Trade Shows, Part I

Trade shows can be a valuable business tool, if used correctly. Most people are familiar with how big trade shows are run, and some of the elaborate displays and booths that try to capture the attention of passer-by in the all-important first few seconds. Whether you are an exhibitor at a trade show, or an attendee walking around getting accosted by exhibitors, several common factors arise to determine whether the show is a success. In the past couple of weeks, we’ve been at two trade shows. At the first, we were an exhibitor, and at the second we were an attendee. We’ll hit the high points of these and other trade show experiences to start teasing out strategies which can be used at any trade show to get the most out of them for your small business.

Sales or Marketing Focus

If you are an exhibitor at a trade show, one important decision is whether to be there to sell or to be there to market. Without a larger booth staff and off-site technical support to handle problems that arise, it can be difficult to do both well. Many large companies exhibit just to show the flag and do brand recognition marketing, often in the form of free samples handed out to the public. Unless your product or service is a couple of hundred dollars or less, chances are that you aren’t going to make very many impulse sales at most trade shows.

This is not a hard and fast rule by any means, however. There are some hobbyist or special interest trade shows where people will come prepared to spend thousands of dollars (amateur radio shows are one important example), so you have to judge on a case by case basis. At the other end of the spectrum, vendors selling low-cost items can have trouble making sales in an environment where many high-end vendors are giving away free samples or promotional items.

We like to evaluate trade shows from the point of view of a vendor in terms of marketing: is the cost and effort of this show worth our getting marketing value alone? If not, is the likely business information (see below) worth the effort?

Business Information

Also known as business intelligence, it can sometimes be helpful to attend a trade show as an exhibitor purely to find out what your prospective market is interested in. In this case, the booth display looks like simple marketing, but your goal is to have as many non-sales conversations as possible, and keep detailed notes of the highlights. One way I like to do this is to ask a walk-up for their business card (if it is a business oriented trade show), turn it over, and take notes on the back of their card. I will ask questions about what they do, and what brings them to the show. I will then ask questions about what kind of challenges they face in their own business or in their job, and just listen to where they take the conversation. For an attendee, this is a refreshing change from the obviously canned patter they’ve heard at dozens of booths already.

You will be surprised at how much useful information you will get this way, and how important those contacts can be. It is especially important to talk to other walk-up exhibitors (you can usually tell immediately by a different badge style or color), even if they might seem to be competition, and to walk-up to their booths. In many cases, we’ve been able to turn what would otherwise be competition into a client simply by offering to help them with some projects where our expertise lines up with their gaps. If anyone makes the effort of coming up to my booth, I’m going to talk to them.

Attendee Vendor Skills

Sometimes, you will want to scope out a trade show or class of trade show as an attendee before committing to being an exhibitor. We’ll expand on this aspect of trade shows in a dedicated article, but one important detail must be noted: it is considered very unprofessional to try to be a freeloader exhibitor by prospecting other attendees with your business. Most shows will, rightfully, kick you out of the venue for doing this, and many will ban you from future exhibition.

What is acceptable in most cases, particularly with prior coordination with the event management, is to walk around and talk to vendors about their experiences at this show and get a feel for the kind of displays that make sense. It is also helpful to see what kind of people show up and what they are interested in, simply by listening to the conversations that they have with other vendors. There is also certainly nothing wrong with taking business cards from vendors for later follow-up. Again, we’ll drill into this approach in a future article.

Exhibitor Don’ts

One thing you will quickly learn from walking around any trade show is how to be an ineffective exhibitor. The first rule? Put away the phone. It is amazing how many vendors will spend thousands of dollars to be at a show, and then stand or sit there poking away at their phone. Sometimes I’ll stand in front of a booth just to see how long it takes the vendor to look up from the phone, or whether they will even start a conversation when they do. I’m always amazed at how often that phone is more important than a walk-up.

Another tip is to avoid being across the aisle from a food or beverage vendor. Those booths get a lot of traffic, but you will be looking at the backs of that crowd. To the side of such a vendor is a great spot, though, as people will be facing you and your display as they mill around. Milling management is another topic all by itself. You can usually get a map of the big food and beverage vendors beforehand to help you pick a spot.

Some vendors will use microphones and speakers to hawk their products. Many shows have rules against this, or which limit the volume, but invariably some bozo is blasting out some new roto-scrub product regardless. This is another good reason to do a walk-around at a prior show, to see how prevalent this is, and how the event management handles this situation. There is little point in paying for a booth if you can’t talk to prospects when they do show up. Similarly, find out whether the staff themselves are constantly blasting in with announcements, and if they do, whether they keep those announcements short or repeat themselves endlessly. Or whether they turn off the mike before slamming it on the table or using it to play whack-a-mole.

As a practical measure, using a speaker in our particular business would be hugely counterproductive. I want our prospective clients to feel comfortable telling us about problems we can help solve, or products we need to design. Blasting that stuff out Slick Jimmy style doesn’t set a good tone for anyone.

Also, some vendors try to poach their fellow exhibitors’ walk-ups, even if there is no competitive reason to do so. This is an indication of someone who has a fixed-pie scarcity mentality, and probably isn’t very customer-oriented as a result. On the contrary, we like to get to know our neighbors and what they are offering, and then refer walk-ups to them if it seems like there might be a match. It is good to notice which vendors do poach, and file that information away. Since our business, in a major way, is match-making in one form or another, knowing who to not refer is important, also.

In this article, we’ve only scratched the surface of the various trade-show skills and strategies that can be used to make the most of trade shows. In future articles we’ll expand on this foundation.

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