendance claims that aren’t backed by credible research aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. The scary fact is that of the 9,000 or so events that take place around the world each year, only 1.56% are audited. So why don’t organisers audit?

Undoubtedly auditing trade shows has a high cost. For an average-size three-day show, an audit can cost $5,000-$7,000. Though exhibitors may be willing to absorb the added expense, show organisers question whether they’ll see a measurable return on the investment. Certainly it would be difficult to quantify the number of exhibitors you might win over with published audit results. But despite the fact that auditing elevates the market, companies gain business from trade shows, surely it’s only fair, correct and professional to properly audit a show.

Many firms have been found to inflate their numbers because an organised method has not been designed yet. In general an organiser will take the actually attendance, add a percentage for people coming back on other days, add another percentage for VIP’s, exhibitors (because they are, after all, visitors!) another percentage for people who refuse to register and a bit more because “we haven’t reached the figure I first thought of yet”.

In today’s climate of corporate downsizing and corresponding reductions in marketing budgets there is an intensified competition for budget dollars, leading to resurgence in the interest of trade show audits. But auditing events isn’t new. The Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) first started investigated ways to audit trade shows in the 1960s. But many organisers are reluctant to do their own research to backup ABC figures.

Although attendance figures aren’t the overriding criteria for companies to decide where to allocate marketing dollars, they are a starting point. If companies are able to provide false numbers, they will affect investors. Providing the numbers is beneficial to other companies in the market. With a shift of marketing dollars into the industry since the ‘80’s, show organisers have grown increasingly complacent. The need for research, much less formal audits, seems remote. But business press publishers, who have suffered losses in ad page revenues, have indulged in “media warfare,” and use the lack of verified attendance data as a key weapon in their attack on trade shows.

Every presentation an ad agency makes is backed by research that supports how their program is going to meet the customer’s needs. Without comparable data i.e. audience demographics and buying power, events suffer in the comparison. By ignoring the research practices and procedures of their media competition, trade shows are allowing themselves to be outflanked.

For those sceptics who question whether an audit report can adequately reflect the quality of the show, ABC’s stresses that audit information isn’t the be all and end all. Events do survey-based research in addition to having their attendance verified. There is a strong analogy to print media. ABC has been doing this for 80+ years, and almost all magazines do proprietary research as well as having their figures audited. Essentially you need both. You put your audit figures together with research to get the complete picture of your show.

Though many show managers currently use in-house research to provide demographic data, independent audits have more credibility. Certainly those in the research business know how to skew the questions to get the answers you want. But research shouldn’t be done in house, because it’s viewed with scepticism. The actual procedures used to verify attendance and demographics vary, but the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) is trying to standardize the process.

The primary question has to be, do show organisers have the courage to invite scrutiny of their attendance figures? More importantly would they be prepared to be punished if they were to be found to be making statements that were misleading?

The AEO’s (The Association of Event Organisers) code of practice states “Attendance: Members undertake to record and publish attendance by visitors at fairs accurately and to issue attendance figures to exhibitors on request”. Would the Association be prepared to vilify those who fall foul of their Code and or throw them out of the association?

The fact that an exhibitor’s decision may ultimately rest on something as intangible as “attitude” fuels the argument against trade show audits. There’s nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come. If exhibitors, sponsors and visitor refused to do a show if an organiser didn’t provide figures the industry would jump immediately. Essentially the Middle East’s event industry needs to be seen to be as professional as possible. If a new exhibitor goes with a show that makes false claims about their attendance figures, they may have a bad experience. They won’t go back to that show and may not go back to trade shows in general. As a result they’re a lost prospect for the industry. Validated numbers give credibility to trade shows and assist in retaining customers.

Unfortunately the events industry has managed to hang itself by using attendance numbers as a yardstick for measuring success. If the industry continues to be dogged by numbers, what is it going to do when the numbers are flat, but attendees think it’s the best show they’ve ever been to?

A lot of organisers will argue that the issue is one of quality versus quantity. Attendance verification does not capture the human element that is unique to trade shows as a marketing medium and of course audience quality is a top consideration. The question is how show organisers should measure that quality. Is it buying power or how much money is spent at a show?

For some organisers the answer is to track attendance using computerised registration systems, then not release their numbers. Why? Let’s use a recent show as an example. An industry slump forced business owners to come alone, rather than bringing their staff along. Event attendance numbers dropped significantly, but the buying was virtually unchanged. The owner was there to do serious buying, without the distraction of partying with staff. What would an attendance audit have said about that show?

Of course there are those who resist audience figures on a lot of levels. Some are worried they’re giving competitors an opportunity to look at your information and give them an opportunity to sell against them. Theoretically, if an organiser has audited results, exhibitors can base a decision knowing they’re credible. But if take a competitor’s results, the decision is being based on the reputation of the show producer. If a show has 10,000 attendees and the competitor has 20,000, one is audited and the other isn’t, who do you believe? It’s a vicious circle.

There is however, one argument against trade show audits that no one really wants to talk about. If attendance figures have been “exaggerated” in the past, how do you come clean? If you’re the first one who ‘fesses up and produces real numbers, it becomes difficult to go up against the competition.

The transition to standardized audit reporting will be slow and arduous. For some, it will take time to close the gap between perception and reality. Internal reviews will verify attendance, and when the claims closely match the actual numbers, the audit reports will be made public. There are several shows that wanted to get audited, but can’t publish the results. It’s going to take a three-year period to let the gap between reality and their results close.

Ultimately, it will be those that pay that will put pressure on event organisers to substantiate their attendance claims. The bottom line is that those who participate in events have not said that they are going to exhibit at audited shows. If a show producer feels auditing his events will help, he’ll do it. You would hope that any forward-thinking show producer should participate on a voluntary basis.

The audit debate is indicative of an industry in search of a tangible solution to an intangible problem; one of validity, credibility and accountability. The party atmosphere of a bygone era has left a bitter aftertaste. No matter how mightily event organisers strive to establish a reputation for professionalism and quality, doubt lingers on in the minds of their prospective customers. Submitting to an audit, and making the results public, is one way to dispel that doubt.

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