Like me, you might wake up on the first morning of a trade show and dread the prospect of walking on concrete for hours. (An exhibitor can sympathize; we stand on concrete for hours.) The showgoer faces the daunting task of navigating the pattern of booths, trying to find the companies you are interested in seeing. Booth managers have each show planned well in advance, to ensure they will make a good impression on trade visitors.
Preparation includes evaluating the booth structure for re-use or upgrading, or determining the cost of creating an entirely new "space." That space is what shows off the exhibitor's product to best advantage, and it's important to everyone. Imagine a narrow walkway that is full of guests, or a dimly-lit corner. None of these environments scream "buy me!" (or even "look at me!") on behalf of the products on display. Effective booth design is vital.
These decisions affect the message of the company and outcome of the show. If you see a booth from the back of the hall because it towers over all the other displays and grabs your attention, you are drawn to it, like a bee to a beautiful flower. It may pull you off the beaten path, but if you follow these tips to prepare yourself for the show, they may help you complete your quest.
BEFORE THE SHOW
1. Determine your budget. Evaluate how many people, from which disciplines, you might want to send. More people = more money. Understand which disciplines might go and for what purpose. For example, you might want to send a technician to learn about the interoperability of different machines, or the warehouse manager (or whoever is responsible for purchasing) to better understand product features.
2. Develop a plan of attack. Most shows will have an exhibitor list. You can use this to compose your own, ranking the entries by the people whom you "must see" and the ones you would like to see, if time permits. You can assemble different lists for other members of your party, according to their interests and responsibilities. For NAMA's OneShow in Chicago this year, you can start by visiting the show website, namaoneshow.org and clicking on "attendees" or "exhibitors" to find a link to the exhibitor list.
3. Understand your time limits. According to the Center for Exhibition Industry Research, showgoers spend an average of 8.3 hours in an exhibit area. It will help to know how much time you can devote to each "must-see" booth while reserving some for browsing.
4. Research. You won't recognize all the exhibitors on the list, so do a bit of research. The online OneShow exhibitor listings are links to a summary of the exhibitor's products, and the OneShow website offers "attendee tools," including one that lets you search for exhibitors who will be showing particular product categories. If you find some that look interesting, spend a few minutes looking their at websites, or ask others in the industry whether they've had any experience with the exhibitor and whether it should be a stop on your list.
5. Appointments. Once you have a list of must-see exhibitors, make appointments to make sure you'll be able to meet with the right people. Some exhibitors will have a schedule, so make certain that you are on it.
6. Get a map. The trade show websites will have a floor plan showing where the exhibitors are located. Ensure that your route makes the most sense, based on the amount of time available throughout your day. Why waste time backtracking?
7. Take plenty of business cards. If you are not able to stop into a booth because of your time constraints, you can always drop off your card to ask for more information.
8. Take precautions to stay comfortable. These extend from the shoes you are walking in to the bag you might carry with you. You can put business cards in your pocket, but you will want to pick up literature and/or samples. If the show allows you to bring your own carrier-bag onto the floor, choose one that doesn't cut into your arm or hand, and that you don't mind carrying. Some shows hand out bags at the door.
9. Choose your seminars. The trade show will be accompanied by an educational program, and you can get the most benefit out of your attendance by choosing the sessions that will be most useful to you and to the members of your team who accompany you. There might be training workshops, seminars or networking sessions. At the NAMA OneShow, a good deal of educational programming is scheduled for the day before the convention and trade show open. Check out the agenda (look for "Expo Schedule" on the OneShow site, or page 79), and pre-register if necessary, so you can be sure to stay up to date on the latest information that's important to you.
10. Hotel Accommodations. This one may fit best under "budget," but I include it as a reminder that it may be worth spending a bit more to stay in a place that's close to the hall, is convenient to the shuttle stops, and (for the foodies) has good restaurants nearby.
DURING THE SHOW
1. Be flexible. Sometimes you may need to revise your schedule in the exhibit area. Understand that these things may happen, and work with the exhibitors on how long you have with them and whom you need to see.
2. Look for networking opportunities. If there is an event at your hotel or in the hall, or an exhibitor-hosted reception, it can be a good chance to mingle with industry experts and compare notes on subjects valuable to your business.
3. Lighten the load. Find the coat check room in the hall and ditch your outer garments and any bag you won't need immediately. To avoid some of the hassle, carry only necessities.
4. Take a break after a few hours. It is important to stay hydrated, replenish calories and take a moment to plan any part of your day that needs it. Normally there is a food court or terrace where you can grab some fresh air to rejuvenate.
5. Take notes on the back of business cards. I use a fine-point permanent marker, because some cards these days are printed on glossy stock and don't take most kinds of ink very well. It will help if someone says something you want to remember, or you need to call them back about a specific topic. You meet many people over the course of a show that it's very helpful to make and keep reminders. Smartphones work, too, if you are a tech-savvy person.
6. Exit strategy. Leave about 30 minutes before the show closes. The taxi line generally gets a bit long, and can be tiring to wait in after a spending a long day on your feet.
AFTER THE SHOW
Determine what information you've gotten that you might want to implement. If there is a new product or procedure, be sure to explain it, discuss it and get your staff up to speed on the change and how it will be incorporated into the business. And follow up. If there are questions you are dying to have answered but you've run out of time, or you can't find the supplier expert you need to talk to, get in touch with the company when you get home.
Remember that the show is for customers, and you are one of them. Companies want to show off their brands, their products and their services, and want them incorporated into businesses just like yours. Go in with an open mind and a willingness to learn and you will have a successful trade show experience.
STEPHANIE BEGLEY is product-marketing manager of Vendors Exchange International Inc. (Cleveland). Begley describes herself as a passionate sales and marketing professional who enjoys pushing the envelope on new media. Her experience stretches from hospitality to manufacturing. At Vendors Exchange, Begley is involved in industry research, and regularly connects with experts and businesses in the automatic retailing world, which she endeavors to help shape. Stephanie.Begley@veii.com