For the right companies, trade shows can be big business. Trade show and conference planning is a $14 billion industry, according to IBISWorld—and it’s growing. The 2017 Index Report compiled by the Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR) predicts 2.5% growth throughout the industry in 2017 and 2.8% increases in both 2018 and 2019.
Trade shows occupy a unique and critical space in the outreach operations of many businesses. Seldom are there opportunities to showcase the mission and value proposition of a brand in front of an invested, captive audience. Delivering at a trade show can be the difference between an average and exceptional year for a company.
There are certain formalities to trade shows, which are fairly obvious to anyone who has a passing familiarity with the events, but exhibit professionals say success hinges on strategy before, during and after the event takes place.
Peter LoCascio received a call at his business, Trade Show Consultants, from a woman, Lana, from a walk-in freezer producer in Florida. “My boss just gave me the responsibility to manage our most important trade show in Anaheim. What do I do?’’ LoCascio says she asked.
LoCascio is technically retired but maintains his consultancy in part because he finds trade show tactics so thrilling. He’s been working in trade shows for decades, ever since his father, a graphic artist, needed help with displays at an exhibit house in Long Island City, New York. “I noticed when the client would come in,” —corporations such as IBM, Crane, Allied Chemical— “the shop got cleaned up. I said to myself, ‘I’d like to be a client someday as well.’ ”
LoCascio may have remained on the vendor side for the bulk of his career, but he made that old-school respect for clients like Lana a hallmark of his professional life. And it paid off.
LoCascio counseled Lana to put together a document that stated what she planned to accomplish based on her exhibiting goals at the Anaheim trade show. Along with a pre-show briefing memo, she submitted the plan to her supervisor and used it to get feedback and buy-in.
Lana’s show was an unqualified success, LoCascio says, because of the preparations she undertook prior to the conference. LoCascio goes so far to say that every company involved in trade shows should have a show manager, a position he held for many years. Much of the work handled by this person involves market research of the show audience.
“[The show manager] evaluates the business as it relates to the audience,” LoCascio says. “For three days you’re going to present and demonstrate the products that are of most interest to your particular market. You need to analyze who’s coming and get a rough idea of the number of prospects that would be interested in purchasing your product in the next 90 days.”
LoCascio also advocates for late-stage planning to commence on site the night before a show kicks off.
The marketing department takes the lead, briefing everyone on the products that will be displayed, the objectives and how stations of the booth operate.
“[When], the [prospect] steps on the carpet, right away, the [booth worker] on duty says, ‘Aha! This is a prospect. That’s why I’m here.’ He gets into the greeting and introduction, and he starts probing,’ ” LoCascio says.
As hinted at above, all that planning only pays off if it is executed properly. That means capturing people’s interest and making them listen. Even if marketers follow LoCascio’s strategy to focus on finding the most qualified prospects, they still must be attracted and persuaded. For that, trade show presenters often turn to attention getters such as Ken Newman. A former stand-up comic, Newman realized in the 1980s that his people skills and smoothness in the spotlight were highly sought after in the corporate world. He founded Magnet Productions, which specializes in developing live presentations for clients at trade shows.
Sometimes this means Newman is the person up on the platform proselytizing for his client like a hybrid of Steve Jobs and P.T. Barnum. Other times, it means he or a compatriot are planted in the crowd as a skeptic or dispassionate observer peppering the spokesperson with product questions.
“I [could] be a totally geeked-up trade show attendee with two bags full of stuff, horn-rimmed glasses, pocket protector, the whole mess,” Newman says. “Eventually, the audience realizes this is a put-up job. But it’s still 80% content. We’re still getting the message across.”
Marketers don’t need Newman’s slick showmanship to excel at securing the presence of overloaded showgoers, but they do need to be personable.
“If you can show people that you care about their problems, if you acknowledge a problem, that tells them you know what they’re dealing with or what their challenges are. Address that,” Newman says.
Newman’s team will often hand clients a script of half a dozen icebreakers to hook passersby.
“Read their badge and say, ‘Hey, what do you guys do? What’s your company?’ Nobody’s going to say it’s none of your business,” Newman says, noting that this is where the booth worker should respond, “One of our top clients does the same thing. How are you guys different?”
“Now you’re having a dialogue,” he adds, making it a seamless transition from conversation to demo.
By the conclusion of a trade show, marketers should have a good idea of how their efforts are shaking out, but that doesn’t mean the work is done. Some of the biggest movement can come from following up on leads generated over the course of the show. Many people who hesitate to commit on the spot need to be revisited, as do those who were punch-drunk on the trade show floor only to sober up after returning to their bubble.
“The biggest [misstep] is when [companies] don’t have a strategy after the show,” says Tim Asimos, vice president and director of digital innovation at circle S studio. Asimos says there needs to be intense planning about the timing and substance of post-event connections in hopes of conversion. Marketers need to be asking how they’ll nurture the contacts made at a trade show.
Asimos argues that rather than first-time presenters, veterans of the trade show circuit can be prone to a lack of post-game vision.
“It becomes a little monotonous,” he says. “People aren’t necessarily thinking about it strategically, [nor are they] learning from prior trade shows. In addition to the follow-up with contacts, there’s no postmortem [review], a deep dive into what we did, where we were successful, where we missed the mark, opportunities for doing it better,” or, frankly, Asimos says, admitting when a trade show was horrible for a brand.
One step companies can take to effectively manage post-show operations is to identify a measurable goal during the planning period and track its success.
Or, as LoCascio says, “Justify the time and money that you’ve invested into some kind of ROI.”