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Making a show of it!

Are trade shows worth it? And what can you do to maximise attending one if you go. Thoughts on tradeshows for companies looking to go big, or for those who might be having second thoughts about attending at all.

a picture of the NAMM trade show in Anaheim California

Shows are not what they used to be. But do they still have value to you?

Since attending my first large scale trade show in the seemingly endless halls of the Musik Messe Frankfurt in Germany there has been a massive change in both the size and number of trade events across every industry. For some trade shows have become a compulsory must do event, even if they don’t have a stand on which they show their products. Others have abandoned trade events or begun to set up their own satellite gatherings close to a major show so people attending can visit them off site and avoid the cost of floor space and spiraling booth building costs.

"These gatherings can still have value, but you need to plan ahead and make sure that you know exactly what you want to get out of them."

The decline in trade events has been blamed on the effect of Covid but in truth shows across most industries have been in decline for the last decade but depending on what you want to achieve these gatherings can still have value, but you need to plan ahead and make sure that you know exactly what you want to get out of them.

Tempering your expectations

As a business the first thing you need to establish is “why” you are attending in the first place. Simply going to have a look around for a day might be sensible for a consumer and product facing person trying to decide if they might want to go next year but as with most things it is easy enough to do your research online now so isn’t really a justifiable cost for most, especially if the show is halfway around the world.

"Understanding the people who will be at a show before attending will allow you to plan for results"

Before committing to a visit or indeed working a trade event first it is important to establish if the event has the right people or companies there for you, If your company has a raft of new products to show and tell and you intend on selling directly to consumers a purely trade event will likely give you nothing helpful to take home other than a handful of sales to retailers who are buying product for themselves to use. Similarly if the show is a mix of trade and consumers and you sell via retailers only half of your efforts are not going to turn into sales unless you partner with a retailer at the show to convert interest in your new shiny offering into a sale.

Understanding the people who will be at a show before attending will allow you to plan for results and regardless of the size of your company will ensure that the right people from your organization are there, gathering information, winning sales and prospecting for new opportunity.

Planning and scheduling are often not a top priority for trade events for those who attend them, this is even more true for retailers, and buyers if your brand is not a top priority. Don’t expect people to engage with you without some up front leg work at a major show and certainly don’t think that standing behind a table top with a single product is going to draw the attention of masses of consumers or retailers. At best you might become a must visit new comer for people on the look out for novelty, at worst you become a market trader hawking your wares and looking out of place surrounded by well polished hundred thousand dollar displays.

If after consideration you feel the people you need to talk to are going to be there, prepare, make appointments and before the event make a note of where they will be at the show, if they don’t make the appointment you organized visit them, they may have lost track of time. Be persistent but not pushy and most of all remember be at their disposal, they are more important to you than you are to them. If your must see person is clearly overwhelmed perhaps offer to meet them for a drink after the day is done, invite them out to dinner or worse case scenario offer to visit them at their offices at a later date. Don’t give up, but be realistic.

Networking is more than drinking and a party.

Tradeshows are of course much more than displays and halls, many companies hold evening events, meals and out off launches and seminars. If you think taking an hour for lunch then think again. If you think you should prop up the bar from show close till late, again it might be time to rethink. One of the biggest advantages trade events provide any industry is the gathering of likeminded people in the same place at one time. It is a massive opportunity to network and grow your contacts and depending on what your business does even make some serious sales.

the robot band at the Gibson stage at the Musik Messe event Franfurt

Choose your events wisely and don’t turn up uninvited. If someone you speak to at the show asks if you are going to the Brand Y party and you didn’t know about it before hand think quick. Let them know you had heard about it but didn’t know how to get an invite, if they are going chances are they know a way to get you a ticket, or someone who will. Ask them if they have been before, work out “why” you would go and “what” you intend to get out of it if it does become accessible to you.

If you are fortunate enough to get invited to more than one event, then try and do both if you think it is worth it, but prioritise. You might find you only make it to one on the night.

When at an event make yourself know (being loud and dancing on the table is never a good idea) but mingle and talk with people, introduce yourself but don’t push your agenda or sales. Be interested in the person you are speaking to, and if you feel there might not be an opportunity from the conversation don’t just walk away, leave an impression and if appropriate a business card ( the person you just spoke to might be the friend of your next biggest client) However, and this is important DON’T be the guy walking around giving everyone your business card, you will likely be the person people talk about and forget in a hurry. Business is like every other relationship, and if you seem desperate enough people will not take you seriously.

Lastly, if you get some ones details and they seem like you might be able to build a business relationship with them, make sure to follow up. After the show, once things have settled down and they have cleared the often week long aftermath of work they may have accrued during their own business.

Back to the show- what to do?

Supposing you are a business leader, you have a small team with you and you do attend a show (with or without a booth of your own) what things can you do yourself or with your team to make sure you maximise the investment you have made to get there?

Sales Sell (domestic):

If you have sales people at a show, make sure they go prepared, it might be the one chance they get to meet buyers from larger companies, especially if you are trading internationally. Sales people should have an appointment book and also time between to take adhoc walk up enquiries. If you don’t have a booth it might be worth renting a space in one of the often available rooms at an event for them to conduct business away from the hustle of the show floor. Sales also have the fantastic ability act as your floor salesman if you do have a booth. SO don’t lock them in an office if they don’t have a packed diary, one salesman is worth two or even three people on your booth, after all they know the product.

One thing that might seem illogical is to also groom your best sales people to talk to the competition you might be saying at this stage “ I don’t want my sales person talking to the competition, that’s dangerous” but think about it. If your sales person is good, if they a loyal to your business and you have confidence in them they can find out things from speaking to their counterparts you won’t. you just have to make sure you are sending in the best of your team to do the job and make sure they know what they can and cant tell the people they meet, after all you might want to leak some information yourself.

Sales Steer (international):

If you are fortunate enough to have international distributors the bigger tradeshows are a perfect opportunity to provide much needed support to the people who represent you in other regions. Like with most meeting when you haven’t seen someone for a long time in person it is easy to get drawn into long conversations which are non productive so make sure the person you put on point for these meetings is able to sensitively steer talk to business without seeming rude. Keep to planned diary timescales and have a clear agenda to work to together. Sending a pre meeting one page sheet of topics for discussion will often go a long way to reducing the time wandering off topic so make sure you prepare and know what you want to talk about. If you have targets make sure you discuss them, ask about how they feel and don’t be afraid to adjust upward according to their responses to new upcoming products you might be pitching to them.

Something else which is critical for international distributors is also to make sure they are aware well ahead of time what you will be doing during the year, this might be the only opportunity to make an impactful sales pitch on a product or marketing campaign you are going to undertake so don’t be afraid to talk about longer tail issues as well as the more immediate ones.

Lastly and most importantly give distributors a chance to feedback, even complain. In 1-1 situations face to face it is easier to resolve issues and reassure your customers. Just don’t make promises you cant keep and don’t feel pressured into offering costly short term solutions to clients who might have had problems with delivery or products. They will understand if you explain to them you need to consider and discuss things after the show, they will also be stacked with meetings and trying to fix problems on the fly between a busy diary schedule will only lead to mistakes being made, or worse still promises being forgotten.

Marketing gets sold to:

If you have a booth it is likely your marketing team will have had a large input into the stand itself, likely also they will all want to attend and see the realization of months of hard work to sell the brand. However consider just how many marketing people really need to attend if you do take them. While marketeers have a huge value in talking about the brand the undeniably larger value at a trade event is for them to be sold to by other brands. Attending seminars on marketing which have guest speakers from your competitors will provide valuable insight into the psyche of your opponent.

However the most stand out benefit of a marketeer at such an event is surely to walk the halls, visit product launches and put together a firm picture of who the competition are and why their products are great!

By understanding how and “why” other brands achieve success you too can glean what makes them different, so you too can be degrees of different or better to win business. Asking someone from your team to put together a show report with photos and notes provides a great topographical map of the marketplace which you can use to direct your development and growth after decompressing from the show. Arguably any reports should be shared with the product and sales team unabridged and unedited for debate rather than to be taken at face value but the information gained can be invaluable.

Product People should play:

This works better when your product people are not known to the competition, or if they have a really good relationship with them. Either way sending a product person in a heavily branded staff shirt to a competitors booth isn’t the best idea, so don’t expect much return sending someone blatantly onto the oppositions stomping ground asking questions in front of their clients. Instead, get your product person to walk the show making notes on what stands out and what catches their eye.

Then send them around again to do the same thing, this time looking for things they have missed. Then get them to go around a last time and try things and talk to people on the stands, they should say they are looking for themselves, and always be positive about the products (regardless of if they meet the grade or not) and at the end of the show they will also have a report to rival that of your marketeer. You now have a comparison document, a push me pull you perspective from an innovation perspective and one from a more consumer focused marketeer angle. Two lots of research to help inspire not only how you can innovate better products but also the type of language that resonates with your audience.

So is a trade show for you?

Wanting to be a bigger brand or grow your business is a genuine and necessary need if you want to be profitable, but getting caught in the trap of one upmanship or being overly ambitious with what you are trying to achieve is not only costly in the short term but can have long term consequences as well.

If you are considering participating in a trade event it is essential you make clear “why” you are going to participate and this doesn’t only apply to you but everyone in your team, both those attending and those who are not.

Clearly analyse your goals and make sure you believe they are achievable. DON’T make an effort to do “something” in the words of the Starwars character Yoda , “do or do not, there is no try” be specific and targeted and make sure you keep that focus if you do decide to attend. Don’t take products you cant deliver on to show potential clients, a half pitch filled with excuses of being able to fix this before production or launch do not fill customers with confidence. Neither does a booth or stand consisting of a cheap poster and table top display. Remember if you commit to something what you show is a representation of your brand and as a result cheap cut corners reflect this.

If you do decide to commit, it is an investment, and like all investments treat it like one. You wouldn’t run google ad words with something randomly chosen from a dictionary or let your 6 year old child pick the colour of your next product release so don’t treat trade shows any differently.

Pick the right show for you, speak to your peers and even the competition to see if they are going and be sure in your mind that the money you spend has the potential to provide you with a return.

So are tradeshows dead?

Tradeshows are certainly not what they used to be and in the age of digital marketing, instant information sharing and direct to consumer sales they can arguably be seen as less impactful, but… and it is a big but, for some brands and businesses they can still be a massive resource of information and great platform to extol the values and benefits of your products and brand image.

In short, a trade event is not for everyone, but with preparation and planning and a clear strategy to get something from the time and money you invest in your brand they can still yield results, you just need to support them with other marketing to make sure not only the people at the show see what you are doing, like a band making money from a concert, but expanding its revenue with saleable merchandise, video streams and purchasable music on the periphery.

If you are considering taking your brand to a tradeshow and want advice or support on planning the best result for your brand we would be happy to discuss with you and help you determine if it’s the right move and what you should look to get out of it.


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