Getting the most out of trade shows

Attracting gutter installers to industry trade shows isn’t an easy task — but neither is it hopeless.

“Most installers became business owners after working in the field,” observes Marge O’Connor, media relations director for METALCON International, the annual trade show for the metal construction industry, “and unlike people in different types of businesses, gutter company owners aren’t as familiar with the concept of working less in order to make more money.” As a result, spending time and money to attend a show can seem unproductive.

“Most installers became business owners after working in the field,” observes Marge O’Connor, media relations director for METALCON International, the annual trade show for the metal construction industry, “and unlike people in different types of businesses, gutter company owners aren’t as familiar with the concept of working less in order to make more money.” As a result, spending time and money to attend a show can seem unproductive.

And yet, many gutter installers are open to the idea of giving more attention to the business side of their businesses. “I’m always looking for new products to market,” says vice president Jason Hughes of C and C Gutters, a family-owned company with five employees and two gutter machines in Cartersville, Ga. “It would be helpful to investigate our options in gutter guards, for instance. Seminars on how we can operate more smoothly would also be helpful, since you won’t find better ways of doing things until you take the initiative to learn.”

Similarly, owner Charles Dallavalle of Gutters Plus in Marietta, Ga., allows, “going to sessions about business management could help us increase our sales and sessions that cover products we install or give training tips would also be of interest.” Dallavalle wants to “stay abreast of new trends” and is “always interested in opportunities to expand our product offerings and services.” But he and Hughes both admit the daily press of business mostly keeps them at home.

If gutter companies are open to professional development but don’t know how to free up the time, what would it take to get them on a trade show floor? O’Connor and others believe the answer is educating installers on the value of show attendance so that can make the time and then learn how to maximize the way they spend it.

In fact, suggests O’Connor, the current economic climate magnifies the benefits of trade shows. “If tight budgets are cutting down show attendance, you can use that to your advantage,” she says. “When you go, you’ll get more qualified attention from exhibitors. Manufacturers can give you personalized education on products and show how to use them, including the newest techniques for working faster and smarter.”

Paula Parker of PSMJ Resources Inc. in Newton, Mass., is exhibit sales director for METALCON. “As an attendee you can see and feel multiple product options, all in one location, before you buy,” she advises. Trade show organizers also work hard to keep professional seminars relevant and fresh. “We track the attendance of seminars and repeat the most popular,” she explains, “and we’re constantly adding new topics, too. Nearly half of this year’s seminars are making their debut this year.”

Spending money on trade show attendance can be an investment since “the sessions can teach you how to expand your profit potential with new ways to earn money, save money, be more productive and expand product and service offerings,” O’Connor contends. Because newcomers are entering the industry every year, trade shows offer basic training courses every year. But to keep veterans coming, shows strive to reflect the latest industry trends.

Despite the ever-growing presence of technology, Parker believes, “There’s no substitute for the face-to-face communication you get at trade shows. You can hear people’s words and read their body language and visual cues. An email, on the other hand, can often be seriously misinterpreted — and you can usually accomplish more in person than in 15 emails.”

Beyond the exhibits and seminars, those who attend trade shows report that networking and exchanging ideas is frequently the most valuable benefit of all. “You can discover a lot at the show not only by seeing what product options are out there,” says O’Connor, “but also just by talking to others in the business who face the same challenges you do.”

Getting an overview of an entire industry, all under one roof and in just a few days’ time, is a unique opportunity — but also a tall order. The secret to surviving, according to the Dallas-based Center for Exhibit Industry Research, comes down to four factors: setting objectives; covering the show floor efficiently; getting the most from each exhibit; and then pulling it all together.

CEIR has counted more than 13,000 annual trade shows in the United States that occupy at least 3,000 net square feet of space and feature 10 or more exhibitors. Scheduled this October in Las Vegas, METALCON will feature some 300 exhibitors and draw nearly 8,000 attendees from more than 50 countries (See the METALCON preview in Metal Roofing Magazine.) And even in stepping onto the show floor for the first time, attendees’ senses are immediately bombarded with flashy displays, constant motion and an unending buzz of background noise.

In such a frenzied and frenetic atmosphere, you need a plan of attack that ensures you have the time needed to achieve your objectives for the event. President Margit Weisgal of the Chicago-based Trade Show Exhibitors Association advises, “Everybody has general ideas about why they’re attending a trade show, but at some point you have to get specific.”

The importance of specific planning is suggested by two statistics. According to CEIR surveys, up to 90 percent of trade show exhibitors have not contacted you in the last 12 months, so that shows are an effective way to broaden your base of suppliers and preview new products. In addition, up to 90 percent of attendees will buy one or more of the products or services on display within the next 12 months. In other words, you’re likely to end up buying something you saw at the show. So it’s a good idea to have a plan and be a smart buyer.

First of all, how do you find the best trade show to attend? “Industry trade publications are a great place to start since each magazine has a calendar of events you can preview,” advises O’Connor. “Going to the websites of trade associations that serve the gutter industry is another way to see upcoming events and shows.”

After choosing the right show, O’Connor continues, “Register ahead of time so that you’re not waiting in line when you arrive. Also, many shows now offer self-registration kiosks that save time. Before the show, you can request an exhibit directory by mail, see the directory printed in a pre-show trade journal or go online to the show website and check out exhibitors and seminars you might want to visit.”

With map of the exhibit hall, adds Parker, “you chart out what displays and pavilions you should target.” And if your phone has Internet access, says O’Connor, “You can often download a map of the trade show floor and plan your route.” Both advise prospective attendees to prepare questions in advance for each of the vendors they want to visit, and even to set up appointments ahead of time so that exhibitors can prepare customized solutions to your specific needs.

Those who can’t afford to be out of touch with their businesses back home may be reassured that, “because most attendees depend on cell phones to run their companies, trade shows improved reception in the exhibit area,” reports O’Connor, “and many provide banks of computer stations where you can keep up with email while you’re on the floor.”

Experts agree, then, even a few days spent at a trade show can be a productive investment — if attendees know how to set their objectives, cover the floor efficiently, get the most from exhibits and pull it all together. Keep reading for a point-by-point preparation checklist of proven strategies for trade show survival—and success.

TRADE SHOW 101

Before the Show
— Know what you want to achieve by attending the show.
— Develop a list of exhibitors you want to visit and then organize your list into “must see” and “want to see” companies.
— Use pre-show website information, promotional mailers and advertisements in trade journals to help determine your show priorities.
— Obtain a floor plan of the exhibit hall and prioritize your route.

What to Bring
— Have plenty of business cards, both for networking and to avoid spending time in filling out forms.
— Pack comfortable footwear.
— Bring a “carry-all” for accumulated materials; make sure it’s light, comfortable and doesn’t dig into your hands or shoulders.
— Carry a day calendar or PDA to note appointments and seminar times.
— Take a notebook and stapler and then affix business cards you collect to the notebook pages.

Planning Your Time
— Decide how much time you want to spend at the show and at each booth, while allowing extra time for browsing, distractions and waiting in lines. Industry studies suggest you’ll spend an average 13 minutes at each of the exhibit booths you’ve targeted for a visit.
— Make an appointment with each exhibitor you want to meet. Take control of your schedule rather than depending on chance encounters.

Gathering Information
— Determine in advance what information you need to make purchasing decisions, such as pricing, product specifications, and delivery.
— Plan intelligent questions by researching vendors; find out how they differ.
— Design a standard form for gathering information on specific products and services so you can make accurate comparisons during and after the show.

Talking with Exhibitors
— Tell exhibitors you’re on a tight schedule and get right to business.
— Let exhibitors know the reasons for your interest, so they can tailor presentations to your needs.
— Don’t be afraid to push exhibitors for answers to questions; your time is valuable, too.
— If a booth staffer can’t provide the information you need, ask who can and when that person might be available.
— If you’re not interested in a sales pitch, then say so politely and excuse yourself.
— Be prepared for a fast pace. Many exhibitors teach staff to take only a few minutes to qualify potential customers, make a presentation and close a sale.
— Avoid conversations about products or services that don’t interest you.
— Shows are a good time to visit your current suppliers away from the office and to register compliments or complaints.

On the Floor
— On the first trip to the show, cruise the floor, look for what’s new, and make notes of whom to visit later.
— By your second trip, try to visit all your “must see” exhibitors; get a feel for what they’re offering and plan a return visit later in the show.
— Save the last day of the show for in-depth discussions with the limited number of exhibitors who most suit your needs.
— Use the hall map and exhibitor listing to prioritize and then check off visits.
— Watching product demonstrations can be a good use of your time since they provide quick overviews and answer the most common questions.
— Skip crowded booths and come back at day’s end when traffic is lighter.
— Leave the show each day about 30 minutes before closing to avoid long lines for cabs and shuttle buses.

Staying at Your Best
— Take a break and get some fresh air every few hours, because the air in exhibit halls can be dry, stale, and draining.
— Avoid dehydration by taking regular drinks of water instead of soda or coffee.
— Don’t weigh yourself down with literature; request these items be mailed when possible.

After the Show
— Make a plan for using the information you’ve gathered.
— Be prepared to call or email exhibitors to ensure the literature and samples you requested will be mailed.
— Share what you learned with others in your company; it will also help your own learning process to digest and explain the information.

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