The Trade Show Conundrum

By Paul Barlow | November 6, 2019

I like trade shows, both as a meeting space & to satisfy my love of all things industrial – there’s little more pleasing to the eye than a shiny bearing or a well-formed lump of concrete, a 3D printed component or an example of some new construction material or technology.

As PR specialists in the built environment, trade shows are a useful arena for networking and information gathering. I attend on average 20 shows a year & have done by and large for the last 10 years: some on behalf of our clients, some to meet up & support clients & some to satisfy my geek-like love of the industrial library of stuff.

I spend my time walking the boards in a cloud of both amazement & despair: amazement at the innovative stand designs loaded with fantastic marketing collateral, despair at the wasted opportunities brought by poor presentation, a lack of engagement & shoddy practices.

Trade shows offer a wealth of possibilities, both for exhibitors and visitors, but there are some important things to bear in mind – and some to avoid!

Shows in focus

Last week, I attended two trade shows. They were both focused on the built environment and yet they couldn’t have been more different.

One in Manchester was focused on a specific sector and was relatively small scale, with about 200 exhibitors. Having spoken to many of them, I came away with the impression that the footfall was high quality, with visitors clearly understanding what they were there for. Smaller, more niche trade shows can be valuable if you’re looking to target a very specific audience or see what’s what in a particular area.

The other show, at the NEC, purports to be one of – if not the – biggest trade show in the UK. In contrast to the first, it is multi-dimensional with many different industry sectors represented. The massive scope of such a show is not always helpful. It tries to be “all things to all people”, feels confused and is difficult to navigate, especially if you are looking for something specific. (I spent a good 40 minutes trying to find one of our clients using the “you are here” displays & the app – just trying to follow the stand numbers was confusing.)

This show, however, had one major thing spot-on: the Twitter hashtag was clearly displayed around the venue. It’s often seemingly simple things like this that make or break a show. So, what can visitors, exhibitors and show organisers do to create a successful trade show experience?

The dos and don’ts

As a visitor, trade shows are great places to find innovation and new products, to meet up with your customers and check out your competitors, to leaf through the plethora of ideas on show and to meet industry influencers – the list goes on. There are a few things you can do to make the most out of your visit:

  • Check out who’s exhibiting before you get there. That way you can prioritise stands you want to visit and people you want to connect with.
  • Always carry plenty of business cards. Even if you think you’re unlikely to need them, you just never know when you might want one to hand.
  • Make notes. As you’re walking around, keep a record – either on your phone or in a notebook – of anything of interest: things you want to look into when you get back to your desk, people you want to follow up with after the show, any particularly good exhibits, products or innovations. The shows can get hectic, there’s a lot to take in and by making notes you avoid those head-scratching moments where you think it’d be really useful to know more about that product…if only I could remember its name!
  • Follow up. If you connect with someone on the floor, follow up with them after the show. Drop them an email or even reach out on social media, remind them who you are, what you talked about and get those lines of communication open. Whether it stemmed from interest in a product, service or just an interesting conversation, there’s no harm expanding your network and being remembered as an active presence on the circuit.

As an exhibitor, there are also a few rules to help make sure you have the most valuable experience possible (and ensure yours is the stand people talk about afterward!):

  • Make your stand as interesting as possible. There are lots of ways to do this, but it comes down to creating a point of interest: some stands have great giveaways, some have fun stuff to do, some are just spectacularly grand. Whatever it is, your stand should have something that sets it apart.
  • Make it easy for people to reach out. All stands should have easy to see contact & social media information displayed. Remember that almost everyone is carrying the internet round in their pocket so if they don’t have time to speak to you face to face, or if you’re already talking to someone else, being able to bring up your website or social media pages quickly on their phone opens up further opportunities to connect.
  • Engage. As a presenter, you should never be on your phone on the stand and, if possible, you should try not to sit down (although I accept that over a number of days standing is exhaustingly bad on your feet & back). Look people in the eye as they pass, nod, smile and greet them warmly. Being an active presence on your stand invites people to find out more and makes them feel welcome.
  • No canvassing? Many shows have a no canvasing rule, but I find this a little disingenuous and short-sighted. How do you know that someone like me who comes to network hasn’t themselves got a contact that might benefit your business? I have on more than one occasion introduced exhibitors to some of my clients who have gone on to do business.

My last bugbear is perhaps my biggest – and one for the organisers: why, oh why, do show organisers not put social media contact information on either the front or back covers of their event guides? Only one out every 5 shows I attended over the course of the last year have displayed the Twitter handle, I don’t think any had an Instagram handle. As with exhibitors, make it easy for people to reach out, share and comment on the event. There are countless people, like me, who love stuff, who love to celebrate great innovation & design – and we love to share. If we take a picture of a particular product & we share it, with the Twitter handle of the business and the show, it’s free PR! Often those sharing have a substantial portfolio of followers, they might be well-known influencers, and they will be in related industries – it’s simple mathematics.

Related Content