Jul 19, 2011
Tricks of the Trade Show
Walter Erwin, Special to Party & Paper

Tips for attendees and exhibitors

Woody Allen famously said, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” While that may be true for many of life’s endeavors, it doesn’t apply to attending or exhibiting at trade shows. To get the most out of the trade show experience, you have to be an active participant, not just “show up.”

Like many of you, I have attended a lot of trade shows. I first started going to general merchandise shows back in the early 1970s, and have been traveling to a variety of different shows multiple times a year since then.

For the most part, I have attended trade shows as a buyer. But when I started Party Club of America (PCA) in 2002, I got to see what it was like to exhibit at, and organize, a trade show. To promote PCA, I would exhibit at party or Halloween-related trade shows with a couple of my colleagues. Once we built a strong membership base, PCA itself organized an annual members-only trade show and conference.

In 2009, I helped organize the Halloween & Party Expo (HPE) in Houston, which is an industry-wide show. Now with three Expos under our belt – and working on the 2012 show – I have been fortunate to see the trade show business from several different angles.

What I’ve noticed over the years is that many show attendees and exhibitors operate like well-oiled machines. They have a plan, are well prepared and arrive at the trade show ready for business – and success.

But quite a few attendees and exhibitors do just “show up.” They’re passive, not active players in the game. In fact, in the questionnaire that we distribute after the HPE, in which we seek feedback from both exhibitors and attendees, a very common complaint is that expo participants – on both sides of equation – frequently arrive unprepared to effectively conduct business.

Based on the comments in the HPE questionnaire, and on my own observations over the years, here are some tips that can help you get beyond “just showing up” at any expo or market you attend:

Show Attendees:

  • Arrive at the trade show with a plan of attack. These days, trade shows offer a lot of different ways for you to organize your time in advance. A great start is to get on the show’s website and see which vendors are exhibiting and start making appointments. Also, don’t hesitate to use tools like the online interactive map, if available, to create a customized, printable schedule for yourself.

  • Similarly, watch for and read mailers and e-blasts from show management and exhibitors that describe show specials, educational opportunities or social events. While it can be overwhelming to read through all of the show-related literature, it is critical to know what is going on so that you can apportion your time wisely.

  • Before you go to a trade show, make sure you have a firm grasp of your inventory levels and sales data. A trade show may be the only time during the year when you see some of your vendors; don’t waste the opportunity. If you don’t know what you need – or what you can live without – you will be hard-pressed to make smart decisions.

  • If you are buying for more than one category of product, such as Halloween and everyday party, separate your time by category to keep focus. It’s hard to keep track if you bounce from witch hats to balloons back to more witch hats.

  • Don’t fly in for a day or two, hit the high spots and then zip back home. You’ll miss both finding great new items for your stores and the valuable opportunity to network with your industry peers. If you leave a trade show having only seen your biggest vendors, you have done a disservice to your business.

    You may not realize this, but many national retailers, some of whom are your fiercest competitors, send their buyers to trade shows to specifically seek out smaller, less well-known vendors. If you aren’t spending some of your time doing the same thing, you might not find the “next big thing” until it’s too late to capitalize on it fully.

  • If you are a member of a buying group like PCA, PFA or the NCA, or a trade organization like the IBA, attend any meetings that they hold in conjunction with the trade show – you will learn something that will improve your business. Many times, the meetings alone can make your trip worthwhile.

  • Be sure to keep any appointments that you set with your vendors. Like you, they are working with a limited amount of valuable time. Moreover, they may have turned away other potential customers because they blocked time for you. If you become known as an appointment skipper, you may not get any more appointments.

    Show Exhibitors:

  • If you advertise in any of the industry trade magazines, tell the readers the shows at which you will be exhibiting, with the dates and your booth numbers. I have been shocked by how few vendors in our industry do this. It’s a cheap and easy way to tell your customers where to find you.

  • If you plan to have a show special, let your customers know in advance so they can take inventory and come prepared to write orders. Many attendees complain that they only find out about show specials after they have spent their open-to-buy or when they are headed out of the show to go catch a plane.

  • Be familiar with those products of yours that specific customers stock so you can discuss “missed opportunities” with them. If a customer only bought your red widgets last season and your pink widgets were a top seller for you, you shouldn’t have much trouble convincing that customer to by red and pink for the next season.

  • Take advantage of mailers, e-blasts, invoice stuffers and sponsorships to communicate with your customer base and with show attendees with whom you don’t have a relationship. There are a lot of exhibitors out there, so you need to tell your story before the trade show in order to stand out. If you are new to the industry, you have to give attendees a reason to come see you. Don’t expect them just to stumble on your booth and start writing orders. It seldom works that way.

  • Staff your booth adequately. Buyers hate it when they visit a booth and no one is there (especially if an exhibitor has left the show early). Sure, everyone has to eat, and everyone has to go to the bathroom, but never just send one person to a show.

  • Have your catalogues and pricing ready for the show. You have to be ready for buyers to write orders, because your competitors will be.

  • Don’t just measure success by orders written. Instant gratification is a wonderful thing, and I would love it if every exhibitor left our show with a laptop or briefcase full of purchase orders. But savvy exhibitors know that generating leads can pay enormous dividends, too. Continue to follow up and build relationships with buyers even if they don’t write at the show.

    Moreover, remember that business is often about personal relationships. It is valuable for you to meet your customers face to face, even if it’s just to share a cup of coffee or a cocktail. Believe me; it is harder for buyers to say “no” to someone they know and like, even if they just see that vendor once a year.

    The more prepared and active you are, the more you’ll get out of a trade show. If you do it right, the expense of going to an expo should be dwarfed by the money you make as a result of your work there.

    Walter Erwin has more than 40 years of experience in the retail industry, and founded the Halloween Party Expo to be held Jan. 28-31, 2012 in Houston.

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