I often work with small companies that are either scared or dismissive of international trade shows. They say things like “Shows are too expensive”, “Big shows are only for big companies”, or “I’ve been to our local show and it’s no good”. Shows can cost a lot of money, but objections like this tell me the company hasn’t done its homework. So here are some secrets for you to think about:
1. Your local trade show doesn’t cut it. Unless your local show happens to be one of the top global events in your line of business, it can be a complete waste of your time. Local shows tend to be small, consumer-oriented and often cut across an incredible variety of products. Your stand could be sandwiched between the local amateur jewelry lady and a roofing installer. Look for big, trade-only and focused on your industry.
2. You don’t have to pay for a stand. The first time you go to a truly international trade show, please don’t shell out the money for a booth. You don’t know what you are doing yet or what the show will be like. Walk the show, see what your competitors are up to, locate the stands of possible customers, just learn what it is all about. That’s a whole lot lower tuition than paying for a stand before you know what’s happening.
3. Use trade fairs for market research. If it is a top show, your top competitors and potential customers should all be there. If they are not, that raises questions about their viability. Visit your competition’s booths (incognito) and learn what sales points they are using. Talk to buyers and learn what features they are looking for. The top international trade shows are a wonderful chance to do global primary market research in just a few days.
4. … But take your order book. Too often, I have seen small companies take a stand for the first time in a big show, but they are not really prepared to take orders. They simply can’t believe that buyers will make on-the-spot decisions. They will, so be ready for it. I once ran the U.S. pavilions at CeBIT, the world’s largest computer show. We had 700+ American exhibitors – who sold $750 million off-the-floor. Not six months later, but right there and then. Be prepared to make decisions.
5. Big trade fairs are for small companies. Sure, you see the Fortune 500 companies with their huge block-size exhibits staffed by 100 or more. But the big shows, with your small stand, are an opportunity to ride their coattails to markets you never imagined. Exhibit at a show in Singapore and you are selling to all of S.E. Asia. The big German shows have a global audience, but especially from Europe, the Middle East and Africa. A Las Vegas show may roll ‘em in from Latin America and East Asia. Take advantage of that.
6. Each show has its own culture. A typical international fair will last several days and the first days will be restricted to trade-only visitors. The last day or two may be open to the public – which can be useful if you don’t want to lug stuff back home. But what you need to discover is when the buying decisions will be made. In most German shows, the first day or so may seem slow as low-level company reps canvass the show. But what they are doing is picking which stands their bosses should visit in later days. These guys are making the decisions. Then you will see another wave of lower-level guys who will do the actual deals after their boss has given the go-ahead.
7. Take reinforcements. The biggest mistake I see small companies make is to send only one or two people to staff a booth. Send twice what you think you will need, at least some of whom are decision-makers for your company. For the typical stand, you want two people at the stand at all times. That means one can briefly spell the other while collecting coffee or lunch. You want at least two more out working the show, whether singly or in tandem. This is how you get your market research done or find potential customers who are so wrapped up in their own stand they will never come find yours.
8. Wear great shoes. I swear by Ecco’s, but everybody has their favorites. Sure, the organizer gives you metal chairs at your stand, but you’ll be standing when you talk to potential clients. And if you are out working the show, you may be walking for miles. You won’t believe how big these shows are and the distances your poor feet have to travel. The world’s largest fairground is Germany’s Hannover: 24 exhibit halls, each bigger than the New York Colosseum. First your feet hurt, then they go numb …
9. Draw ‘em in. Ever wonder why auto shows feature so many scantily-clad damsels? Their sole purpose is to entice you into their employer’s exhibit. The same works at other trade shows, sometimes just as subtly. You should have been at CeBIT the year that Tomb Raider was issued. Lara Croft lookalikes everywhere. You don’t have to play the same game, and I suggest you don’t, but please do something to make your display stand out. Too often, I see first-timers with a few brochures on the table and a poster or two on the wall. You don’t need Lara Croft, but your stand should look better than your accountant’s cubbyhole.
10. Draw in your own people. If you have reps in the region the show covers, invite them to show. Better yet, make them help work your stand. You’ll get to know them better and you will see their selling styles at work. Invite your customers, too. It never hurts to meet with customers and you don’t know what will develop. Perhaps they will drag in other companies they think could use your product. Contact them weeks before the show and let them know exactly where they can find your stand. (FYI: Europeans, who attend shows regularly, often prefer to meet at trade shows. It’s more efficient than isolated, individual meetings.)
I’ve gleaned these “secrets” and others from working trade shows in Taiwan, Germany, Hong Kong, Austria, Slovakia, Singapore and the United States. Trade fairs can be the most important marketing your firm ever undertakes.