If you attend a student affairs conference you may experience the “dreaded” exhibit hall. What makes these dreaded? Too often they are held in an intimidating space quarantined from the rest of conference activities. They involve speaking with people you don’t know who are also selling something. The perception is that the exhibit hall is a lot like the used car lot.

This perception of the exhibit hall experience is well supported. It is no secret that some conference attendees don’t go at all. Many attendees visit between sessions with only a couple vendors. It’s also common to hear as an introduction from conference attendees “I don’t control the budget” and “I’m not the CHO.” All of this is a result of a basic misunderstanding of the role of vendors and the exhibit hall play at student affairs conferences.

Vendors and attendees largely agree the exhibit hall experience could be better. Key to making the experience better is getting everybody on the same page about the purpose of vendors and the vendor space. The truth is, not all vendors go to conferences with the primary goal to sell. The exhibit hall is also about learning more about you, your role, your institution, your residential education model, your conference session, etc. At Roompact, conference attendance is about meeting with current partners and building brand awareness and product knowledge with prospective partners. It is not about trying to make a sale.

Conference committees have held sessions and employed strategies to help make the interactions between vendors and attendees less awkward. The strategies can have mixed results. I can recall a time or two when a bingo card-wielding attendee was more interested in having a conversation than getting a signature for their card (but it is rare). Some of the strategies that conferences have used include:

Attendees lists
A few weeks prior to the conference, most conference committees will send vendors an attendee list. An attendee list often includes the attendee’s role, institution, and email address. This information can be useful for sending pre-conference emails and reaching out to attendees to schedule meetings ahead of time.

Vendor orientation
Many conference committees host a short information sessions for vendors prior to the exhibit hall opening. This is intended to help exhibitors make the most out of their attendance.

First-time attendee session
Intended for attendees that are unaware of what the exhibit hall has to offer and provide them coaching on how to get the most out of the experience. This session is lead by conference staff.

Exhibit hall “buddy”
Geared towards first-time conference attendees, the idea here is to match a veteran professional with a new professional. The veteran professional can walk with the first-time attendee around the exhibit hall to “show them the ropes.”

Bingo cards
Often filled with company names or “fun facts,” attendees go to each vendor collecting signatures. Attendees that have a filled-in bingo card may submit that card into a raffle drawing for the chance to win a prize at the end of the exhibit hall time.

“Get to know your vendors” sheet
A Q&A form that list “fun facts” about companies in attendance in the exhibit hall. Attendees are to have conversions with vendors and determine the answers to the questions. Vendors “sign off” on the attendees sheet to verify they have obtained the mystery information.

The “all-day” exhibit hall
The idea here is “the more the better.” This is the 9am – 5pm exhibit hall.

Many of these strategies are designed to increase foot traffic in the exhibit hall by assigning time in the conference schedule and encouraging interaction. This reminds me of the “carrot and stick” approach. The goal here is to drive attendance by guilting (stick) or by winning something (carrot). In many ways the bingo card is to the conference attendee as the pizza is to residents we are trying to recruit to our hall program. In this environment, we are placing a greater value on just being there over what we do while we are there.

Just as my colleague Dr. Paul Brown has challenged us to “put down the pizza” as a recruitment tool in programming and instead shift our focus to offering educationally-rich content; I challenge us to “put down the bingo card” in lieu of developing environments which incentivize meaningful conversations between vendors and attendees. Strategies like the bingo card are good at getting attendees into the hall, but the ways in which strategies like the CHO session and bingo card are being utilized devalue what exhibitors can offer.

As a starting point, here are a few ideas that may serve as the “low hanging fruit” to get us on our way to creating better environments for vendors and attendees at student affairs conferences:

  • Choose conference locations where the exhibit hall space can be integrated into the main traffic-flow. Even better is selecting a conference location where the conference keynote, welcome/announcements, and lunch are in the same space as the vendors. There are a couple conferences that have made this a priority: the ACHOUi Business Operations conference commonly books a conference space—including this last year in Pittsburgh—where the exhibit hall and conference lunch are held in the same ballroom. The goal here is to increase opportunities for conversation and interaction between vendors and attendees.
  • When an integrated space isn’t possible, reduce the overlap between sessions and the exhibit hall. Most attendees will rather go to a session than go to the exhibit hall. Totally understandable! By having a designated time for vendors, attendees can build exhibit hall attendance into their schedule as they would an educational session. A good example of this is the GLACUHO conference which designates exhibit hall hours (4-6 hours at most) which do not overlap with educational sessions.
  • Give vendors access to attend more of the conference. Most conferences restrict vendors to the exhibit hall and the conference meal. Inviting vendors to sessions and social events will help to breakdown the barrier between attendees and vendors.
  • Engage vendors in the educational process. Vendor 101 — for lack of a better title — would have the primary goal of creating a time and space for attendees to learn from vendors about “the vendor side.” Session attendees would get to learn about engaging vendors and translating the skills gained in a student affairs career for a career in business.

We all have a role to play in making an enjoyable and meaningful exhibit hall experience. Conference committees and attendees depend on vendors for financial support. And vendors rely on conference committees and attendees to participate in meaningful conversations in the exhibit hall. We’re all in this together and there are ways we can push this partnership further.