Creative Intelligence

Making the Most of a Trade Show

by Erik Glitman

erik glitman of Fletcher C.S.I.“I have seen three general types of trade show attendees: ‘tourists,’ regulars,’ and ‘pros.’ Becoming aware of how different people approach trade shows outlines some steps for getting the most out of attending them.”

Erik Glitman, the founder and managing director of of Fletcher CSI in Williston, collects, for clients around the world, information about the strengths and weaknesses of their competitors and recommends ways to capitalize on it. CSI, in this case, stands for “competitive sales intelligence.”

Most business people attend at least one — if not many — trade shows during their careers. Some go to establish new relationships as part of sales. Others go to find new suppliers. Still others go to learn specific skills and knowledge. And finally, some go to keep up to date on the latest developments in the industry. Whatever your reason, you will want to maximize your return on the trade show investment.

Over the years, I’ve been to far more trade shows than I ever thought I would attend. Most of the time I am going to build new relationships and work on sales, which is my role in the company. But even when I have a full schedule of meetings, I’m always on the lookout for information about my industry and trying to learn more about what my competitors are doing. My company also sends staffers to trade shows on behalf of clients to provide them with deeper knowledge of the market, early warnings of new trends and products, and the latest updates on how their competitors are positioning themselves.

From my own experiences and from my company’s work for clients, I have seen three general types of trade show attendees: “tourists,” “regulars,” and “pros.” Becoming aware of how different people approach trade shows outlines some steps for getting the most out of attending them.

Trade show tourists are people who go without a set agenda or list of goals. They may have gotten lucky and won the trip to an exotic location, or they may have drawn the short straw and had to staff the booth in some forgotten corner. They are at the show but really don’t have a clear idea of what to do and how to do it. We see these people maybe attending some of the sessions, but looking bored or walking the exhibit hall aimlessly, perhaps collecting giveaways but not interacting with the vendors. The tourists come in to the show with low expectations and leave with little additional knowledge or insight.

The trade show regulars come as focused learners. They bring lists of sessions to attend, key vendors to talk to, and some basic goals for the show. Regulars intentionally choose to go to the show and plan to return home with new insights or skills that will help them get their jobs done. We see them making a beeline to specific exhibit booths or sessions. The trade show regulars want to achieve specific goals and will avoid distractions, but also will limit interactions outside their comfort zones. As long as they leave having crossed off all the items on their to-do lists, they are satisfied and won’t think about what else they could have gotten out of the show.

At events we usually see a small group of trade show pros. These people see the trade show as an opportunity to make new connections, learn about areas outside their own interests, and gather insight into how competitors are approaching challenges. Trade show pros start planning the show months in advance, looking for sessions about new topics, planning out which new exhibitors to visit, and strategically determining how to maximize the opportunity to learn about industry trends.

The pros come to the show with a broad list of learning objectives, prioritized based on their impact, but they are also willing to change goals midstream at the show if they see something more important once they are there. The pros are willing and able to deviate from their paths to explore a new product or company, sometimes even abandoning their planned activities. Above all else, pros are determined to come away from the event knowing more about whatever is going to have the biggest impact on their own companies.

I am happy to say that our analysts are real trade show pros. To give a few examples of how they approach trade shows, let’s explore how we handled two very different events: one for the heating and refrigeration industry, and one for the pet industry. Both were large shows with attendees and vendors from all corners of the globe. Getting the most out of these shows required preparation, long days, and extensive interaction with people in many roles.

The first show, the ASHRAE (Association of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air Conditioning Engineers) annual conference, draws over 500 exhibitors and 40,000 attendees to one site for four days. The second, the Global Pet Show, is a trade event for the pet food and care industry attended by close to 30,000 pet food store owners, suppliers, and veterinary experts.

In both cases, we went on behalf of clients who needed us to understand the latest trends in their space and give them updates on which companies’ solutions and products stood out. As we had a lot to cover at the events, we started planning many weeks before they opened. First, we mapped out where the key exhibitor booths would be, and picked out which sessions we thought would be most informative. Next, we identified key personnel who were likely to be at the show and contacted them to schedule interviews. Finally, we built a list of key information questions we hoped to answer on-site.

Once at the event, we had our game plan. We started by moving through the entire show floor to get the lay of the land. As we explored the venue, we identified exhibitors who had new items to offer or presented their products in a different way, and kept a list of booths we planned on visiting after taking care of the primary show objectives or whenever we had free time between meetings. On the first day we also set out routes between target booths that we could take without raising too much suspicion.

Over the course of the event we followed our plan, going from booth to booth to collect advertising materials and samples and making note of people we would want to contact after the event. At the end of each day our entire team met to review what we had learned, and compared that to our initial objectives. Where we still had open issues, we set that as the first task for the next day. Where we had everything collected, we allocated time to follow up on the other interesting exhibitors we saw in the first walk-through.

Throughout the event, we sought to establish connections with the booth staff so that when we contacted them later they would remember us. Immediately after the event, we sent short notes to those contacts thanking them for the time and information they gave us and asking any further questions we had about their products or services.

After we returned from the event we used the material we had collected to build profiles of the competitors and potential partners. We analyzed marketing literature to understand how each target company was positioning itself in the market. As part of the profiles we also identified the companies’ core strengths and determined which products were in direct or potential competition with our clients’ products.

For our clients, we presented this information as part of a final report that highlighted opportunities, threats, new trends, and changes in the industry. Our clients could then apply these findings to their strategy and tactics to build new products or enter into new markets.

Although we attend trade shows specifically to collect competitive intelligence for clients, those who attend trade shows for their own companies can benefit from a similar approach. The only real difference is in the application of the information — rather than focusing on the competitive threats, these attendees can focus on finding new suppliers, new products to offer customers, or even new partners for distribution.

Beyond the difference in objectives, all the planning, execution, and follow-through can help anyone get the most out of a trade show. Proper planning before the event is the difference between being a tourist and being a professional. Your company gets a better return from its investment when you act as a professional and your time is rewarded with improved results for your company. •