Meeting Mentor Magazine

December 2023

What Works Now to Drive Attendance to Large Events

A new report explores how attendee marketers are attracting pre-pandemic levels of attendance to their shows.

The trade show industry has faced some extraordinary headwinds in its COVID comeback story. From global supply-chain challenges that make it harder for exhibitors to participate to high levels of staff turnover that make it tough to target potential attendees, not to mention the rising cost of attending thanks to inflation, it’s still tough to pull in pre-pandemic numbers for some large-show organizers. Even the industry’s bellwether giant tech show CES is still down from the 170,000 it pulled in just before COVID hit, though it did double its 2023 attendance over its 2022 numbers.

Some of these issues already are resolving themselves — such as reduced attendance and exhibitor participation from Asia due to COVID restrictions, which now have lifted. Others are proving a bit more complicated to tease out, though the Center for Exhibition Research (CEIR) Index does anticipate exhibitions will continue to build this year and hit a full recovery in 2024.

So, what are attendee marketers doing now to successfully rebuild their attendee audiences? A new CEIR report, Attendee Acquisition Trends Driving Growth, Report One: Planning, Performance Metrics, Costs, Gross Revenues and Outcomes, outlines some of the ways organizers are successfully bringing back their attendees, as well as some of the remaining challenges they still have to overcome. The report, based on responses from 273 producers of B2B exhibitions, is the first in a series of initiatives CEIR is creating to help event organizers get the data they need to get back to, and exceed, 2019 performance levels.

As CEIR vice president of research Nancy Drapeau explained, “Successful marketers are laser-focused on areas where they can succeed in attracting the most professionals to their events. This report identifies which performance metrics are most successful in meeting or exceeding 2019 results.”

Time to Rebuild the Database

Between the so-called great resignation, where many moved to different companies, different positions, or even different industries altogether, plus a wave of COVID-induced retirements, databases of potential attendees may need some retooling to be effective now, the report found. While the depth of the issue varies depending on the industry the show serves, most show organizers are likely faced with having to revisit, and possibly rebuild, their databases. The most effective strategy in this area, the report found, is to focus on new attendees rather than rely on the formerly reliable regulars — who may have moved on.

To target those individuals, some organizers are developing personas of their target attendee and developing marketing programs geared to attract each of those target personas. Other popular tactics are to work in partnership with other organizations serving the target audience, such as exhibitor and partner invitation programs, working with key buyers and local organizations. 

Dealing with Late Registrants

Attendees are much more commitment-phobic when it comes to registering to attend a show now than they used to be. Sixty-three percent of event organizer respondents to the new CEIR survey said that the vast majority — 90% — of their attendees wait until the show is just four weeks or less away. This is almost double the number of late registrants CEIR found in research it did just five years ago.

To combat the issue, successful attendee marketers are playing the waiting game as well, the research found. While in 2018 just 37% of organizers started their outreach eight months or less before the show dates, now 64% said they’re inside that eight-month marketing window. And even if you get them to sign up, they still may end up being no-shows: The report found that an average of about 84% of those who register show up on site for the event.

So Long, Hybrid Expos

While many meeting organizers are sticking with their hybrid plans, at least for the near term, show organizers are ready to let go of a model that never really worked all that well for them to begin with. And the larger the show, the less likely they are to provide a remote participation option, the report found. While 22% still included an online attendance option for their most recent show, just 13% of shows with at least 10,000 attendees provided a hybrid option. No-show rates for virtual options are even worse than for in-person shows, with just under 74% of those who register for the digital version actually tuning in online.

Travel Expense Still a Barrier

Though COVID-era travel restrictions are mostly by-the-boards at this point, travel cost inflation most definitely is not. And this is a problem for attendee marketers, the report found. In fact, 57% said the high cost of travel to the show is a top challenge. But it’s not just travel that costs more nowadays — everything show-related is more expensive now, including registration fees. But the vast majority of exhibitions — 83% — still charge registration fees, which make up an average of almost 38% of their gross revenues.

So, What Works?

When it comes to messaging, there still are ways to resonate with today’s more cash-strapped, hard-to-find potential attendees, the report found. The messaging CEIR respondents said most resonated with their attendees included connecting with their community, face-to-face engagement, and speaking to key values of the channel. It also helps if the marketing materials are written in a way that is specific to attendees, which is why many are developing and using target personas to better reach specific attendee demographics.

In a CEIR webinar that shared a preview of this data, “When we’re getting ready to start planning for another year, another event, the first thing we look at is last year’s feedback,” Jennifer Yarber, Senior Marketing Director, Design Group at Emerald, said. “What are their changing needs, what problems do we need to fix and what content is top of mind for them? We use all of that to build our programming. If we’re not building content that’s top of mind, attendees will register for a competing event that’s thinking more thoughtfully about it.” 

While content, personalized pitches and collaboration with other organizations are key, it also helps to have a multichannel approach, the report said. While social media content marketing, automated marketing, retargeting and discounts are also popular tactics, don’t rule out good old-fashioned email campaigns. During the webinar, Drapeau said, “Email is the digital tactic people love to hate, but consistently it delivers. It’s found to be one of the most effective tactics in generating registration.” Other tried-and-trues that still work are telemarketing, especially when it’s highly targeted, direct mail to a house list, and trade magazine print advertising.

The webinar, which was moderated by CEIR CEO Cathy Breden, CMP-F, CAE, CEM and co-presented by Drapeau along with Director of Event Experience for the American College of Healthcare Executives Gregg Lapin, CMP as well as Yarber, included examples of how marketing campaigns reflect the trends uncovered in this study. Access the webinar here. The report now is available for download on the CEIR website for a $49 fee.

What strategies are you using to increase attendance at your events? Please share your thoughts by emailing the editor at

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