Trade show veterans have a lot to offer to make your time worthwhile.
By William Atkinson
Trade shows can be as simple or as complex as you want them to be. The more effort you put into them, the more results you are likely to obtain, either as an exhibitor or as a visitor. Let’s take a walk on both sides of the booth – with exhibitors and visitors – for some ideas on how to get the best bang for your buck at a trade show.
AS AN EXHIBITOR
The Precast Show, to be held March 1-3 in Orlando, Fla., is sponsored by NPCA and is the largest trade show in North America geared strictly for the precast concrete industry. Whether attending The Precast Show or any other industry trade show, there are phases –
starting well before the show begins –
during which you can prepare for a successful appearance as an exhibitor.
Before the show
One key to success is finding the right shows to exhibit in. “You want to set up at ones that are targeted enough to your customers and prospects,” advises Terri Rondeau, director of corporate advertising for Besser Co., Alpena, Mich. “When we do an association-based show, we have a voice, and we make sure that we utilize that. For example, we are a member of all of the associations that contribute to The Precast Show. As a result, we are active in the planning process, including the educational components and classes, and the networking opportunities. When we do this, we keep the customer in mind and what will provide the most value to them.”
Once you have decided on an appropriate trade show, reserve booth space early for a prime spot, and then start planning your message. People shoot themselves in the foot by first planning the booth and exhibit, rather than planning the message, according to Candace Adams, owner of Trade Show Consulting (www.boothmom.com) in Defiance, Ohio. “You need to create a message that is customer-centric, based on the people you are trying to reach.” Do you know what their pain is? And what is your “aspirin” for their headache? “If you start with this premise, you can’t go wrong,” she says.
Adams suggests not talking about things like how long your company has been in business in the pre-show directory listing. “Talk about what you do for your customers, and talk about what is new, because 70% of people go to shows to see things that are new,” she explains.
Peter LoCascio, owner of Oregon-based Trade Show Consultants (www.tradeshowconsultants.com), agrees that the majority of trade show attendees are interested in what is new. “Product is king,” he says. As a result, you need to focus on selling products, not your service. “Find a highly recognizable product and feature that product, or feature a new product line.”
When you are ready to plan your exhibit, work with a display house that has depth of experience and understands what you are doing. “Then, rather than tell the display house what you want, tell them what you want to accomplish, and then let them recommend some ideas,” says Meg Merritt, owner of Trade Show Navigators (www.tradeshownavigators.com) in Moncks Corner, S.C., which sells trade show displays. She adds that first impressions are lasting impressions. “If you don’t do it right, you can have more problems digging yourself out of a hole than if you hadn’t even set up in the first place,” she says.
Customer and prospect outreach
It is important to do pre-promotion, according to Rondeau, so that your target audience knows you are going to be there and what you will be showing them, sharing with them or teaching them to help make them more successful. “To attract our target audience, we promote the show on our website,” she says. “In some cases, we do direct mail. We also make sure that our front-line customer service representatives and field staff share the information as they make contact with customers and prospects.”
Richard Isaacson, principal with iwi group in Norcross, Ga., has found it is very important to lay the groundwork before a show. “We let people know that we’re going to be there, where to find us and what we’re going to be showing,” he says. “We also look at the pre-registration list and send e-mails to those people.”
Christine Corelli also believes that pre-show marketing and promotion are very important. “List your 10 most desirable prospects,” says Corelli, president of Christine Corelli & Associates (www.christinespeaks.com), a trade show consulting firm based in Morton Grove, Ill. These are the ones you have trouble contacting during the year. Buy them a desirable gift – something you know they would want. “You might have to invest $25 or $50 in each gift, but that is OK, because that amounts to nothing if you end up getting a lot of business from them,” she explains. Then have salespeople contact these prospects in advance and tell them that if they show up at your booth, they can receive their gift. Tell them what the gift is, and then follow up with a letter from the president of your company inviting them to your booth.
Corelli also suggests setting up a mailing campaign and e-mail campaign to other targeted customers. “Visit us at Booth ###.” Also, have eye-catching ads in your trade magazine for three consecutive months prior to the show.
Adams is also a believer in the “top 10 prospects” idea. “These should be the people who can make a difference in your business in the next year, but are the ones you have problems setting appointments with during the year,” she says. She said that one small company identified its 10 top prospects, and then sent each one a free pass to get into the trade show, adding that if they visited the company’s booth, they would receive a free $25 gas card.
During the show
Make sure you staff the booth with people who are enthusiastic and really want to be there in order to help people solve problems. “If you staff it with people who just want to sell or, worse, don’t even want to be there in the first place, you may as well not even set up in the first place,” cautions Adams.
Create an effective way to collect and manage leads. “You don’t want to come back with a goldfish bowl filled with business cards,” continues Adams. “These aren’t leads. The only thing you know about these people is that they want to win something. If you think you can get leads by raffling something off, you would be better off just buying a database.”
LoCascio suggests making sure that your salespeople are attuned to generating three levels of sales leads: hot, warm and cold. Focus on spending time with hot and warm leads. Hot leads are people whom you perceive as being those who can purchase your product within 90 days. Warm leads are those who say they are evaluating and are about to make some decisions, but aren’t quite there yet. Cold leads are those who just come in to talk and are not serious prospects.
Another important element of “booth presence” is to have key executives on booth duty. “If visitors talk to a salesperson and are then introduced to a vice president or even the president, that will have an impact,” adds LoCascio. The executive can say, “Thank you for stopping by. We are here for you, and you have my commitment. Here is my phone number.”
Offer a show special. For example, offer something that is good for the next 30 days, such as free delivery, free service, buy two get one free, etc. “This gives a prospect a reason to make a purchase right away,” says LoCascio.
Corelli also believes in the importance of executive presence. “When a hot prospect shows up, have the salesperson talk for a while and then introduce the prospect to the senior exec on booth duty,” she suggests. The executive should end by giving the prospect his or her card.
After the show
It is very important to follow up with any interest that you have had at the show, according to Isaacson. “People came by for a reason, and it’s our job to follow up with them,” he says.
AS A VISITOR
As a visitor to a trade show, several tips can help you make the most of your time.
Merritt recommends making a list of specific goals that you want to achieve by attending the show, such as checking out the latest technology or identifying potential business partners.
Know where you are going. Get a list of exhibitors prior to the show, and spend time learning about them. Then identify the ones you want to visit most.
Have questions ready. Know what you want to find out, and have a checklist of questions. Bring a pen and paper with you to take notes.
Don’t load yourself down. Have the exhibitors send you the information that you request, since collecting all of this information gets very heavy very quickly. In addition, if exhibitors don’t follow up in a timely fashion, it provides you with an insight as to how they may handle the rest of their business activities.
Take a break. Your legs and your mind can become weary after a couple of hours. Participate in one or more of the educational sessions.
Take full advantage of the experience. Trade shows are hard work, but they can also be a lot of fun and provide a great opportunity to meet and greet with key industry contacts. The last vestige of face-to-face marketing, trade shows are a great way to meet new friends and renew old acquaintances.
Corelli says to register early, and especially register early at the host hotel. If their rooms fill up, it can be inconvenient to stay at a different hotel and have to take a shuttle or cab to the show.
Make a list of the most important people you want to see. Look at the show book and try to route it so you can move through most efficiently. If it is a really big show, and you don’t have time to visit every booth that you want to, then go with one or more other people and split it up between you.
If you are already doing business with someone, visit their booth, because it is nice to be able to put a face with a name and voice.
Take advantage of show specials, because you can often get great deals.
Vernon Wehrung, president of Modern Precast in Easton, Pa., and a veteran of trade shows, shares some of the ideas that have helped him and his staff over the years.
Before you visit, make a list of all the vendors and products you want to see.
Spend as much time as you can at the show. “I am one of probably five or six who are the last ones on the floor at the last minute of the show,” he says. “I can always find something during the last hour that I bypassed earlier, especially as the show gets bigger every year.”
If you want some recreation time, go a day or two early or stay a day or two later. However, during the show, you should always be at the show.
If you bring people, mentor them at first. Show them the ropes and introduce them to some people that you want them to meet face to face. However, don’t hover over them after that – let them go on their own. If you are the boss, they may be hesitant to show interest in something that you don’t show interest in. They also may not talk as much when you’re around.
If you plan to buy something, talk to vendors the first day to get information. Then talk with your people and revisit the vendor the next day. Don’t wait until the last day to buy.
Everyone should spend some time at the NPCA booth as well as other association booths, if applicable. There you can learn firsthand what the association offers that you may not be aware of. You can also view books, tapes, courses and other learning tools. There are always some staff and ‘old-timers’ there to discuss plant certification, marketing and other topics of interest.
If there is an interesting demo, arrange for one of your people to attend it who has a specific interest in that demo, and you can spend your time talking to a vendor at a booth.
Another trade show veteran is Dan Houk, president and CEO of Wilbert Precast based in Spokane, Wash. “Not everyone does this, but I generally bring about six other people to a show, such as branch managers, production managers and other executive management team members,” he says. A few months in advance, have them start thinking about things they want to look for and problems they want to find a solution for, and then write them down. As a result, when they go to the show, they have an idea of what they want to look for and places they want to go.
“I tell them that there are 15 hours of show time, and I expect them to be there for those 15 hours,” says Houk. They need to have lunch there, not go out, he says. They don’t have to be walking all the time, though – they can sit and relax and brainstorm with some of the guys about what they found, what someone else might want to go and look at, and so on. For example, they may take a colleague back to a booth with them to confirm what they were looking at and explain what it will do for the company and how it will save money.
If your people think they have seen the whole show and still have six hours left, they’re not doing it right. They need to go back and just start talking to people. For example, they should go into a booth that they don’t even know what it is – one that would be easy to walk by.
During educational sessions, don’t be shy. It doesn’t matter how many people are in the room; if you have a question, don’t worry about asking it even if you think it is a stupid question. A lot of other people may have the same question.
Finally, take advantage of networking opportunities. There are always places to sit and talk with people. It is also easy to start up a conversation with someone, and you can learn a lot.
William Atkinson, Carterville, Ill., is a freelance writer who covers business and safety issues.