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by Deanna Ting | June 16, 2015
June 9 marked the debut of the inaugural IBTM America conference at Chicago's McCormick Place. Hosted by U.K.-based Reed Travel Exhibitions' IBTM Events portfolio, the meetings industry event is welcoming nearly 200 exhibitors and nearly 200 hosted buyers to Chicago for three days of networking, one-on-one meetings, and educational sessions.

This year's IBTM America marks a full reinvention of AIBTM, the Americas Incentive, Business Travel & Meeting Expo, which first debuted in Baltimore in 2011. Whereas AIBTM was traditionally held on a much larger scale -- last year's show in Orlando attracted 1,200 buyers and 508 exhibitors -- this year's new IBTM America was designed to attract a smaller number of both buyers and exhibitors, and has a more intimate, scaled-down format. Initial goals were to have as many as 250 hosted buyers and 250 exhibitors for this year's event.

Instead of large trade show booths, buyers and exhibitors are mutually matched, and meet in eight-foot-by-eight-foot "meeting pods" that seat up to three people. All pods are identical in size, with the only difference being the marketing/branding/artwork that graces the outside of each unit. Each hosted buyer has 30 pre-scheduled appointments with 30 different exhibitors over the course of the show's three days.

The mutual matching process, in particular, is something that the IBTM America team is emphasizing as a unique feature of the new format. "The science behind our recruitment process is that we have a system where once we sign on exhibitors, we ask them their needs and what types of buyers they want to see, and our hosted buyer team uses that information and recruits buyers specifically on those needs," explained Jaime McAuley, IBTM event director.

"The message is really around the curation of the show -- this beautiful harmony between what exhibitors want and need -- that ROI -- and what buyers are looking for," noted Sallie Coventry, portfolio director for IBTM Events. "The size of this show allows us to handpick whom we want at the show."

Of the hosted buyers in attendance, most are from third party meeting planning and incentive companies (57 percent), while 27 percent are corporate meeting planners. The remaining 16 percent of buyers are association planners or planners associated with government. Approximately 80 percent of buyers are from the U.S., while the remaining 20 percent are from international destinations, especially Europe and South America. Destinations from Mexico and the Caribbean also have a strong presence, with 48 pods dedicated to Mexico-related exhibitors alone. Seventy-five percent of exhibitors are from North America, and 25 percent are from international destinations.

So far, says McAuley, feedback regarding the new format has been positive. "While we're at the show [exhibitors] are living it and experiencing it, and they really love that it's appointment based. They can conduct business," said McAuley.

Coventry noted in a press briefing, "We've always strived to deliver a show that's relevant to the market that we're in. The way the show is designed this year is a direct result of feedback from buyers and exhibitors."

Exhibitors who spoke to Successful Meetings expressed optimism about the new format, and noted some pros and cons.

"This year is very different," Gus Vonderheide, vice president of global sales, Americas, for Hyatt Hotels & Resorts, said. "I applaud IBTM for taking a chance and trying to do something different here. They had the ability and opportunity to make a change and they did. It's a different and unique show format for us here in the U.S. I like the one-on-one appointments, and it seems like you can really meet all the planners here."

Sam Johnston, manager for the Dublin Convention Bureau, expressed some concerns, however. "The older format really worked well for us. It was easier for us to have a larger presence and to have more partners present, and I am a bit concerned about the quality of meetings we will have." He noted that two of his scheduled hosted buyer appointments for today included a cancellation and a no-show. "We'll just have to wait and see -- there's still a long way to go."

Edgar Werblowsky, president and director of Sao Paulo-based incentive house Immaginare, said that he liked the "cozy feel" of this year's show format. "It's easy and convenient to go from booth to booth, and I've had good meetings. As a specialist in incentive travel, however, I would have expected to see more destination management companies (DMCs). The networking here is interesting."

Amanda Buckner, a planner with the Falls Church, VA-based Voluntary Protection Programs Participant Association (VPPA), said she came to IBTM America to find a destination to host VPPA's 2020 convention for 2,500 attendees, preferably in the Midwest or Mexico. She preferred the intimacy of the meeting pod format in comparison to larger trade show booths.

"When you try something new, you have to adapt," Coventry told reporters at a press briefing this morning. "I think there were a number of people [exhibitors] sitting on the fence. But now that we can see it … it's real. I'm hosting a lunch with potential exhibitors today so they can come and see it. We are confident we can bring them in for 2016."

In addition to the one-on-one meetings, IBTM America, in partnership with the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) hosted a variety of educational sessions and keynote speakers. Topics included new meeting tech tools and a panel on the sharing economy and its impact on the meetings and events industry. Networking opportunities are also being encouraged on the show floor in the centrally located ConnectZone, as well as at evening receptions hosted by IBTM America and Choose Chicago held at various venues throughout the city.

Next year's IBTM America, which is scheduled to take place next June in Nashville, will also have this year's new hosted buyer format, said McAuley and Coventry.    

"The show next year will be contained inside the hotel," McAuley noted. "We're going to engage the city to do evening events and explore Nashville." The decision to go to Nashville, she says, was prompted by direct buyer and supplier responses that came from focus groups conducted earlier this year. "We asked them what cities they wanted to go to, and many said Nashville."