In the past year I have been invited to speak at two different, but equally prestigious tradeshows. Both attract an audience of my ideal clients and both are free to attend. But my invite to speak came with a catch, the organisers would love to have me speak … if I were only to purchase a stand at the event.
Now, let’s put this in context. As one lovely salesperson at one of those events made clear to me, the “buy a stand to speak” rule mostly applies to suppliers, especially “niche” ones. If you are a buyer or have already made your name, the floor is yours. If your business is in making buyers’ lives more comfortable and more successful, come with cash in hand, please.
Honestly, it is understandable. The truth is that suppliers go to tradeshows with selling in mind and the Return on Investment at any of these shows should easily outstrip the initial investment. Notice the “should“.
There are never any guarantees. Personally, I have seen some sessions at tradeshows where the speaker has obviously done everything they could to attract an audience (and probably paid a big chunk of their annual marketing budget for a stand) only to end up speaking to about three people, one of whom thought this was another session and only stayed because they were British.
And of course, if you are a smaller supplier, the likelihood is that your time in the limelight (if speaking to three people and a few moths can be seen as the limelight) means that noone is there on your stand. What you gain on the possibility of landing new business through speaking, you are losing in opportunity cost.
While I understand the underlying mathematics and logic of linking buying a stand with speaking, the speaker and buyer in me is growing sceptical. As a speaker, I know for sure that a need to sell will kill any talk and, if you have paid significant sums to speak, it will be tough to erase the need to sell from your presentation. Few speakers manage it and so encouraging a “buy a stand to do a talk” model is probably not in the interests of any tradeshow audience, who are there to learn, not to get the hard sell.
As a buyer (and yes I have looked to buy from companies I have met a tradeshows), I really want to see education and selling treated separately. Yes, buyer education is part of the sales process but I personally walk away from any presentation where the two get confused.
If you learn something from someone, you may wish to buy from them. But there is a difference between going to a talk to learn and meeting them with the intent to buy.
I am sure that there are lots of success stories of business people laying out the cash to speak at tradeshows and seeing success. But I have yet to read one on the website of any show. I am sure that there are cases of the pay-to-speak system opening paths for speakers who wouldn’t normally have even gotten near the stage at a big show. But again, I have yet to read one. And I wonder how many excellent speakers it is actively putting off.
Instead, I have read several speakers write rather bluntly and disparagingly about the practice. I have come across stories of people deciding not to attend a show at all when they found out that paying for a stand was a route to getting a speaking slot. I know of one show which saw less footfall last year and can’t help wonder if their “buy a stand to speak” policy had something to do with it.
As a trained researcher, I have to go with the data and at the moment, I haven’t seen any data that shows me that “buy a stand to speak” is in the interests of speakers, their audience or the bottom-line. I would love to see such data. But for now, if I am invited to speak, I will reflexively check if I have to buy a stand. And if I have to buy a stand, I will simply walk away, knowing that there are other, less financially onerous ways to get excellent content to potential clients, especially with excellent organisations, such as Hashtag Events, showing that the practice is anything but universal.