Trade Show Survival Guide
By Ric Viers
Trade shows are about one thing: human interaction. Whether it’s shaking the hand of a “virtual” online friend or putting your hands on a new piece of gear that you’ve been salivating over, nothing beats the hands-on experience! I’ve been doing business with Mike Scheibinger of Sony Creative Software for almost fifteen years (starting way back when they used to be called Sonic Foundry). We’ve talked on the phone over a hundred times and sent even more emails. But, for one reason or another, we never met in person. We were basically cyber pen pals. This year at NAB, I was shocked to meet him in person for the first time. It was surreal. We both looked at each other’s names on our badges, smiled and gave each other a hug like old college buddies. Nothing beats real-world interaction.
Of course, that interaction comes at a price. Conventions can be overwhelming and tough on the feet. There are a lot of pitfalls that can mar the path of the first time trade show pilgrim. So, after dozens of tours-of-duty at trade shows over the years, I’ve put together a list of ten things to help you through your next trade show experience.
1. Don’t pay for show admission!
Many exhibiting companies will offer free passes to the show. Keep in mind, most trade shows have a deadline for when you can register, so be sure to take advantage of the free passes at least a month ahead of the show. You should realize that often times the company’s name could appear on your badge. This can be confusing for people who you meet at the show that might mistake you for an employee of the company. To fix this, some people will put their business card inside the badge to cover the company’s name.
2. Map out your show and stick to the map.
The show floor is a world within a world. You can get lost pretty fast and easily miss key things that may be of interest to you. There’s nothing more frustrating than flying home from a trade show on the other side of the country only to realize that you forgot to meet with a certain person or check out a specific booth. A good trick is to spend a few minutes looking through the map of the exhibits and determine which ones are “must-sees”. Often times, I will print out a map or list at home and plan my days while I’m on the plane. If you’re going to the show for business, be sure to meet with the important people on your list first. Often times the key figures from companies do not stay for the entire show and are often times swamped with meetings and have early flights home. Once you’ve hit all of your meetings and must-see booths, you can spend the rest of your trip gawking at all the shiny objects in the booths and getting in the way of impatient people like me.
3. Business card tips.
In my office I have a box of literally thousands and thousands of business cards I’ve collected over the years. A random sampling from the box only reveals a name of a person that I can’t remember meeting, much less what we discussed. The solution to this problem is simple: a good ole fashion ink pen. Now, whenever I exchanged business cards with someone I make notes on the back of their card with useful information to help me remember them and what we discussed. This information might include physical characteristics (i.e. this dude reminds me of Chewbacca) or simple things like “follow up after June”. Another useful tip is to bring a Zip Lock bag for all the cards that you collect during your trip so that they don’t get lost in your backpack or luggage during your travels. And for God’s sake, don’t forget to bring plenty of your own business cards!
4. Pace yourself.
It’s all fun and games until you get blisters. It took me several trade shows before I wised up to this. When you get to the show you’re fresh and well rested. You feel like Superman. Sure, the convention hall is the size of a space station, but you can hack it! So, you fly around the show floor with ease. Then, you wake up on day two with blisters and you don’t feel like walking so much. The trick is to wear comfortable shoes and pace yourself. Take advantage of short breaks between meetings.
5. Travel light.
When heading out of the hotel in the morning, bring only what you need. Some people will bring a small backpack to cart around their essentials that the gals can easily carry in their purse. A couple of staples that I bring with me are ChapStick to combat the dry convention halls, a bottle of water and plenty of singles for vending machines. The less you carry, the happier you will be.
6. Take only what you need from the exhibitors.
Throughout the day, you will be inundated with trinkets, demos, brochures and other freebies that the exhibitors are handing out. Trade show newbies often fall trap to this and quickly become a pack mule before lunchtime as they try to cart around all of the “goodies”. The reality is that most of the handouts can be found online. A better solution would be do take a picture with your smartphone for later reference. It’s quick, easy and relieves you from the excess cargo that you would have to fly home with. This includes the free magazines at the shows. A space-saving trick is to take the subscription card but leave the bulky magazine.
7. Avoid crowds.
Nothing will slow you down faster than getting stuck behind the herds of people at the show. As an impatient person, I’ve figured out a few things that help me get around without too many delays. First, I walk against the flow of traffic. Why? Because I can navigate around people that see me coming faster than moving at a slow crawl behind people with A.D.D. that are mesmerized with all of the shiny objects in the surrounding booths. Second, I usually pack my own lunch and snacks so that I can avoid long lunch lines. Of course, the food and snacks are of the healthy variety so that I don’t feel sluggish by the end of the day. If I do plan on buying lunch at the show, I eat my meals at off-times, either before or after the rush.
8. Avoid being scanned as much as possible.
Only let exhibitors scan your badge if you are really interested in being on their email or snail mail list. If not, you are opening yourself up to a world of junk mail! Often times, the best decision is to take note of the companies that interest you and look them up at your own leisure. Your inbox will thank you later.
9. Be respectful of those you are meeting with.
Exhibitors are at the show to connect with new and existing customers. If you are interested in doing business with the exhibitor, be sure to wait your turn when they are busy with other customers. A rude interruption will make a poor first impression. If they are overwhelmed, leave your card and come back in an hour or so. Also, avoid handing out demos to exhibitors at the show. Remember, they are trying to travel light as well. Undoubtedly, your demo will not be listened to. More than likely, it will get left at the show, lost in transit or end up in a pile or unlabeled box when they get back to their office. Trust me, I’ve been to offices with stacks and stacks of demos that were never even opened. Your best bet is to get the name and contact info of the person you need to deal with and follow up with them after the show.
10. Wait to follow up with your contacts.
When you get home from your trip, you’ll be dying to follow up with all of the cool people you met and take advantage of business opportunities. Resist the urge! Remember, the people you met with probably showed up to the convention a few days before you got there and had to stay an extra day or two afterwards. The bottom line, they’ve been on the road for a while and they probably have a mountain of work to do that has piled up during their trip. Give them time to settle back into the swing of things before you follow up. A couple of weeks after the show is usually a good time to reach out. They will be hopefully caught up with their work and will still remember your meeting. Keep your correspondences short and sweet, as they will probably be receiving dozens of follow up emails. And always remember to end your email with a call to action. Avoid emails that basically say “great to meet you”. These types of emails do not require a response from the recipient. Instead, end the email with “Are you available for a phone call next week?” or something similar that requires a response.
Bonus Travel Tip!
Bring your most important, can’t-live-without-it items on the plane with you in your carry-on bag (e.g. laptops, business cards, Zoom recorders, cameras, demos, etc.) Luggage can get lost or delayed. Make sure you have the essentials when you land so that you can continue your trip without your luggage if you have to.
Despite the inconveniences and long days on your feet, trade shows can be a lot of fun and are great ways to network with other professionals. Without a doubt, I would not be where I’m at today had it not been for all of the wonderful connections that I’ve made over the years at various conventions. My advice to anyone looking to network and check out cool gear is to attend as many trade shows as possible. With these tips and tricks, you should be a much wiser trade show road warrior.
This article is Copyright 2012 Ric Viers and may not be copied or republished without permission.