Tourism Trade Shows, Road Shows & B2B Exchanges: Are They Worth It?

“Why should I come to this event? I already sell Namibia and don’t need to spend a day meeting with 15 other tour operators.”

“I would love to come to your event! I am new to travel and have no idea where Namibia is located. You did say that food and wine would be served, right?”

These are the typical responses we received during last month’s push to invite over 500 North American trade contacts to attend 4 Network Namibia events in Denver, San Francisco, Seattle, and Vancouver. These events are part of Solimar’s tourism marketing work with Cardno EMG to implement a North American Destination Marketing Campaign to put Namibia on the map. The campaign includes several other components that are helping promote the country, including a recent feature in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition and generating over 14 million impressions through social media contests.

Ask anyone who works in tourism marketing – trade shows and road shows are considered the backbone of any tourism marketing strategy. I would even go as far to say that some tourism companies and destinations spend their entire tourism marketing budgets on attending these types of events. But why? In today’s world where over 80% of people use the Internet to plan travel, are tourism trade shows and road shows worth the expense? 

It depends. If you are a destination or business targeting Europe, the Middle East, China, or India – trade shows like ITB in Berlin and World Travel Mart in London are part of your annual tourism marketing calendar and should be. In Europe and the emerging source markets, travel contracts between outbound operators, inbound operators, and suppliers are developed and finalized at these types of shows. Not attending these events could signal to your trade partners that you are no longer in business. 

But what about travel trade shows in North America? The problem North America doesn’t have one major trade show that brings together the best buyers who are sincerely interested in developing new relationships with destinations and tourism businesses. The best, in my opinion, are the Adventure Travel World Summit(takes place in a different part of the world each year – this year it will be in Namibia!), Virtuoso WeekUS Tour Operators Association Annual Conference and Marketplace, and the Educational Travel Conference. But these conferences and marketplaces are not cheap, and they often restrict who can attend – especially suppliers and inbound operators.

Over the last 16 months, Solimar assisted the Nepal Tourism Board and the Namibia Tourism Board organize 3 North American Road Shows and 2 Tourism Trade Show participations. Each of these events brought some of the best inbound operators and suppliers from Nepal and Namibia at their own expense. We followed the traditional format of the B2B networking exchange where we first introduced the destination and then broke into 15 five-minute networking sessions similar to speed dating. In some cities we had an incredible turn out, filling the room with both North American tour operators and travel agents. Other cities we had less than 1/3 of the people who RSVP’d actually attend the event. Getting people to the event is always the biggest challenge of a successful road show – especially when the people you want to attend most (big outbound tour operators) generally hate attending these types of events.

Reflecting on the success and lessons learned of last month’s Namibia road show, I believe tourism trade shows and road shows are worth the expense for the following reasons: 

1) It gives you a reason to create or strengthen trade relationships. Most tourism destinations and businesses use a Customer Relationship Management system to manage their trade contacts in a centralized database. When organizing an event, it gives marketers a reason to reach out by email and phone to reconnect or establish a relationship with a trade partner.  Sending an email or making a phone call to introduce a destination or company is one thing – inviting them to an event is another and meeting them in person is another.

2) A group of local tourism companies and the tourism board working together is the best way to conduct destination marketing. Everyone knows the importance of public-private partnerships in destination marketing, but the road show/tourism trade show format is one of the best ways to join forces with competitors and the government to elevate the marketing message. 

3) Tourism trade shows and road shows demonstrate to your trade partners that you are investing in their markets and creating consumer demand. Tour operators and travel agents are fickle. One minute they love your destination and are trying to promote it – the next, another destination grabs their attention. Bringing a road show to your trade partner’s market makes it clear you are investing in creating demand for them and can help them stay focused on marketing your destination or product.

4) It’s one of the easiest ways to answer the question “Where in the world is Namibia?” We attended the Santa Clara Travel and Adventure Show during this year’s road show. With 15 representatives from Namibia in one booth we offered free drinks for anyone who could tell us where Namibia is located. This helped us interact with over 1,000 consumers in a very short period of time. Take a look at this video from the tourism trade show that demonstrates the challenges of promoting a country that most people have never heard of:

As much as I would like to recommend that tourism destinations and travel companies stick to online and digital marketing where it’s much easier to implement what Solimar calls Marketing with a Purpose, I do believe there is a benefit especially for the destination marketing efforts of participating in U.S. travel trade shows and roadshows. However, attending these types of events must be a component of a more comprehensive destination marketing strategy that is designed to increase consumer awareness, strengthen trade relationships, and develop a clear pathway for converting sales leads into bookings. Attending U.S. travel trade shows alone will not accomplish this and will not produce a return on investment.

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“We rely confidently on Solimar's deep technical experience and professionalism as tourism consultants. You always are exceeding our expectations.”
Leila Calnan, Senior Manager, Tourism Services Cardno Emerging Markets

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