On Expos

This week TORTUS attended our first healthcare expo as an exhibitor at NHS Confed Expo 2023 in Manchester*. Exhibitions for start-ups can be either a huge distraction or a huge opportunity. If I’m perfectly honest I had no idea which this might be, and therefore from an outcomes company perspective, was mostly a bit of a f**k up. But that’s sort of my MO with new things (hence the title of this blog), and this hybrid marketing-sales type activity is brand new to me. I learnt A LOT.

My biggest mistake this week was having no plan. We were offered some exhibition space for much cheaper than we could otherwise have afforded at our stage from the lovely people at HIC, and I hadn’t thought much about it other than some vague thoughts about networking. As a consequence, I had no plan, no KPIs, no strategy. Overall we did have some success and made in-roads in a few directions, but there wasn’t enough ROI for the time spent away.

So what will I do differently next time?

Expos are a big time and money sink for start-ups (or for anyone really) so next time I will ask “what am I actually trying to achieve?”. Expos can be about sales contracts, networking, or just scoping out competition. Any of these require some real forethought to deliver against. Let’s pretend for argument’s sake next time we will be aiming to close new hospital contracts.

If the goal is to close hospital contracts, a good plan might look something like:
– calculate the potential ROI of a single conference annually
– validate leads that will be attending 1-2 months prior
– contact those leads to set up meetings at the conference
– plan a stand and exhibit that matches the value proposition of the deal size we are closing (see below)
– have a follow-up system in place to then close post.
Clear KPIs for the funnel creation, contact and closing are then constructed. And every member of the team attending the expo next time will know EXACTLY what they are doing, and optimising for that minute by minute.

This week we had a small table as part of a consortium stand with just myself and a laptop. If we are closing hospital contracts next time then we need to calculate the potential ROI we are trying to close. This is the value of a single contract (let’s argue £1m annually) and the maximum number of potential contracts (e.g. number of potential decision-makers attending). Therefore at an expo with 10-20 potential leads attending, the potential ROI in this scenario is £10-20m. Therefore spending £200,000 on an absolutely incredible visual stand and demo experience is not just rational, it’s a calculated 50-100x potential ROI.

Here is some inspo of the sort of super high-end stands we might look to set up for this approach:

Alternatively, if the conference goal is something else (networking for example for future leads/hires/talent) then spending no money at all on stands but hosting social events and bringing a larger team to maximise footfall and coverage is the better option. I think it’s easier to just pick ONE goal for any expo and then shoot for that.

A focus of ONE goal should be doubled down on by attending ONE expo each year/season/cycle – specifically planned to meet that goal. Again, say we are closing hospital contracts in a specific geography (e.g. USA), finding the expo*** with the highest density of CCIOs of hospital systems in the US for example would make sense. Similarly, if we had a different goal, let’s say expand our clinic tool uptake, attending a Family Physician conference and maximising footfall and incentives to sign up new customers is the right plan. Whatever the strategy, focus is key.

This isn’t just the money spent on the exhibit and travel. Track the time expenditure. I didn’t spend a lot of time pre-expo but spent two days away from the team and I am absolutely shattered – this means other things have piled up. Again, without a clear ROI, it’s impossible to justify the cost in the first place.

One thing I noticed was trying to introduce a new concept to a total stranger, completely cold, without any context, is really hard. Theatres have a ritual, you buy tickets, you sit down, the lights go down, the curtains open, you are prepared to observe and absorb the content of the play. Conversely, the same actors performing the same play randomly on a train would be ignored, harassed or even referred to the police. So context really is everything, and how mentally prepared your opposite is to receive your pitch is probably more important than the pitch itself (also why warm introductions >> cold intros when fundraising but that’s a whole other blog).

If our goal next time is to create the context to close large value deals with reputation and risk-averse hospital executives, we will need to totally re-evaluate our presentation. What are we trying to convey? Something very different, something very valuable, something that is exclusive and a must-have at the very cutting edge of medicine. See the inspo above for some ideas of how this approach might look.
And the theatre should start a long-time before the exhibition itself – building up to an expo should be like a movie premiere – have something to ‘unveil’ exclusively to attendees, have a promo video and social media campaign.

Next time I think we will be vociferous in pursuing the mission goal – have multi-layered contingency plans, arrange targeted meetings with specific individuals, collar strangers with the right profile, have a slick demo, have take-away material, collect contact details, follow-up etc. Treat it like a military operation, because it is. If you treat it like a random event, you will have random results. Plan all the small details as well – the WiFi at the MCCC was practically unusable, which would’ve made a cloud-based AI demonstration impossible. Luckily I ran the whole demo off my 5G phone in the end. I had to charge it at lunch breaks. Next time we will do a reccy before, plan any obvious stand needs (power, WiFi, materials) and plan contingencies as well.

I had no idea about this, but a lot of the conference hustle goes on AFTER the event. If our goal is to network, then we should consider hosting an event. If the goal is to secure sales, attending one of the evening events (or more) is essential. (My other observation here is to cut your losses at around 9pm when most people are too drunk to remember or be useful.)

As I wandered around the expo with my physician hat on, I tried to listen to what drew or repelled me to certain stands. Some stands had food or coffee – this was a great move as there wasn’t a lot of food and the coffee wasn’t great at the venue. Smoothies, chocolates, cakes, one stand even had a whole ice cream cart. There was some good swag as well – I thought quite a few companies missed a trick by giving away pretty routine items like notebooks (although they were quite nice). Again, more is more here. High value or highly novel items are more likely to create the lasting impression that we would want. I think next time we will give away something so novel and weird people come to our stand just to get it.**
Once hooked, we can then hit them with the serious stuff – e.g. put some of our research papers in a novelty backpack. Or add a demo code to try the Scribe product for a week.

Next time we should aim to dominate the headspace of everyone at the exhibition – this could be through the stand itself, events or talks we host, swag we give away etc. I’d rather people were sick of hearing about us than never having heard about us at all. Eventually, I would want to repeat this approach so much that if we aren’t at an industry expo, people will MISS us. That’s how to be on people’s mind even when a competitor is pitching them.

I observed you can quickly iterate everything with your potential customers in a short period of time at a high-density event like this: from pitch, customer segment and even GTM. In one conversation alone with a potential partner I decided to pivot our target budget from IT to staffing, and therefore redefine our whole outward messaging in how we talk about OSLER to the world. I also got to hear how the majority of the healthcare industry is looking and thinking about AI right now – sometimes in start-up world you can really feel like everybody can do what you can, but out in the real-world I realised how far ahead of the industry-wide curve TORTUS is right now.

Overall expos for start-ups can be a double edged sword, upon which I mostly fell on this time around. Next time we will make a clear goal and execute against that ROI specifically, and hopefully spectacularly. Like everything in this game decide if it’s a distraction or an opportunity, and if the latter, actively make the most of it.

*Manchester is really lovely! Unlike London it wasn’t bombed during WWII and therefore the architecture is mostly preserved from the 19th Century, which is really pretty.

**AirBnB famously stayed alive by selling novelty political cereal (Obama O’s) around the time of the 2008 US election.

***I’m not aware of any tools that can accurately give you a flavour of the actual ROI of conferences/exhibitions for exhibitors that you can search and are high-value. Would be fascinating to try to build this out for health-tech.