I am currently on a flight to New York for another season of trade shows. I am thankful that I am missing the 110 degree heat of the August apparel shows in Vegas for the first time in 12 years. The two straight weeks of travel, convention centers and showrooms I have embarked on has caused some reflection on trade shows in general, how they impact our business and how much they have changed in the decade spent shopping them.
Before retail we operated a wholesale line that did the very shows we shop today. So with a perspective from both sides of the booth, I’ve assembled a list of tips to make your trade show more successful.
- Make your giveaway a conversation starter. I can promise you that no one wants your business card or show flyer when they are walking by. No one. I don’t know if research has been done on this but I would guess that having someone stationed out front to force promotional postcards into the hands of strangers actually LOWERS engagement. Instead look for a cheap memento you can create for the event or industry. If you can involve your brand, great, but that needs to be secondary. You want to actually offer something that attendees perceive has value to them. We used to do custom 1″ pins, but the options are really endless here. Print golf tees, custom pencils with a funny saying, an adult coloring book with some subtle branding and a pack of crayons… Reciprocity is one of the leading drivers of human behavior so this is an easy edge.
- Make yourself accessible. Put on your relationship building hat and start working on actually earning clients. Welcome someone into your booth like you are welcoming a friend into your living room. Many businesses focus on building their lists and collecting business cards. These are worthless metrics. I would rather land 20 clients and grow my list by 100 people than land 2 clients and grow my list by 1,000. Make sure your team understands this and have clear expectations going in. If a great prospect comes in, focus on getting to know them first and pitch second.
- As a follow-up to relationship building, get good at getting gone. If someone isn’t a good fit for your business and you know it then do yourself and them a favor by finding a polite way to bring the conversation to a close. I cannot tell you the hours I have spent trying to get out of a booth where there was zero chance I was going to pick up a line. That isn’t polite, it’s cowardice. Booth’s at the shows we shop can be over $10,000 for a three day show. Add the travel, per diems and payroll and a small brand can easily spend $15,000 on a small three day show in Las Vegas. That means every minute spent pitching someone you know isn’t buying or listening to a pitch you know you aren’t buying is costing that poor brand $10.
- Put down your ******* phone. Sales rep phone usage has become an epidemic on trade show floors and I don’t think brands are properly assessing the damage. I don’t mean they pull their phone out to text every now and then, I mean I’ll walk down an aisle where half of the reps are collapsed on the table watching a movie. I’ve used this analogy before, but picture yourself walking through a mall and peeking in at the shops. One store has a crowd and an engaged staff and the next four are empty with an associate behind the counter on their phone. What conclusion are you drawing about the success and viability of that business? I mentioned reciprocity earlier, I think the only thing that might outstrip reciprocity for driving business decisions is social proof. Everyone has a bit of a imposter syndrome, everyone has nagging doubts about major business decisions. Having your head down and focused on your phone is sending a very clear signal that none of the other 10,000 people waking around this convention hall think your product is very interesting. Social proof on the other hand is a flywheel. With little nudges it keeps gaining momentum.
- Know why you are there and act accordingly. It can be too easy to feel the urge to have that extra cocktail (or several) after dinner, or cut out of the keynote early to shop or see something in the area. I say this often and with full sincerity, I think part of the reason we’re still growing after almost 12 years in retail is our ability to take the business we are there to do seriously. The number of reps who are late to appointments or struggle to show a line because they were clearly out all night or buyers/owners who are so enamored with the free parties and dinners on their vendors credit cards that they are late to appointments and struggle to view a line… The ability to stay focused, when your competitors are not, will pay off.
Finger wagging aside there are also shows and conferences where the point is getting to the parties and forming personal bonds. Just make sure you have a strategy that aligns with your business needs and you’re disciplined enough avoid the pitfalls there to distract you from them.