With exhibitions and conferences in full-swing post-pandemic, so is the efforts of events and organisers to lock in sponsorships. Mahyar Ebrahimi, Head of Content at Strategic Intelligence Forum, explains why a successful conference is not a one-sided journey and what most companies get wrong when participating in an event…
Challenge the ‘why’
The conference landscape across the UAE has been booming, much to the excitement of communities eager for physical meetings following the long event slumber imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, as events experience a post-COVID renaissance in a country that has already positioned itself as a hub that attracts Meetings, Incentives, Conferences & Exhibitions (MICE) participants worldwide, experts believe it’s also a ripe time for participants to thoroughly reflect on their participation to break the monotony and challenge the why of their investment.
Mahyar Ebrahimi, Head of Content for Strategic Intelligence Forum is one such expert. Ebrahimi has worked on many large-scale and technical conferences in the region, including the Abu Dhabi Smart City Summits, the Retrofit Tech series of events, the RAK Energy Summit, and many more. Based on his observations, Ebrahimi urges companies to remember that successful participation in conferences is not a one-sided journey. He explains that companies need an accurate and clear idea of such investments' tangible and intangible benefits, as mismatched expectations can lead to dissatisfaction. Thus, Ebrahimi challenges each company looking to participate in or sponsor an event to ask themselves: “Do you really know what you went to get out of it?”
A missed branding opportunity
Ebrahimi says this step is crucial as he believes not enough is done by companies to properly assess the unique benefits the different types of events have to offer. Differentiating between exhibitions and conferences, Ebrahimi points out that while exhibitions can have a conference element, and conferences often have a small exhibition outside, they’re fundamentally different to both audiences and potential sponsors and exhibitors.
Touching on the typical packages companies opt for during these conference schemes, Ebrahimi says that companies commonly sponsor to get a speaking slot with an added option of an exhibition booth which they may or may not forego. Combined, they are a branding opportunity that would be unique to the sponsors, given that networking is a benefit available to both sponsors and paid delegates.
However, what separates a successful participation from an unsuccessful one is determined by the quality of people designated to optimise the opportunity. Ebrahimi says, “Companies need to ask themselves; do I have the right people speaking? I’ve seen many companies that waste thousands of dollars for a speaking slot for 15-20 minutes by having people that don’t have the skill set to make the most of the time they are given. If I had one piece of advice, as a consultant, I would say, to take the time to fix your presentation and have a good presenter that can communicate well in English. Even if you have the most technically knowledgeable expert presenting, if they are unable to communicate effectively, the audience will only capture the information they effectively communicate – the rest is always lost in translation.”
Ebrahimi says the same thinking applies to sponsors investing in conference exhibition booths. “An exhibition slot increases your chance and provides an opportunity to meet clients, but it’s not magic,” he stresses. “For companies that say they didn’t get any sales, I’d urge them to look closer at their sales force. Are they well-equipped and well-informed to speak to the right people in the right way? That’s one of the most common problems in the Middle East.”
For larger exhibitions, the lack of targeted audiences, partly due to broad attendee profiles, limited representation from key stakeholders and difficulty in reaching decision-makers can be an issue. Ebrahimi admits that HVAC audiences are not as abundant in many large-scale exhibitions. “I’ve had many people say I get more job applications than leads,” he says. “So, the metric for measuring audience quality is connected to measuring ROI. However, as mentioned, some exhibitors have no business development people at their booths and instead, opt for hired hosts or ushers. Others have their most junior salespeople manning the booths, while the more effective ones set out to get meetings and meet clients. And so, when they say they had the wrong audience in the room, I’d argue that they had the wrong people at their booths too.” He says this sets events and conferences in the Middle East apart compared to parallel events, such as ISH, largely considered the world's leading trade fair for HVAC and Water held in Germany, which often sees the best salespeople that companies have invested in training.
Gauging interest and managing expectations
The intention for pointing this out, Ebrahimi says, isn’t to deter manufacturers from participating and sponsoring events but merely to encourage more active participation to capture the opportunities in the market truly. “When it comes to branding, it’s about being seen,” he says. “Many consultants or developers have remarked that if a particular company is not in an event they are participating in, they might consider them not big enough of a player or think, ‘Oh, they must not be trying to get our business’. That’s often the binary factor in branding.”
The second factor is placement, says Ebrahimi. “Sponsorship has a higher dollar value, but the conversion rate is much higher than if you were just an exhibitor,” he explains. “If you sponsor one event as opposed to exhibiting at two, you get more exposure in that one event. Of course, geodiversity also plays a key role; you can’t compare events in Dubai to events in Abu Dhabi, for instance.” Which is why, he says, it’s crucial for companies to properly assess what the event has to offer. “Companies often get event “FOMO” (fear of missing out) because of the first binary factor: branding. So, if they have USD 30,000 to spend in events, they can spend USD 5,000 to exhibit at 6 events. That’s fine, each company has their objectives and strategy, but there must be a clear idea of what each event has to offer. There are scenarios where spending that USD 30,000 on sponsoring two or even just one highly relevant conference in a significant way can bring in more business and provide a better ROI.”
Branding, as it relates to events, can be measured in dollar value, he says. What many exhibitions do, is measure how many ads were placed and how many mentions were used on social media. These are metrics for a portfolio of events' success. “In terms of PR,” he further explained. “It’s about the number of news articles or TV coverage, that’s how we measure dollar value by saying you got USD 350,000 worth of ads, but you paid USD 8,000, so companies must remember the benefits might not always translate to a company objective metric.”
A reminder of why content and case studies matter
These issues are further compounded by the increasing number of HVAC conferences in the UAE, overlapping event schedules and fragmented attendee base and overall difficulty in standing out and attracting attention amidst competition. Against this backdrop and as a final word, Ebrahimi says it is important to remember that content is key for a successful conference at the end of the day. The agenda and speaker line-up, he says, will always be the biggest draw for people, especially as not enough emphasis on content and too much emphasis on sales pitches can be demotivating for audiences.
Ebrahimi also firmly believes that case studies are the most effective tool in the presenters’ toolbox. “From a sales, marketing, and even psychological perspective, case studies are the way to go,” he says. “The number one thing I say as a consultant is case studies are the best type of content because this is the most effective way to show why your product or solution works and how it tangibly helped someone. Combining this with good communication – and even story-telling skills – is how you win psychologically; if you can highlight a challenge a past client faced and tell a success story about how your solutions helped them, any audience who is listening and faces the same challenge will feel like you’re talking directly to them. Your message will resonate far more effectively in this way”.
Ebrahimi says that this is a far more effective method of persuasion than simply listing the features and functions of your products and solutions, leaving with a final reminder to “speak more on the how, and not just the what”.
About Mahyar Ebrahimi
Mahyar Ebrahimi is an experienced conference and events professional, having spent the past 6 years helping key public and private sector stakeholders in the MENA region create unique platforms for collaboration, cooperation, and knowledge-sharing. His areas of focus and expertise include Smart Cities, Sustainability, Health and Fitness, and everything Tech.
He is currently the Head of Content for Strategic Intelligence Forum, where he strategically supports public authorities launch their key initiatives, through conferences and events, digital content and more. He is also the host of a weekly show, the BeyondX Podcast, speaking with industry leaders on topics related to sustainability, technology, urban planning and city design, health, and fitness, and more.