One for the money, two for the show

Sep 3, 2010

Socially, as well as professionally, trade shows provide a tremendous opportunity for businesses – exhibiting companies and attendees alike – to gain a competitive edge, learn more about the trade and, ultimately, to be successful.

Exhibiting companies gain invaluable exposure to the market; attending companies have an unequalled opportunity to learn about new product offerings, new equipment models and new breakthrough technologies.

To gain some insight into the trade show experience, Restyling asked industry insiders Ellen McKoy, Laura Kvistad and Susan Hueg to share some ideas.

Ellen McKoy owns California-based EMK Marketing; the firm provides public relations and marketing services for clients in the aftermarket specialty equipment segment of the automotive industry. Prior to that she was a member of the SEMA staff for more than 15 years.

Laura Kvistad coordinates all the activities and logistics of St. Paul, Minn.-based 3M’s SEMA and NADA tradeshow exhibits.

Susan Hueg, CEM, CMP, is the director of exhibitions and events for The NBM Show, Broomfield, Colo. She has been involved in producing trade shows for more than 20 years.

But really, why go?

“The No. 1 reason to go to a trade show is the opportunity to meet people face to face,” says Hueg of NBM Show. “Exhibitors need to understand the trade show audience and if that’s the market you are trying to reach.”

She says it’s also good to keep an open mind about what products can do, and to understand how your product can help that audience. Sculptors, for example, are fond of using dental tools.

Says McKoy of EMK Marketing: “In real estate, it’s ‘location, location, location.’ At a tradeshow, it’s ‘exposure, exposure, exposure.’ Nothing else will provide an exhibiting company with such a huge audience to draw from. Likewise, there’s no other place attendees will ever see and learn and be exposed to as many new business and learning opportunities.”

McKoy says trade shows like the SEMA show are unique events, where the whole industry converges at one place and time.

Kvistad of 3M says her company uses events like this annual show to form new business relationships as well as to strengthen existing ones.

“New products are always introduced at SEMA,” says Kvistad. “It’s another opportunity to show people the breadth and depth of our products, and it also strengthens brand recognition.”

And, of course, exhibitors will get new leads because there are always great new products for attendees to see at a trade show.

“People say they don’t think they’ll see anything new,” McKoy notes. “But there is always something new. Besides, you don’t know what new things will be there if you don’t go.”

Just as critical is the opportunity to find new ways to expand and enhance not just the business, but also individual knowledge and skills. Shows like SEMA have a really outstanding education program. A lot of buyers say that’s the primary reason for attending.

Additionally, Hueg suggests a few more reasons to attend a trade show: Stay current in your industry; take advantage of education opportunities and go to the classes (what’s one new good idea really worth?); network with people who do similar types of work; compare products; take advantage of show specials; see product demonstrations; and enjoy the after-hours entertainment.

And, finally, according to the Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR), it takes an average of 1.6 calls to close an exhibition lead, compared to the industry average of 3.7 field-sales calls to close a sale.

Essential exhibitor elements

As with most things of value, it costs money to attend a trade show and it costs even more to exhibit at a trade show.

It’s true that companies should (and most do) think of the cost as an investment rather than an expense, given the potential gain of multiple face-to-face meetings. But especially in these days of limited budgets, it’s important to squeeze every bit of return possible from each dollar invested. To do that, it pays handsomely to understand the nature of trade show dynamics.

“Visual impact is important,” McKoy says, but that visual depends on the budget. “Not everyone can spend a lot, but the booth needs impact. Keep the message simple and to the point. Nobody will read a page of copy in an aisle.”

Hueg advises exhibitors to pay attention to carpet and color choices and to avoid putting up a barrier. “Exhibitors do best that have a more open booth,” Hueg says.

At the same time, Hueg says there’s a level of finesse in understanding different levels of interest and in being able to politely allow tire kickers to move through the booth to make room for interested buyers.

“Spend time training booth staff both before leaving the office and again on site,” says Kvistad.

Essential booth elements

Product samples. “Some people come with prototypes,” says McKoy. “It’s OK to have a one-off, but if you’re not production-ready, it’s a problem because people will want to buy it.”

Other in-booth necessities:
•   Business cards
•   Literature
•   Show-special signage
•   Product demonstrations
•   Room for private meetings
•   A knowledgeable staff
•   A good means to track leads: “Organize by product and what action the customer wants taken,” advises Kvistad

Essential items while walking the floor

•   Comfortable shoes! “At the SEMA show there’s a million sq. ft. of exhibit space, and another million at the AAPEX show [Automotive Aftermarket Products Expo at the Sands Expo Center in Las Vegas, during the same week as SEMA], so you’ll be doing a lot of walking,” says McKoy.
•   Pen and notepad
•   Floor plan and schedule
•   Water: Drink a lot of it because you’ll get dehydrated if you don’t
•   Stop and take a break now and then
•   More items in the tradeshow survival kit: snacks, lotion, tissues, aspirin, needle and thread, stain remover, extra shirts, computer and camera

Make the booth plan come together

“A lot of companies that are new to trade shows think showing up is it. To some degree that’s true, but the investment priority is to attract buyers to the booth,” says McKoy. “It’s not only what’s on the show floor, but all the due diligence that’s done prior to the show that lures them to the booth.

“It’s critical. You can’t just think you’re there, so buyers will show up in your booth. Use every tool to get the word out.”

Kvistad says a company needs to determine its key objectives for the trade show and start planning months in advance. Kvistad says there could be a number of objectives such as introducing a new product, making sales or strengthening relationships.

She also suggests sending any information about special promotions, in-booth talent, new products and other activities to show management as far in advance as possible and to take advantage of exhibitor pre-show conferences.

“The trade show business is not an exact science,” Kvistad says. “Some things work over and over every year, so we continue. Other things don’t, so we change and tweak. We constantly try to improve the booth.”

Attendees, prepare

“It pays to ask questions in advance and don’t assume anything,” Hueg says. “Book flights, hotel rooms and car rentals in advance; it saves money.”

The most important preparations attendees should make, especially prior to a very large show like SEMA, is to do some exercises in time management.

Some suggestions to help accomplish that include first downloading a copy of the floor plan from the show website.

Map out a route and create a schedule ahead of time. Know in advance which vendors you want to see. Find the seminars you want to attend or have employees attend. Go online and map out programs, events, council meetings and receptions.

“The more pre-planning you do, the better. Don’t leave any rocks unturned,” says Kvistad.

Follow up

There are really no secrets to the trade show experience; it’s just that there’s a lot to think about if you want to pack as much as possible into a three- or four-day event.

There are a lot of intangibles. You can’t measure what an idea or what a new relationship or new business is worth.

“You have to be willing to dig and probe into the data after the fact when you’re exhausted and want to go on to something else,” says Kvistad, “but it may take another two weeks to put the cherry on the sundae. It’s not over on Saturday night. It takes a while to develop relationships, so it may take even longer to evaluate all the follow-up with customers.”