Trade shows are great for discovering new merchandise and making new contacts. All too often, though, attendees return to mountains of backed-up work. Faced with the challenge of playing a game of catch up, they soon forget their good intentions to follow up with vendors, cultivate personal networks and capitalize on industry trends revealed at the show.
It shouldn’t be that way. "What you really go to a trade show for is what takes place after the event is over," says Francis J. Friedman, a trade show specialist and president of the New York City-based consulting firm Time & Place Strategies, Inc. Like golfers working on their follow-through, successful trade show attendees are always trying to improve the quality of their after-show swing. That means sharing knowledge with staffs, placing follow-up calls with the right exhibitors and organizing business cards and notes so they don’t end up collecting dust on a shelf.
Share The Wealth
If one piece of new information from a show can help you make more profit, imagine the results if your whole staff could use the same knowledge when dealing with customers. Make sure everyone has an opportunity to benefit from the trade show, be it educational information from seminars, industry insights from business peers met in the aisles or new product descriptions from the booths. The key is to disburse the information formally so that it is taken seriously.
Don’t forget communication is a two-way street. Encourage your personnel to share insights that may enhance or alter your view of what happened at the show, especially when making decisions on a new line of merchandise. Your staff may know of products that are a better fit and should be compared and investigated.
Staff feedback can also help adjust order levels up or down, or time the placement of additional orders over the following months. This is especially helpful with new lines from young companies, which may not produce enough inventory to satisfy unforeseen orders down the line.
Good post-show follow-through depends to a great extent on advance planning. If more than one person from your business will be attending the show, assign different duties to each. Personal beats might include new products, industry trends and materials needed for a new department.
To encourage great work, make sure each attendee realizes a report will be expected back home. "People engage in a very different level of note taking when they realize they will be held responsible for teaching others," says Palo Alto, Ca.,-based consultant Mina Bancroft. "They realize they will really need to understand a subject." Finally, assign a high priority to the meeting in which knowledge is shared. "Prior to attending the show, schedule the follow-up meeting on your calendar so it doesn’t slip between the cracks later," suggests Bancroft.
And how about those great seminars? Sometimes seminars have training materials you can distribute to your staff. If not, jot down key points from the seminar and distribute a short but informative report to your key personnel. Alternatively, ask permission to record the seminar and have the tape transcribed for your staff.
Don’t forget all those notes you scribbled as you walk the aisles. Too often they end up collecting dust on a shelf or disappearing into your file cabinet.
Develop a plan to efficiently process those notes. Go to the show with this plan in place and you will be able to maximize the profitability of your notes when you return to your business. Rather than enter all of your notes on a running series of pages, try dividing a notebook into sections by topics such as new products, personnel changes, industry trends and government regulations.
You can also walk the trade show with a tape recorder, making continual short comments, or even request permission to take photos to distribute to everyone when you get home.
Follow Up With Vendors
Exhibitors can be as forgetful as buyers when the trade show glitter has faded. If they move on to other things and fail to send promised information, everyone loses. Smart business owners will mark their calendars with ticklers to remind laggard vendors.
There are three benefits of prompt follow through with vendors. First is the reduced risk of misunderstanding. Your memory of what an exhibitor said may differ from that of the vendor’s, and the latter may forget a deal that was not put in writing because of the rush of people at the show. Second, calling can confirm schedules for on-site visits by vendor reps. Finally, you can avoid the disappointment that can arise when you wait too long to place orders and vendors partake in unanticipated production cuts.
Vendors will offer you a plethora of brochures and catalogs as you walk the aisles. When you return home, the stack of accumulated brochures can seem so overwhelming that you avoid looking at them for months. Ask vendors to mail catalogs and brochures to you, and assign a staff member to file them in an accessible way.
Trade show buyer’s guides can also fill a need long after they have served their original function as trail blazers to booth locations. They can be referenced for contact information throughout the year. And in yet another post-show resource, many venues now host Web sites with "market planning tools" that can help track the elusive supplier in the months after a show. Because many such sites are searchable electronically, buyers can quickly find sources of supply for specific lines.
Finally, how about all those business cards collected during the show? Too often they remain wrapped in their rubber band cocoons, never to be looked at again. Try categorizing business cards on a scale of one through four, with "one" being the most important to contact. Back home, make sure you call the "one" cards first. Try writing relevant information on the back of the cards rather than on a separate paper. That avoids having to match things up at the office. On each card, note what was interesting about the product and what needs follow up.
If it all sounds like smart networking, that’s because it is. Trade show experts encourage such relationship building. "When an attendee actually follows through with vendors met at a show, a light goes on with suppliers," says Donna Messer, a trade show consultant and president of ConnectUs Communications (www.connectuscanada.com), a consultancy on Oakville, Ontario. "They say, ‘This is one I want to keep.’ You have brought to the attention of exhibitors that you are different." The results can be beneficial. "Down the road, you may be called for a testimonial, or you may be offered something to try out because you have been responsive," says Messer. And, of course, you will be the first to know of any buying opportunities.
"If you are lazy and don’t follow up, you will be treated the same way," says Friedman. If you establish a dialog, on the other hand, you become a partner for mutual profit rather than just another name on a customer list.
Inform Your Customers
We’ve covered co-workers and vendors. Who but the customer is the ultimate reason for all of this trade show commotion? One way or another, customers need to be informed about what you have seen at the show. For your most important customers, a personal call is not out of the question.
While one-on-one calls are great, it may be impossible to get to everyone in a timely manner. That’s where some creative communication comes in. Either a special mailing or a section of your regular newsletter can be devoted to a report on what you learned at the trade show.
As the comments in this article suggest, getting the biggest bang from the buck invested in attending a trade show depends on how you sweep up after the dust has settled and the glitter has faded. "When you get back to your place of work, the important thing is to have a plan in place that prioritizes the information you’ve obtained," says Bancroft. "I suggest that you start processing the information while you are still at the show, and especially as you travel back home. Ask yourself, what is the top thing I have learned and what will I do with it?" To tackle the big pile of new information efficiently, in other words, break it into manageable pieces. "If you end up with information overload you will not be able to process any of it," says Bancroft.
The more you keep your goals in mind, the more successful you will be as a trade show participant. Cultivate the employee, the exhibitor and the customer who as a group form a "three legged stool" of post-show success. If you take careful aim at your target and follow through with a good after-show swing, you’ll land a business owner’s favorite "hole-in-one": more money in your cash register.
Online Only: Making The Most Of The Trade Show
Maybe you can’t forecast the future, but you can set the stage for your success by spotting important trends. “An entire industry comes together for a trade show,” says Francis J. Friedman, a trade show specialist and president of the New York City based consulting firm, Time & Place Strategies. “Even a regional show is a slice of the industry. If you are aware of that you can become more knowledgeable about industry trends and get an insight of what’s ahead for your market.”
Friedman suggests doing these things:
- Converse with booth staffers. Don’t just stop by and say “hi.” Watch for slow periods and introduce yourself for a chat. “Remember they talk with everyone,” says Friedman. “You’ll be surprised what you hear.”
- Establish networks with peers. Build a community of like-minded, non-competing business owners in various towns, then follow up with them regularly through the year. Include people in other industries, because trends tend to migrate.
- Benchmark. Are you up to speed or ahead of the curve in management practices and equipment? Keep asking this question as you attend seminars and visit exhibitors.
- Meet the press. Few attendees think of interviewing business editors who are at the show, but Friedman highly recommends it. “If you can meet with an editor, spend a moment finding out what that person sees as the key trends in business.”