Opportunities Abound at Trade Shows, But Only if You Have a Plan

This may be the month you head to Club Industry in Chicago or the National Recreation and Park Association Congress and Exposition in Phoenix - or perhaps you're saving all your energy for the Athletic Business Sports and Fitness Facility Expo in Orlando in late November. Walking the trade show floor at any of these events is guaranteed to help you in your job - or is it?

The close proximity of many and various vendors can make trade shows a wonderful opportunity, but your ultimate success will depend on how well you invest your time. Use the right techniques and the benefits can be enormous.

As you might expect of the president of the Bethesda, Md.-based Center for Exhibition Industry Research, Stephen A. Sind is bullish on trade shows. "Trade shows offer the only opportunity for face-to-face buying, other than seeing a vendor on a sales call," Sind says. "And attending a show has a distinct advantage - you can comparison shop for cost and quality. You can speak with many vendors in a short time."

There are, however, five key mistakes that many trade-show goers commonly make:

1. FORGETTING TO DESIGN AN AGENDA. Putting off trade-show planning until the last minute and then rushing to the show without a plan is the biggest mistake of all.

"We've done research on how the most productive visitors work trade shows," says Sind. "Three out of four have predetermined agendas covering who they want to see and what they want to buy." Savvy attendees look at show previews published in trade magazines and all show-related materials they receive through the mail.

Put your plan on paper to avoid losing your way when you encounter the noise and clutter of the trade-show floor. As Iris Kapustein, president of Trade Show Xpress, a trade-show consultancy in DelRay Beach, Fla., advises, "To make the most of your time, you need to study the pre-show directory and floor plan, and chart who you want to see." There are limits, though - Kapustein suggests keeping your schedule from getting too packed, allowing ample time between appointments. "You may want to get some information from an adjacent booth, but if you have scheduled yourself too tightly you won't be able to," she warns.

When drawing up your schedule, be sure to include breaks during each day to review your written plan. Have you made progress on each key point? If not, why not? What steps can you take to correct your course of action?

2. FAILING TO PRIORITIZE. So many booths, so little time. Managing the overwhelming choices can be a problem. One solution is to color-code the booths by priority.

The best way to do this is to start with a map of the show floor. Mark in green every booth that is a top priority, yellow those booths you would like to see if you have the time and red those that are lowest priority. How many green booths should you allow yourself? Figure that you can visit three or four booths each hour. This will take into account walking time and conversation time during chance encounters with peers. With your visual aid for maximizing your time at the show complete, outline a walking plan that will reduce the amount of wear and tear on your feet while you meet as many top-priority individuals as you can.

Attendees fall into two groups in walking strategy. "Circle and Charge" attendees walk the entire show floor on opening day, taking notes about new products and interesting vendors without pausing long at any booth. On following days, these attendees target interesting booths based on their notes. By contrast, "Divide and Conquer" buyers divide the trade-show floor into one equally sized section for each day they'll spend at the show. Divide-and-conquer attendees do very little backtracking, and many take advantage of uncrowded aisles by beginning their walks at a back corner of the hall.

The circle-and-charge approach has its benefits. Getting an overview on opening day can make you a smarter buyer on succeeding ones. Suppose you see that five vendors are carrying a certain item; price will be a factor when you negotiate with them. But suppose you see a unique idea that is exclusive to one vendor - then you know that price will not be a factor. Divide-and-conquerers simply find the initial overview walk less successful. Perhaps they look to the left most of the time and miss items displayed on the right. Or perhaps they constantly run into old vendor friends during the initial walk. Since it makes sense to chat at such serendipitous times, these attendees seldom succeed in touring the entire floor on opening day.

Whatever the strategy, seeing all of the booths is necessary. Don't make the mistake of plotting out a walk that takes you only to tried-and-true vendor booths. The idea of an expo is to discover what you didn't expect, not to confirm what you already know.

3. TAKING SLOPPY NOTES. Write it down and you'll remember it longer. Whoever came up with that old bromide never talked with a trade-show attendee three days after a show. What a mess the notes are in! Some are on the backs of business cards. Others are scribbled in brochure margins. And some you can't even decipher.

Instead, bring a small notebook for jotting down information about companies and equipment. It's best to take sketchy notes while talking to booth staffers, and then pause after every booth to fill in the blanks.

The secret to collecting business cards, meanwhile, is to connect the cards right away to your notes. "Jot a number in your notes next to each comment," says Mim Goldberg, president of Marketech, a trade-show consulting firm in Westborough, Mass. "Then write that same number on the related business card. When you get back home and you want to expand on your notes, you can easily get the telephone number from the business card."

Avoid weighing yourself down with brochures or business cards that you will never use. Make it a rule to discard at the end of the day any materials you have not specifically mentioned or identified by number in your notes.

4. FAILING TO MAXIMIZE YOUR RETURN ON SOCIAL TIME. Lunch. Coffee breaks. Hospitality suites. Many trade-show goers make two common mistakes when it comes to these opportunities: Avoiding them, under the mistaken impression that they are not business related, and failing to capitalize on their business potential.

"Social occasions give you the opportunity to meet and converse with individuals who are vital to your business, but who you don't get to see otherwise," says Robert F. Dallmeyer, a trade-show consultant in Los Angeles. "It's a mistake to avoid them."

Indeed, since individuals are more relaxed at such occasions, they are more likely to share information they would stay clammed up about on the show floor. This is the time to obtain information about your competition, or about hidden trends in the market. Be on the lookout for industry leaders and opinion-makers you have not met but who may be attending the same social events.

5. NOT BROADCASTING INFORMATION THROUGHOUT YOUR BUSINESS. Don't keep your new wisdom to yourself! Spread it around your place of business. "You can maximize the results you get from attending the show by sharing information with co-workers back home," says Susan A. Friedman, president of Trade Show Coach of Lake Placid, N.Y. "Communication is the core of teamwork, and teamwork is the core of trade-show success."

Making this "knowledge sharing" really work means planning ahead, Friedman says. Prior to attending the show, meet with co-workers who will not be going. Ask each person to give you three questions he or she would like answered by your show visit. These questions may be in the areas of new services or products, or about larger marketplace issues that may impact business decisions.

If you are attending the event with coworkers, take steps to eliminate duplication of effort on the floor, and share information and brainstorm about information you learn. If you are the only member of your team attending the show, make contact with one or more noncompeting businesses that are also sending solitary individuals to the show. Creating an ad hoc team of individuals will allow you to reap the benefits of teamwork even when the rest of your team is at home.

Attending a trade show can carve a fair amount of expense out of your balance sheet, and a lot of time out of your schedule. Is it worth it? You bet, if you take the time to plan the hours you spend at the show - and then work your plan.