Event ROI: How to Calculate Return on Investment for Exhibitors, Clients and Attendees

Skift Take

Are you struggling with event ROI? If so, it’s probably because there’s a lot that goes into the calculation of a successful event and most of it depends on your role. Here are the things you need to know to calculate it successfully.

When someone expresses a term of endearment towards you, have you ever asked them to prove it? If you did, they may have been a little stunned and not sure of how to proceed. The same is true of return on investment (ROI) for many event planners.

In the simplest of definitions, return on investment measures what you spend on your event versus what you make. But there’s more to it than that. Because it’s not just your ROI. You have:

  • Your exhibitors’ ROI
  • Attendee ROI
  • Client’s ROI

While all of these calculations take into account what’s put in and what’s received, when it comes to ROI calculations much of it falls upon the event planner to prove the return to others. So how do you do it and ensure everyone is as satisfied with the financials as possible?


Steps to Calculate Event Return on Investment for Exhibitors, Clients and Attendees

To calculate ROI for event exhibitors, clients, and attendees you need to analyze the following and understand the influences of what goes into ROI for each segment.

  1. Understand their goals.
  2. Know what they care about and how that’s measured.
  3. Analyze timelines and competition.
  4. Understand and assess expectations.

What Is Return on Investment?

Return on investment in the generic sense tallies up everything spent on the event and everything made on the event. The equation is:

ROI = Net Profit / Total Investment x 100

This calculation gives the percentage of the increase or decrease on the event.

But the specifics of the numbers that go into net profit and total investment depend largely on whether you are an event planner, the client, the exhibitor, or the attendee. For a less complicated discussion, we’ll assume your vendors can calculate the ROI of participation in much the same way you would.

While you can leave it up to each group to calculate for themselves, and you’ll likely have to to a certain extent because there are numbers you simply won’t have, it benefits you to add to as much of that ROI discussion as you can.

After all, exhibitors are notorious for not following up on leads at trade shows, and that affects potential earnings. We can only imagine their hesitancy in doing a complex compilation of numbers that likely involve multiple people.

Why Calculate ROI for Others?

Without exhibitors/sponsors you might not have an event. If attendees can’t justify the expense, you’ll be shutting your doors. So don’t leave the number crunching solely up to them. Take the time after the event is over to look over their potential leads, attendance numbers, floor traffic, networking connections, activity, and more to get those numbers that will justify their interest next year.

What Goes into ROI?

So, what should you consider when calculating ROI? With the Internet and social sharing, calculating ROI has become a little more nebulous these days than it was in the times before online activity. But we’re also getting more insight into activity patterns and the like.

The components that make up the investment on behalf of your exhibitors, attendees, and clients likely haven’t changed that much but how profit is calculated has. Event ROI is not as simple as a stock investment where you know what you purchased the share for and how much you sold it for. The following things will influence event ROI:

1. Understand Their Goals

Event ROI is somewhat based on goals. For instance, if your exhibitor is wondering whether attending your trade show was worth it, they need to ask themselves why they were there. If it’s to increase exposure, get interest for a new product line, or increase sales, these are all measured in very different ways. Sales will be a very cut and dry calculation, particularly if the product is sold at the show as a one-time offering. You simply add up what you sold at the time. If there’s a longer buying cycle with the product, you might also assign a value to leads you picked up from the show.

However, if the exhibitor went to make a name for their brand, sales may not be an expectation. In that situation, an increase in website traffic or social media shares or followers may be of more interest. Goals will factor into the ROI calculation so it’s important you understand what each person wants out of their investment.

2. Know What They Care About and How That’s Measured

Again, as mentioned previously, the type of ROI largely depends on the person or group as well. For instance, an exhibitor will ultimately be deciding ROI and a cost-benefit analysis before a boss, board, or his wallet. A client may be analyzing what you were able to do versus others before you or when they handled it on their own. An attendee may be doing the ROI calculation based on fun factor: was it enjoyable and did I learn things I can use or meet people who will be helpful to me in the future?

3. Analyze Timelines and Competition

Financial people may largely argue this point. After all, a financial calculation cannot be influenced by something as willy nilly as timing. You either made money or you didn’t. But timing can affect how people perceive the revenue. For instance, an exhibitor may only look at orders received during the show, leaving out connections and leads that later become sales.

Since participation is not always determined by raw numbers it’s also important to point out how an exhibitor’s competition being present or not can affect their view of your show.

But what about attendees? How does timing and competition influence ROI? For them, timing could involve their company’s budget or revenue. In a tight year, the question of was attendance worth it? may be held to a higher standard than in a boon year. The same could be said for clients.

4. Understand and Assess Expectations

Again, since some of the interpretation of the calculation is subjective, expectations also factor in. If someone expected a lot more than what they received, they’ll likely be unimpressed even if the balance sheet is well into the black. That’s why managing exhibitor, client, and attendee expectations are also very important to the return on investment.

Measuring ROI in Events

The aspects above all influence the ROI calculation but here are the things that will help you pull together some numbers that will likely help you influence your exhibitors, client, and attendees.


Ultimately, you only know what they paid to you. There are many more costs than what you’ll see such as travel, shipping, hotels, customer entertainment, etc. So you can’t do the ROI calculation for them but you can supply them with the following:

  • Attendee numbers
  • Exhibition floor traffic numbers
  • Traffic flow diagrams (if you used beacons or some other form of smart technology, like RFID)
  • Mobile app insights
  • Directory clicks on their listing
  • Leads collected (if you handled this electronically through QR code scanning or other lead retrieval technology)

In addition to providing these numbers, it sometimes benefits you to place them in context through comparison. For instance, Grammarly is an app that is like a spelling and grammar check on steroids. They offer a free and paid version. Every week it provides users with not only their own numbers but how they rank against other Grammarly users.

These types of statistics can give context to your exhibitors’ numbers. For instance, if you provide only data on sales made, an exhibitor could be disappointed in only getting 20. Maybe they had expected much more. But if you can place it in context and show they did more sales than 70% of your exhibitors or had more sales than 70% of your exhibitors in their field, they may be quite impressed with their sales team.


Attendees tend to be a little more subjective in their calculations because other than defending the expense to a boss when it comes to budget time (assuming it was a professional expense and not a personal event, then there likely isn’t a process outside of a personal budget), the decision may be largely theirs. But that doesn’t mean you needn’t be involved and there are still things you could provide that would make them more likely to attend again.

If possible, use an exit survey of some kind to find out why they were interested in your event and whether it met their expectations. If you know their why, you will have a better understanding of what they need from you.

You can customize this list based on why your attendees come to your event but here’s a start of what you need to give them to improve their ROI:

  • Slide decks, worksheets, and recordings of your presentations. This may not directly affect a ROI calculation but a boss who sees materials that can be shared for the whole team’s professional growth may begin to see more return and value on your event.
  • Past attendee discounts for a future event.
  • Information like the number of people they connected with, if you tracked this through technology.
  • Common takeaways of the conference/event. Some people get so caught up in the event, they forget to track these and again, it’s something the boss appreciates. You can also compile key takeaways for each presentation. This acts as an executive summary of the sessions.

With attendee ROI it’s not so much about an actual calculation but about enticing them back. You do this by showing them an enjoyable time at the event and giving them post-event value. Since some events and attendees do have an economic justification that occurs before being able to attend again next year, it is important to aim at least some of that value to a larger team or points that can be shared by the attendee. You can help them (and their boss) look like a rock star.


Your clients want to make sure you made them money but don’t stop with mere registrations,  ticket sales, and attendance. Include these things too:

  • Sales opportunities and future sponsorships.
  • Analytics on social shares and follows before, during, and after the event. Take a few weeks to compile these numbers, if possible, so that you can capture any waves of post-event interest.
  • Website traffic and content interaction before, during, and after.
  • Online community log-ins, if applicable.
  • Exit survey or Net Promoter Score results.
  • Participation in gamification or other fun activities.
  • Mobile app insights.
  • Showroom floor traffic and exhibitor stats.
  • Highlights of speaker evaluations and scores.
  • Referrals. This is a healthy sign word of mouth marketing.
  • Early bird registrations. These people were on board early and it’s a good number to see, especially if they are returning attendees.
  • New versus returning attendees. Don’t forget to measure those who did not return.

Although you can’t qualify many of these numbers with a solid dollar amount, they can be impressive to those who are worried about the bottom line but only when compared with something else. Is 500 Facebook shares good or bad? Your client likely won’t know unless you provide a frame from which to view it. Give it context based on past statistics. If you don’t have past numbers, compare them to goals or expectations.

Finally, provide them with ideas of how you plan on building on your post-event momentum and expectations for next year, such as a drip marketing or nurture campaign.

A Final Word About ROI Calculations for Events

ROI is only a number, not good or bad, if you have nothing to compare it to. If you have never tracked ROI in the past, begin now. If you have, be as consistent as possible in factoring in what goes into your calculations and when they are collected. Your website hits may increase slightly up until a few weeks after your event. Putting together your numbers too soon after close may mean you aren’t able to capture some of that residual uptick.  

In Conclusion

One of the most difficult things to do as an event planner is calculate event ROI. There are so many components that go into the calculation, not to mention the emotional part of event satisfaction. But giving the numbers to people who need them most – your exhibitors, attendees, and clients – will help you influence those calculations and perceptions you can’t directly control.

With taking these things into consideration, you just might get pretty good at calculating event ROI. Now if only you could get people to see the ROI on giving you a day off!

Additional Reading on Event ROI

The Math and Magic of Measuring Event ROI
9 Ways to Increase Exhibitor ROI Before, During and After the Event
5 Events that Measure Clear ROI
Does Event ROI Exist?
Scan Emotions to Measure Event ROI
10 Ways to Measure Your Event ROI with Social Media