photo by FIA 2022
The aerospace and defense industry has a long-standing love-hate relationship with trade shows. I’ve only witnessed it for the last 20 years, a mere blink of an eye given the longevity of so many in this field. However, I am assured by my even more seasoned colleagues that the subconscious hand-wringing and grinding of molars goes back considerably further.
Regardless of the venue—it must be said that our industry does have a penchant for choosing desirable destinations—the complaints seem to arise as fast as those recurring trade show planning meeting calendar reminders. Examples include concerns over booth location, transportation arrangements, hotel prices, thought leadership, lead generation and so on. Any of these issues in isolation is certainly worthy of attention and amelioration. However, in combination they can cause a level of fear and loathing akin to hearing from your dentist about the state of those aforementioned molars.
Given the anxiety levels, one would presume events are in rapid decline across the aerospace and defense sectors. Yet Informa, which owns the Aviation Week Network, reported in its November 2018 B2B Marketing Trends Report that events remain a top tactic for marketers, though we know the subsequent pandemic imposed a temporary halt to that. In fact, industry events within the aviation segment come first for enterprise and mid-size companies and second for small companies. And while the data shows that increased investments are being made elsewhere—social media, lead generation, content marketing, and mobile and search engine optimization, in that order, Informa notes—the value of face-to-face interaction and the perils of eliminating it remain. Simply put, this industry still values the sort of transparency and trust that come from personal interactions, not just statements and qualifications submitted in response to a request for proposal.
So what are business development and marketing communications teams to do as the 2023 trade show season descends upon us with the usual alphabet soup of shows such as MRO, DSEI, AFA, AUSA, NBAA and AOC?
First, recognize what makes events so inherently challenging. With hundreds and occasionally thousands of exhibitors, small and medium-size enterprises often fail to stand out. Sadly, that is partly self-inflicted. Too many believe that the strength of their offering, unaided by marketing communications, will overcome clear numerical and size disadvantages. Others place their hopes in serendipity, expecting to succeed without doing anything to enable that outcome. Yet, while it can be harder for tier-two and tier-three suppliers to garner attention, especially at an event packed with everything from speakers to flight displays, they might derive inspiration from the 1989 baseball-themed movie “Field of Dreams” immortalized by the line, “If you build it, he will come.”
Second, plan, don’t panic. Edelman prefers to take clients through a holistic process that helps ensure company leaders think strategically before acting tactically. We also make the most of the ubiquitous “PESO” model of paid, earned, shared and owned media to maximize potential return on investment for all those sunk costs associated with trade shows. That means delving into the ever-expanding toolkit so customers, prospects and the media know clients will be at an event with interesting things to say and show.
Third, it helps to put oneself in the shoes of different audience segments to understand what motivates them. From emerging industry trends to old-school categories of newsworthiness, it is not hard to anticipate what may catch someone’s eye or ear at a show. Think outside in, not just inside out.
Historical and current marketing spending levels aside, the fact is that trade shows, conventions and symposia do not dominate the stage as they once did. The pandemic taught us that and the increasingly digital world provides a diverse cast of characters that also warrant attention. But exhibiting companies should commit to a process to ensure they put their best foot forward in every sense. A well-executed show delivers strong results in both the short and long term, from brand reputation to business development, while blunting criticism about elements over which there are less control.
Therefore, begin planning months in advance, think about your audiences throughout the process and execute relentlessly from the minute you land in that event location. Oh, and stay off your phone in the booth; the signal you are sending is not just cellular.
Do all that and you will get some well-earned sleep on the flight home, kudos in the office for a job well done, and perhaps even a thumbs-up from your dentist.
Adam Konowe is senior vice president at Edelman Business Marketing, as well as an adjunct professor of communication at American University in Washington, a member of the Royal Aeronautical Society and an active member of the National Press Club.
An earlier version of this blog was published by Aviation Week on September 2, 2019.