How to Partner with your Association so Everyone Wins with Christine Gahler, Director, Global Conventions at Medtronic


Medtronic Director of Global Conventions Christine Gahler became aware of an expensive problem after a show in 2013. Her unique solution displays a method for working with associations that can help anyone involved with trade shows.

In this blog, Gahler talks with EDE’s Jay Menashe about her experience and how to apply the strategy she developed to your particular situation.

Gahler discovered the problem while examining invoices that showed an alarming increase in charges that exceeded her show budget. She identified material handling and labor fees as the problems and determined those were related to both the show’s location and schedule.

The dilemma for Gahler was balancing Medtronic’s need to exhibit at the particular show with cost increases that threatened the company’s continued involvement. In her research, she noticed attendance at the show was declining and that there seemed to be a correlation between that decrease and rising costs. This suggested other exhibitors were likely experiencing the same problems; demonstrating commonality would later become a key part of her strategy for addressing the problems. 

With her approach, Gahler was able to successfully persuade the show organizers to consider a less expensive location for the show and change the days of the show to reduce labor costs. The changes took several years to happen, but the results were worth the effort!

Gahler’s strategy includes six steps:

  1. Identify the Problem
  2. Determine the Cause
  3. Consider Possible Solutions and Craft Your Story
  4. Talk to the Right People
  5. Ask Questions
  6. Be Patient

While Gahler’s experience will likely be different from your own, following the steps in her strategy will give you a framework to tackle whatever you may be facing. 

Data First. Story Second.

When assessing your data, be sure to let the data speak for itself, rather than looking for numbers that will mesh with any preconceived notions.

“You make assumptions on what the things might be and then when you look at the data, it’s not actually telling the story,” Christine says. “I’ve done a lot of presentations to different associations and we always look at the data first and then find the story after you have the data.”

Gahler’s presentation to the association was successful largely because she had dug deep to uncover the effects not only on her company, but other exhibitors, the association, and the show itself. Demonstrating how the problem impacts all stakeholders will help build empathy with those you are attempting to persuade.

She began by comparing Medtronic’s historic costs with those of the show in question. In the past, the company used local labor rate surveys to aid in budgeting for shows. This was a great help in comparing costs for Tier 1 and Tier 2 cities and was part of the information used to suggest the benefits of moving the show to a new, less expensive Tier 2 city. 

“In this particular case, the  Tier 2 cities made sense because the audience was a nurses’ meeting and they are obviously on a different budget than most physicians,” Christine says. “So it made sense that we were seeing factors together like declining attendance where costs were rising and it was impacting all stakeholders.”

Gahler had the benefit of Medtronic’s detailed show data from 20 years. But don’t let that dismay you; three years worth is sufficient to accomplish most of your goals. And if you haven’t been tracking data from your exhibits, consider this a wake-up call to start now! 

Organizing the Data

Medtronic uses a very detailed spreadsheet with built-in formulas which they tweak every year. “We have it broken down by the exhibit space, the service category, and the city,” says Christine. “There’s a finance lead for our team that’s involved with the actual show planner who has a relationship with the association and knows the details and nuances of each show.”

Gahler used the spreadsheet to create a detailed PowerPoint that used bars and graphs to communicate the data. The presentation was shared on a laptop with a small group of association staff and board members in an informal setting.  

One key to realizing the best results from your spreadsheet is to use a standardized template for all use cases to avoid differences and errors in reporting and budgeting. 

It Takes a Village

Gahler’s experience points out the interconnectedness of everyone involved with a trade show. “[When looking at this particular show] we were asking what we can do to maintain the same size,” she says. “We didn’t want to impact the association in a negative way, because we care about them and want to support the association. They are critical to us as an industry and they bring an audience together that is important to us as a company. ” 

As costs rise, exhibitors look for ways to make reductions while maintaining the same footprint. But what often happens is the creation of a cycle, where downsizing actually causes rates to rise because more dollars are needed to fund the meetings. Which may ultimately put the meetings’ continued existence in jeopardy. So if you have a problem with a show, reach out to the association to talk about it. 

Key Takeaways

Build relationships by using empathy and asking questions.

Ultimately, show organizers want to provide a good experience for everyone. Just like you. “Industry representatives want relationships with those they serve,” says Christine. “They want people to understand that they do actually care about having a successful convention.” 

Let them know you empathize with them and ask questions to better understand their wants and needs. You’ll find your relationships with association staff to be an invaluable resource when you need to get things done. So make it a point to meet with and interact with your contact at the association either in-person, on a call, or by connecting on social media. 

“If you approach someone seeking to understand their perspective as well as sharing your insights, I can’t imagine anyone saying no to that,” Christine commented.  

Do your research for historical comparisons at your show.

While labor rate surveys may no longer be available, a little digging should turn up relevant data that you can use in making your case. In some cases, these rates are published with the show prospectus. And if you have a particular show in mind, contact the organizers to ask if rates will be included with the prospectus. If not, be prepared to communicate the importance of having that data available. You’ll be doing yourself and fellow exhibitors a favor. 

Bring data to back up your feelings.

As in any negotiation, a reasoned argument validated by data will have more of an impact than an emotional appeal. Remember, this isn’t personal; it’s just part of doing business. Keep in mind that if you are experiencing a significant problem, it’s likely others are, as well.

Problems have solutions and it’s your job to identify what’s causing the issues and suggest ways of working things out. 

You can read Gahler’s full article here.

EDE works with companies every day to create optimized trade show budgets. Contact us to take advantage of our expertise.

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