It’s amazing how much we take for granted shopping online now. Shoes, books, music. And yet within the exhibition industry, we are still too dependent on forms and faxes to place orders for trade show booths. An experienced exhibitor often knows what to order, but a less experienced exhibitor can spend a lot of time trying to interpret products on the form. Then if you calculate the amount of time it takes to fill out a single form (never mind a dozen), re-write contact information and submit payment information several times on paper, it’s boggling. When the form(s) finally get faxed into a black hole, the exhibitor’s credit card data could be lying underneath the fax machine for all to see and the order never even seen by those who need to fulfill it.
The general service contractors have done a decent job automating their portion of the supply chain in an attempt to solve their order processing and fulfillment woes. Unfortunately they offer only a portion of the products and services the exhibitor needs, and those product categories vary from show to show depending on the venue, leaving more or less able to be ordered through the GSC depending on the show. These custom systems have focused on the unique business processes of each GSC and as a result, do not necessarily fit the needs of other suppliers. These custom systems also unfortunately have a limited shelf life, since e-commerce continues to mature and improve. It is tough to keep a custom system up to par when you’ve found yourself in the software development business “accidentally” ( and usually companies find themselves in that position when there’s nothing commercially out there that solves their problem). The result can be inefficient (and at times inaccurate) software design and development because that’s not where the core competency of the business is.
To the extent their systems support it, GSCs have encouraged some suppliers to put their product lists in their system to sell it in a unified way. Unfortunately that model also has its limitations. First, it assumes the GSC’s custom system can handle all the types of products and services out there (certain categories, like food and beverage, can get complicated, for example). Second, while it can make life a little easier for the exhibitor, and sure gives the GSC lots of great data, it doesn’t really help the supplier automate the fulfillment process nor open a storefront of their own. It might even make life more difficult for the supplier since now they are managing their product lists in multiple places for different GSCs.
And so the specialty suppliers can either: 1) build it custom; 2) ride the GSC coat tails and deal with inefficiencies (smaller GSCs obviously don’t have this option); or 3) buy what’s available commercially. There are a couple of commercially available solutions, but they seem to be systems that merely automate the forms rather than introducing true e-commerce designed specifically for the exhibition industry. If you’ve seen a demonstration of any of these, you know what I mean. They don’t feel like the “amazon.com” type experience where up-selling, cross selling and imagery entices shoppers to buy products they might otherwise not. Amazon.com doesn’t make their web site user friendly and informative just because it they want it to be pretty; they do it to push billions of dollars through an e-commerce machine. The bottom line is that after seeing the current exhibitor online ordering solutions, the supplier is probably left feeling like offering online ordering won’t really increase order volume or size.
The truth is that a robust online ordering engine for exhibitors is just what the doctor ordered. And specialty suppliers and smaller GSCs who don’t want to be in the custom software business but want something that will increase sales and efficiencies should implement it when it’s ready.