No, we're not being paid to write this.
In fact, we initially decided to exhibit at the Asia-Pacific Incentives and Meetings Event in February 2020 with a fair amount of trepidation. We are a small supplier to the events industry. We've made efforts to expand in recent years, but spending $20,000+ to exhibit at an expo seemed like an exorbitant fee. There's no guarantee that the connections made will garner actual sales. And after we read this article outlining the experience someone else had after AIME 2019, we were even less certain that exhibiting was the right move for us. The article indicated that while AIME 2019 was overall a good experience, the exhibitors' experience was not as positive as the buyers'. We hesitated. Maybe there wouldn't be enough hosted buyers that would be interested in our products. Perhaps the content of the conference portion of the week wouldn't be applicable to us. What if we came back from AIME without any new leads or brand recognition? After much back and forth with our sales rep at Talk2 Media, the company in charge of organising AIME (hi Charles!), we finally bit the bullet and registered our intent to exhibit. We are so glad we did.
First of all, the structure of AIME 2020 is unique among conferences and mitigates many of the concerns we had initially. While most expo structures rely on the exhibitors ability to entice passersby to their stand to listen to a sales pitch, AIME facilitates the selection of 35 one-on-one meetings between hosted buyers and exhibitors. Sixty percent of the meetings are pre-scheduled based on a "preference selection" process, where buyers and exhibitors indicate through an online portal which companies they are interested to meet with. After preference selections are made, the remaining 40% of meeting slots can be filled ahead of the conference by reaching out to specific buyers (or exhibitors) that you want to meet but didn't match with for whatever reason.
The portal Talk2 developed to match buyers and exhibitors is informative and easy to use. We were able to identify which buyers would be beneficial for us to meet by using the filters provided. We were told to rank our preference of buyers to meet with, selecting 5 as "platinum," 10 as "gold" and 35 as "standard" selections. My colleague and I spent quite a lot of time filtering and sorting and establishing the criteria by which we would rank hosted buyers. We prioritised the people whose profiles (and websites) made it seem like they would be a good match for us. We actually ran out of hosted buyers with potential before we ran out of preference selection slots - we only indicated 21 instead of 35 people as "standard" preference. We worried at the time that we might not get our preferences or that our schedule might be filled with meetings that weren't on our preference list, but when the pre-scheduled meetings were released a week or two before AIME, we found that the system had done a fantastic job. We had pre-scheduled meetings with 60% of our platinum choices (3/5), 70% of our gold choices (7/10) and 67% of our standard choices (14/21). We used the database and filters again to fill the remaining 11 slots in our schedule.
Of course, more interesting than the unique structure of AIME is the answer to the million-dollar question: does it work? While we won't know whether or not the meetings will result in actual sales until the people we met get back to us with confirmation of our proposals, we do have several metrics whereby to judge success. Our main reasons for exhibiting at AIME were to increase our brand awareness in Australia and to gain new sales leads. We may not have any confirmed bookings yet, but we can definitively say that we have new business leads. Due to our meetings at AIME, we have proposed entertainment for four upcoming events. And our website analytics indicate that brand awareness did indeed increase. Our Singapore website averaged .47 visitors a day from Australia in the 13 months preceding AIME. In the eighteen days since AIME, our Singapore website is averaging 1.01 Australian visitors per day. Our Australian website is averaging 1.5 visitors a day since AIME; prior to AIME we were looking at .6 visitors per day. When you add in the fact that the events industry has taken a massive hit due to the COVID-19 situation, this increase in website visitorship is significant.
The best thing about the Knowledge Programme was that much of the content was meaningful and important to us as professionals independent from our being in the MICE industry.
Beyond the business connections and lead generations, we found significant value in the first day of the conference. The Knowledge Programme is one full day of workshops and plenary sessions. We found the content of these to be largely applicable to both event organisers and suppliers. My colleague and I should have coordinated our workshop schedule better, because we ended up in the same session for the first workshop. We listened to engaging speaker Christopher Kai give concrete advice on how to network effectively. As someone who struggles with finding value in quick, forced conversations that ultimately feel quite mercenary, I found the workshop to be the perfect way to reframe my thinking for AIME. Christopher encouraged us to be curious and ask open-ended questions, to take meaningful notes and connect with each other on a more human level. He also emphasized that practice makes perfect - so less of the workshop was Chris talking and there were more opportunities for us to meaningfully connect with the people around us. I went into the rest of my AIME experience with this new perspective on building relationships and our business benefitted. For the rest of AIME, I felt more confident to start conversations with attendees. I found the process of networking during the evening events to be less draining and more beneficial. And the fact that everyone started the conference by attending different Knowledge Programme sessions meant that we all had plenty of common ground to talk about. I didn't get to attend the other interesting workshop sessions that were on at the same time as Christopher Kai's, but I heard much about them and benefitted from my new connections' experience of attending. The session on "gamifying" events by the mastermind behind Mind Dojo and the session on igniting curiosity through creative play (using LEGO!) by Dr. Kate Raynes-Goldie sounded particularly interesting. I may not have been able to attend, but I learned a lot by asking targeted questions of the people who were able to go to those sessions.
After a panel discussion on innovation in the MICE industry (where Dr. Raynes-Goldie was one of the speakers, reinforcing my opinion that I missed out earlier), we broke for another round of workshops. This time, my colleague and I attended separate sessions. I listened to a marketer from GPJ discuss methodology for measuring event impact and my colleague attended a practical application on mindfulness with Megan Flamer of Mindful Under Fire. My colleague raved about Ms. Flamer's session and I ended up attending her mini-session on the show floor the next day. To be honest, I've been using a lot of her techniques for calming yourself in the face of stress and anxiety as we deal with the fallout from the COVID-19 situation.
Aside from the business case for AIME and the professional development benefits, the best part about attending a conference for conference organisers is that they really know how to throw a party! The food was phenomenal (the opening night beach party featured a sashimi chef who literally went out into the bay and pulled in a tuna, then served the whole thing tip to tail), the schedule was rigorous but efficient, and the communication with exhibitors was congenial and clear from the moment we enquired to the week after the event.
We might do a follow-up post in six months after we see how many of the leads generated at AIME 2020 result in actual sales, but for now we are fully satisfied that exhibiting was money well-spent. You should reach out to Renae McElligott at Talk2 Media to book your stand for next year.
If we could give one piece of gentle constructive feedback to the AIME 2020 team, it would be this: integrate more entertainment into your event! How cool would the panel on technology in events have been if there were a tech-integrated spectacle show as part of the plenary? And as amazing as the beach party was, fire spinners would have taken it to the next level and offered some great photo opportunities for guests.
Regardless, we're looking forward to the next iteration of AIME - the conference is certainly the most unique event in the events industry and should be the first stop for any supplier wanting to make meaningful connections during the exhibition process.