Say Hello To Your New Best Friend, The Official Services Contractor

First appeared in IAEE’s special quarterly insert of The Meeting Professional Magazine

By Michelle Bruno, MPC
Writer | Content Strategist | Blogger
Technology Journalist | Publisher

In an industry that can appear to be evolving slowly, a lot has changed. While the grid-style floor plans, pipe and drape, and PowerPoint presentations at some events could be candidates for #ThrowbackThursday, new technologies, competitors, and magnets for attendee attention surface daily. As organizers work toward addressing these new realities, they may have an unexpected ally. General services contractors are moving into a new role—that of official services contractor, strategist, collaborator, and investor.

Over the past decade, the lines of business and the strategic role of the general service contractor have expanded, so much so that the leaders in the category now refer to themselves as official services contractors. The initial focus on exhibitor-centric offerings has widened to encompass attendee services. Firms that were previously extensions of the event-operations team have morphed into experiential brand agencies. Strategists and creatives have begun working alongside logisticians.

Although the change has been fairly slow—“It’s a little like watching your kids grow up,” says Aaron Bludworth, CEO of exposition and corporate event service provider, Fern—a number of factors have precipitated the decade-long transition. The continuous barrage of event technology, evolving attendee preferences, competition from digital marketing channels, and desire of organizers to deliver compelling experiences despite limited staffs and budgets created new opportunities for contractors.

Services contractors are keenly aware of the changing requirements from customers and the fact that they are being called upon to provide a broader range of services. “We recognize that we’ve been in the business of providing logistics expertise for a very, very long time, but as we see the world changing and as we see digital and strategy and creative and the experiential part becoming a bigger reason for going to events, we’re pivoting in that direction as well,” says Richard Maranville, Chief Digital Officer of brand experience company, Freeman.

Of all the event–industry stakeholders, services contractors were the likeliest companies to step up. “It’s a natural fit,” Bludworth explains. “The big official services contractors, at least, touch more customers and have more resources that any of the other entities—more than buildings, more than bureaus and other types of specialty contractors,” he says.

Addressing solution overload

“The market is saturated with solution providers,” says Randy Pekowski, President and Chief Operating Officer of exhibition and event services provider, The Expo Group. His firm recently announced the launch of its strategic positioning services, which aim to help organizations navigate the increasingly crowded supplier marketplace. Through strategic mapping exercises, the company performs a deep dive into client objectives, delivers a list of unbiased, neutral recommendations, manages the execution, and measures the results.

In a solution-rich technology landscape, another challenge for event organizers is the tedious job of integrating solutions with one another. Freeman is focusing specifically on the problem. “Instead of taking sort of a one-off approach where you partner with a company, you announce a partnership, but it doesn’t really integrate anything, we’re doing some of the hard work of integrating the offerings, so that a client actually sees the value, and it’s not one plus one equals two. It’s one plus one equals three,” says Maranville.

Helping to energize audiences

Most organizers focus on the experiential as well as the transactional nature of face-to-face meetings. As attendees continue to up the ante on what they consider a worthwhile way to spend their time and budget, event producers are looking for ways to engage them. GES recently announced the acquisition of Poken, a visitor engagement and measurement platform. Fern acquired KiwiLive, a mobile audience engagement solution.

Organizers want contractors to create a certain “think, know, and, feel quality” and tie that into the design, says Richard Maples, Executive Vice President of Shepard Exposition Services. As a result, many official services contractors have increased their investments in audio-visual capabilities, production services, and agency-level creative resources. GES offers its agency event services and GES Marketworks, a strategic marketing consulting group. FreemanXP is a brand-experience agency under the Freeman umbrella and The Expo Group’s Level 5 is an in-house team that provides experiential audience engagement activations.

Lowering the risk of innovation

Not every organization has the budget to test drive new technology. Freeman was one of the first companies to lead with a kind of event-technology-as-a-service strategy. It established Freeman Digital Ventures, a fund to accelerate innovation through investments in sophisticated digital event technology providers. With Freeman as an intermediary, event organizers can circumvent the expense and resource allocation required to select, test, implement, and measure new technologies.

There are other ways for event organizers to access technology at lower price points and risk levels. Some solution providers offer freemium (free at a basic level) access or revenue-share models. Many association management firms invest in technology and allocate the costs and capabilities across their customer portfolios. One innovative contractor recently announced a pay-for-performance pricing model that provides funding for innovation in exchange for participation in the positive results.

Reducing event-data FOMO

All of the discussion around using data to market more effectively, create better experiences, and develop new revenue streams leaves some of the less capable organizers feeling disadvantaged. Official services contractors are helping them assuage this fear of missing out (FOMO) by crunching some of the numbers for them. Fern analyzes data trends from customer events, validates them using publicly available data sources, and provides organizers with a rich, more reliable data set from the event, Bludworth explains.

With its broad range of acquisitions in registration, housing, travel planning, exhibitor services, and attendee engagement, GES has access to a huge supply of event data, which it can deliver to event organizers. “If we can provide greater data about the ROI for exhibitors or insight into the attendee experience, we can help clients develop better go-to-market strategies, attendee engagement programs, and new environments,” explains Chuck Grouzard, Executive Vice President of Exhibition Sales at GES.

Relieving the pinch of a small staff

In many ways, the expanded service offerings from official services contractors are a reflection of the needs of organizers to do more with less, including fewer employees. “Especially with events that travel,” says Richard Maples, “Organizers don’t always have partners in every city. We’re with them as business consultants wherever they go and with whatever they’re doing. It’s also the reason why organizers don’t change official services contractors as often as they do other service providers. It’s a relationship with a large impact.”

While official services contractors can use their expertise and resources help fill in the gaps created by thin staffs, at least one firm has invested in a program that provides contract staff to organizers. Shepard’s “Sandbox Sherpas” offer pre-qualified meeting-industry professionals with specialty skills from show-floor management to marketing and show operations to exhibit sales. “We don’t recommend anyone who doesn’t share the Shepard values,” Maples explains.

Facilitating change management

In the past, services contractors were looked upon as logisticians. Today, they’re viewed as thought leaders. One of the reasons for the shift, says Maples, is that organizers are under pressure to change more quickly than they have in the past. “Ten years ago, we consulted at a surface level. Now we’re getting involved in the core business and working with all the event’s stakeholders. They see us as a way to deliver change at a much faster pace than they could if they were trying to take it on internally.”

The role of the exhibition and meeting planner has also changed in the past decade. Many are required to play a more strategic role in the business. “Planners aren’t just walking around with a checklist anymore. They have to perform more complex tasks, work with multiple vendors, and integrate different platforms and databases. They need partners with a broader range of services and expertise so they can work at a higher level,” says Marsha Flanagan, M.Ed., Vice President of Learning Experiences at the International Association of Exhibitions and Events (IAEE).

Driving down costs

Richard Maples from Shepard echoes what many services contractors say. When customers allow them to deliver more services, they can offer some economies of scale. “If organizers can align their general service contracting and exhibits portion with me and give me an opportunity to provide marketing, audio-visual, production and entertainment, now my revenue streams have doubled and I can give them a better package.  They might see an additional five to ten percent impact on the budget,” he says.

The digital transformation that is impacting all businesses is also finding its way into the business of services contracting. And it’s helping to lower the costs of producing events. For example, online portals that improve the communication and collaboration between organizers and services contractors and digital products—virtual tours of facilities, web-based floor plans, and all-in-one eLearning platforms, etc.—which result in more process efficiencies, help drive operating costs down.

The new customer view

The way that many organizers see services contractors has changed too. At IAEE’s most recent annual meeting, Expo! Expo!, GES, the official services contractor was integrated into almost every aspect of the show from the development of the trade show floor plan to the design of the general sessions, educational offerings, charity event and the Young Professionals initiative, explains Nicole Bowman, MBA, Vice President, Marketing and Communications at IAEE. “It’s not just about ordering services. These companies are helping organizers extend their brands and enhance their business strategies,” Flanagan adds.

The word “partnership” comes up in a lot of conversations about the new role of services contractors. “Certainly an organizer can benefit from the official services contractor’s vast knowledge and experience, drawing from other shows. However, it is also important for the contractor and the organizer to have a collaborative partnership and customization strategy geared for a show’s unique strategic objectives and characteristics,” says Scott Craighead, CEM, Vice President, Exhibitions and Events at IAEE.

While there are many general service contractors committed to providing exhibitor-focused logistics services, a few in the space have been slowly pulling away from a siloed business model. Instead, they have invested vertically (with more robust capabilities in every line of business) and horizontally (cutting across boundaries and revenue streams) in what they see as the future of a thriving industry just starting to get its digital and experiential mojo. For a full list of official services contractors, visit IAEE.com.


About the Author

Michelle Bruno, MPC is a writer, blogger, and technology journalist based in Salt Lake City, Utah. She develops content and content strategies for event-industry technology companies at Bruno Group Signature Services (brunogroup.com). She writes about event innovation at Fork in the Road blog (forkintheroadblog.com) and publishes Event Tech Brief (eventtechbrief.com), a weekly newsletter and website on event technology. She is a former meeting planer and has received both the Certified Meeting Professional (CMP) and Certified Exhibition Manager (CEM) designations. She holds a Master of Professional Communication (MPC) degree.

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