Enterprise Exhibitors: 14 Reasons to Centralize or Decentralize Your Trade Show Marketing

You work at a very big, enterprise-level company that exhibits at trade shows. So big, you very likely have multiple divisions, which sometimes your headquarters struggles to control.

This scenario puts your team in a quandary many companies never face: Should you centralize or decentralize the management of your trade show program?

This is our second article highlighting the unique challenges of enterprise exhibiting companies. The first article was Enterprise Exhibitors: Integrating Brands After Mergers & Acquisitions.

In this article we will list our pros and cons of centralizing your trade show and event marketing program, provide research about centralization, and offer further insights to consider as you evaluate how to structure your program.

Let’s start with the 14 reasons we’ve found enterprise exhibitors tend to either centralize or decentralize their trade show program. Consider how these reasons compare to your own situation:

9 Reasons to Centralize Your Trade Show Program

  1. Yours is a B2B company with no divisions, or has divisions that sell different products to similar or the same customers.
  2. Your company’s overall management is highly centralized.
  3. Your company’s marketing management is centralized with a team leader overseeing all divisions.
  4. You want to have greater company-wide accountability with more consistent goal-setting and measurement of your metrics of success.
  5. You already have a marketing operations team or center of excellence, or want to create one.
  6. You are aiming to create a more cohesive single brand, especially from your recent batch of new acquisitions.
  7. You are trying to reduce costs by eliminating duplication of exhibit assets, gain economies of scale, streamline marketing efforts, and negotiate better prices with vendors.
  8. You want to have a consistent customer experience and strategy within your booths.
  9. The people who have been handling your trade show marketing within your various divisions have uneven or low trade show marketing skills, especially with higher turnover.

5 Reasons to Decentralize Your Trade Show Program

  1. You are a B2C brand that has many strong consumer product brands, or you are both a B2B and B2C company.
  2. Your company’s overall management, and especially its marketing management, is currently decentralized among different divisions.
  3. You want to avoid bottlenecks in getting decisions approved and improve the speed of execution.
  4. You want to give more initiative to the people closer to your customers to allow for greater innovation and product/message customization.
  5. You already have staff with strong trade show marketing skills in each division.

As you can see, there are nearly twice as many reasons for centralizing your trade show marketing management as there are for decentralizing it. Which is why there are more companies that centralize their trade show marketing management, and there is a shift towards even more.

More Evidence Towards Centralization

Recent research also bears out the trend towards centralization. A September 2020 survey from Garner Group found 66% of marketers have completely or mostly centralized their marketing organization. “We are seeing a growing number of marketing organizations centralizing resources into more scalable shared services to provide support for a well-defined marketing discipline,” said Chris Ross, vice president analyst in Gartner’s Marketing practice.

Gartner added, “Resources that may have been decentralized to regions or other organizational entities are also being consolidated and centralized.”

There are other indications that very large exhibitors are shifting towards centralizing their trade show program management. “Lately we’ve received multiple calls from large companies who want to centralize their currently separate divisional programs,” said Gwen Hill, Senior Vice President of Business Development for ExhibitForce, a leading provider of management software to exhibitors and exhibit houses. “These large companies used to let their divisions do their own thing, but no more. The parent company wants to save money by sharing exhibit resources and controlling which shows they exhibit at, increase accountability by centralizing the measurement of their results, and ensure their brand is consistently well represented.”

Holt Experiential substantially supports several dozen enterprise exhibitors during the past few years. In examining our clients’ programs, we found that:

  • Slightly more than half are currently centralized, and slightly less than half are decentralized.
  • Two are in the process of shifting from decentralized to centralized for the benefits that brings; none are shifting from centralized to decentralized.
  • As a hybrid, one of our customers is explicitly decentralized on brand, but has logistics centralized for economies of scale, with a logistics person handling about 10 brands each.
  • Our B2C customers are more often centralized than our B2B customers, especially when they have multiple strong consumer brands and divisions. This extends to companies that have both B2C and B2B brands.
  • When the company is a North American or United States division of a foreign company, the local division has some autonomy from the parent company – they are centralized in the USA, but decentralized from overseas.

How the Nature of Your B2B Company Divisions Affects Centralization

Are your B2B company divisions recently acquired companies that have similar product offerings and customer profiles, but were in different states or regions of the country? Those kinds of company divisions are better served by a centralized marketing / trade show organization that can strengthen the main company brand, while saving money by avoiding unneeded duplicate efforts.

Are your B2B company divisions organized around broadly different geographies (such as global regions), or industries and customer segments that have vastly different needs? If so, that may be better served by a decentralized structure that allows your marketing messages greater customization by market.

Considerations When Shifting to a Centralized Trade Show Program

If you do decide to centralize your trade show program, consider these ideas to increase your chances for a successful reorganization:

  • Leverage Experts: By centralizing your larger trade show marketing program, you can have one or more dedicated people with a higher level of expertise solely focused on trade show marketing. Compare that to a decentralized approach where you are more likely to have employees less familiar with trade show best practices who only work occasionally on trade shows.
  • Get Enough Staff: When you choose to centralize, be sure to sufficiently staff up for the scope of your entire trade show program. Sure, you gain some efficiencies when you change management of your shows from several inexperienced marketers to a centralized expert. But that expert still might not be able to handle all your shows by themselves. Consider how many shows one person can manage well. And how that depends on what size booths you exhibit in. The people managing inline booth space shows will certainly be able to handle far more shows each.
  • Segment Trade Show Managers by Booth Size: For more efficiencies, you may have one or more people dedicated to managing your island trade shows, and one or more other people dedicated to managing your inline trade shows.
  • Consider Outsourcing Logistics: If you cannot manage all your trade shows yourself, and are finding it difficult to staff up fast enough, look to your exhibit house. A growing number of our clients have been asking us to help them with their trade show logistics while they are short-handed, and we are happy to help.

Why Companies Resist Centralization

Even though some enterprise exhibitors would prefer to centralize to gain greater cost savings and brand control, they sometimes still don’t. They put off centralizing to avoid causing friction between headquarters and their divisions. People in divisions want to maintain ownership and avoid a time-consuming decision-approval process with headquarters. And the people at headquarter feel too stretched for time to be involved in all those decisions within each division. So, to stay peaceful and go faster, they stay decentralized.

As management consultants McKinsey & Company writes, “The risks associated with centralization—business rigidity, reduced motivation, bureaucracy, and distraction—are often greater than the value created.”

However, for some, eventually the desire for cost savings, accountability, and a consistently high standard of branding and trade show performance can overcome their internal resistance to centralize.

Have You Decided to Centralize or Decentralize Your Trade Show Program?

Centralizing the trade show program for enterprise companies has more adherents because it helps reduce costs, unifies brands, and increases accountability. But still many large exhibitors don’t centralize, because they have a decentralized company or marketing structure better suited to their kinds of brands and divisions. We hope this article has given you insights into which trade show program structure will work best for you, and what likely pitfalls there are to avoid.

No matter if your trade show program is centralized, decentralized, or somewhere in between, we have the experience to help you succeed at trade shows, events, in your corporate interiors, and in virtual environments. We welcome the opportunity to partner with you to bring your story to life.

Contact Holt Experiential