By Art Lieberman
Since 2005, my company, MCPS for Campgrounds, has exhibited at dozens of trade shows conducted by different state and regional associations, as well as the National Association of Campground Owners (ARVC).
We’ve attended shows for TACO (Texas) WACO (Wisconsin) Florida and Alabama, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Leisure Systems (Yogi Bear Campgrounds), Rev Up In Reno (CA and 3 other western states), Mid-Atlantic (NJ, MD and DE) and the NCA (Northeast Campground Association). We exhibited at these shows in order to gain national exposure in the campground industry. We also have attended a few of these shows several times and continue to do so. This year will be our 8th ARVC show, Yogi Show and NCA show.
But doing all these shows continues to be expensive for several reasons. It is my philosophy that ALL my salespeople need to attend these shows in order to meet and press flesh with campground owners around the country and establish a personal relationship with as many as possible. Credit and debit card transactions represent, in most cases, the bulk of campground’s incomes. This philosophy, of course can become VERY expensive. Plane tickets, hotel rooms and food for multiple people to go to shows far from our home base of Pennsylvania are extremely costly. Then there is the other factor. If I drain the office of sales personnel, who remains home to mind the store?
So, in early 2010, we recognized that there was a new technology available that could make attending trade shows cost close to nothing – A Virtual Show – conducted solely on the Internet. Our first move was to bring this idea to several prominent suppliers in the campground industry. Many of these individuals had also expressed angst at the costliness of exhibiting at trade shows. We asked these people if they’d be willing to become part of an advisory board and almost all said yes. Then we sought out and found three software companies that had the computer program necessary to conduct such shows.
We chose one that we thought would do. They assured us that communication between exhibitors and attendees would be smooth and told us of the many benefits of running a virtual show: No travel or hotel expenses for either exhibitors or attendees; although the show would run three days, the actual booths would remain set up for an additional 90 days; we could charge exhibitors a nominal fee, but make it FREE for attendees; all webinars could be viewed live initially, but recorded for the remaining 90 days; all exhibitors would have instant access to the attendees during and after their attendance at the event and a dozen other reasons why a virtual show was going to be a success.
In the end, they were right and terribly wrong. Our attendance at the first Virtual Outdoor Hospitality Expo was record-breaking as far as a campground show was concerned. There were 485 attendees representing over 267 campgrounds including Canadians and owners from other countries. The webinars had record attendance also. BUT, there were two major flaws in their program. One was that the exhibitor, with some advice from the computer company and a few other volunteers from our advisory board, would have to set up their own booths. Very few of the exhibitors were accomplished with computer technology to accomplish this and booths were still being set up the day the show opened.
The second problem was that there were 63 booths, 20 in an “aisle” much like a real trade show, but the software made it difficult for attendees to find the path to the other 43 booths. Consequently, the first 20 booths (sponsors and early signers) did most of the business while others in the other aisles did not do well. Our company, in Booth 4 received 147 “leads.”
We were determined to correct these mistakes, and in 2011 our second effort had the software company actually build the booths of exhibitors from information they supplied. The gateway to the other aisles became apparent. But once again we ran into a problem that we had not encountered the previous year. Although exhibitors could find out who was in attendance at the expo, they had trouble communicating with them. Also the webinars, we discovered HAD TO BE RECORDED IN ADVANCE and could not be live since they didn’t integrate well with presentation formats such as Microsoft PowerPoint. Attendance was good, but the failure to communicate made attendees leave prematurely before they had a chance to talk to exhibitors.
In the final analysis, much of the problems that weren’t directly connected to flaws in the programs were that our hoped-for audience, campground owners, were not technically sophisticated, and their patience in traveling the Internet highway was limited while the consideration of their customer’s comforts were unlimited. To campground owners live encounters with suppliers and speakers at a convention was superior to spending any time struggling for information at a computer. Two tries were enough for us – there was no Virtual Outdoor Hospitality Expo 3. In 2011 we learned that the RVDA was looking into a virtual show. We notified them that we were willing to help – but they opted out of the idea.
But times have changed, even in two brief years. Many campground owners have moved to computerized registrations, credit card processing and record keeping that, perhaps, the time for a virtual show has not yet arrived for campground owners, but it may be in the near future. We’ll see.
Art Lieberman is president of MCPS for Campgrounds, a credit card processor sponsored by Woodforest Bank. Lieberman has been in the credit card industry for nearly 16 years. He conducts seminars on credit cards at many state and regional association conventions. He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or by calling 877.858.9010.