Commentary & Analysis
Trade Shows: Striking the Right Balance
By Brian Wolfenden Trade shows must be viewed as part of an integrated and ongoing marketing campaign rather than as standalone events.
By WhatTheyThink Staff
Published: November 1, 2004
By Brian Wolfenden Trade shows must be viewed as part of an integrated and ongoing marketing campaign rather than as standalone events. November 1, 2004 -- Fresh from an exciting Graph Expo 2004 and already thinking about Print ‘05, I have been giving a lot of thought to the role that trade shows play in our industry and their value to both suppliers and buyers. Trade shows are a significant line-item expense in cost-conscious marketing budgets, and with many companies, including Presstek, carefully examining the expense line, the question often comes up as to whether the expenses associated with trade shows are justified. I believe they are, but in taking on events of this magnitude, it is important to strike the right balance. Of course, these types of conversations are less painful coming off of a show like this year’s Graph Expo, where Presstek and others collected lots of good leads, made sales, and generated increased interest in our products and technologies. But any organizational enthusiasm about investments in trade shows can rapidly wane if leads don’t turn into sales. So how can we, as marketing professionals, make sure we make the most of our trade show investments? And what should print providers be doing to optimize the time and dollars they invest in attending these shows? The Supply-Side Perspective If there is one thing that is certain, it is that that most of us are much more frugal in our trade show expenditures than we were in the heyday of the 1990s. I've done a number of things to reduce our trade show expenses, but at the same time, I believe it's important to have a quality program in place. This means that trade shows must be viewed as part of an integrated and ongoing marketing campaign rather than as standalone events. Shows do offer a good opportunity to close sales, and are a very good place to meet new prospects and to begin a new sales cycle. Your booth, while perhaps a bit smaller than in the past, should present a good brand image and convey the market messages that are central to your corporate strategy. As another cost saving measure, we choose not to stay in the most expensive hotels and to be reasonable with the restaurants we choose. And we are careful about which employees actually attend the show. In the old days, just about anyone who wanted to attend did attend; but these days, employees that want to attend the show must have a valid reason for doing so, and must be in a position to add value to the overall process, whether it is logistical, customer-related, or using the show as a venue to collect information about the competition or move potential partnerships and alliances forward. Good planning will also save money. For example, shipping everything at once saves a lot of money. Ordering on-site services, such as electricity, on schedule also saves significant dollars. Shop around for services when possible. Things like audio-visual and booth graphics can be supplied by a number of different companies, all of whom are looking for your business. The sales force should be tasked with driving traffic to the booth, through contact with dealers, customers and prospects who can use the show as an opportunity to meet with executives and view new products. And pre-show press coverage and direct mail activities can help booth traffic as well. If you are planning a customer or press event, start the scheduling and invitation process as early as possible. This will help to ensure a quality event and increase your chances of having better attendance from your target audience. The more that can be done up front in this regard, the more successful the show will ultimately be for you. Working the Sales Cycle We captured many good leads at Graph Expo. These leads--and all of the investments around the trade show that helped deliver those leads--will all be for naught if the sales force doesn’t follow up on them. We all know that, especially for high ticket items, buyers don’t just walk into a trade show and drop tens of thousands of dollars. If they buy at the show, it is likely that the sales cycle has been underway for some time. But shows do offer a good opportunity to close sales, and are a very good place to meet new prospects and to begin a new sales cycle. Buyers can look at solutions within a larger context, and often speak with company executives and other customers to help validate their ultimate decision. A trade show also provides a good opportunity to conduct product demonstrations, especially if the potential buyer is located in an area that is not convenient to a demonstration center. After the show, follow-up is key. We captured many good leads at Graph Expo. These leads--and all of the investments around the trade show that helped deliver those leads--will all be for naught if the sales force doesn’t follow up on them. You can be sure that one of my highest priorities upon returning from Chicago was to make sure that the sales leads were placed in the right hands and that there is a process in place to make sure that the follow-up actually occurs. Making the Most of the Buyer Experience Not only are trade shows a great time to see all the new technology you have been hearing about all year, but they generally offer a great educational opportunity as well. It is equally important for trade show attendees—the people that might actually buy something—to plan their time as well. Not only are trade shows a great time to see all the new technology you have been hearing about all year, but they generally offer a great educational opportunity as well. Pre-show planning is easier than ever before. As an attendee, you should take advantage of the terrific tools that are available on show and industry news sites. You can find out which companies will be there, what products they will be featuring, and can map a route around the show floor that makes the best use of your time, being sure not to miss anything that could deliver value to the development of your business or help you plan strategically. Most shows have some sort of awards program that identifies especially exceptional products that will be on display at the show. In the case of Graph Expo, the Must See ‘em awards provide attendees with hot tips on products to see that they might not have known about before attending the show. Incidentally, Presstek was recognized for its chemistry-free CTP products during this year’s show. Potential buyers should make appointments ahead of time and have in mind specific objectives you want to accomplish during a scheduled meeting. Much like the vendor community, potential buyers should make appointments ahead of time. If vendors you are interested in have not reached out to you, then reach out to them, and have in mind specific objectives you want to accomplish during a scheduled meeting. If you simply show up at the booth, you will obviously receive a professional demonstration but you may not be able to meet with the most appropriate people, who will undoubtedly have hectic schedules. As companies reduce the number of employees they are sending to shows, it means that those who do go are likely to have full schedules. So make sure you are on those busy schedules, and do your best to keep the scheduled appointment. Always exchange cell phone numbers to cover any unexpected problems that may arise or establish some other means of making contact if you need to change your appointment. And if you discover something new at the show via press releases or awards, or through word of mouth, a quick visit to the vendor’s booth to schedule a one-on-one appointment is preferable to just showing up. It will make the experience more valuable for both parties. Content Is King Look for free educational events that are available. There are a number of breakfasts and other events that deliver great information, and sadly, they are often not well-attended by the buy-side. For both suppliers and buyers, there are a myriad of educational events. Be sure to take advantage of them. Peruse the conference materials to determine which seminar sessions will provide you with the most value. And look for free educational events that are available. There are a number of breakfasts and other events that deliver great information, and sadly, they are often not well-attended by the buy-side. They can frequently end up being vendors, press and consultants talking to each other, and no one wins in that scenario. Real value can come from buyers and sellers interacting with each other in these educational venues. Take advantage of the educational and networking opportunities offered by industry associations. And just as a trade show should be part of an integrated marketing campaign rather than a standalone event, the wide range of educational events available in our industry throughout the year should be part of an integrated educational campaign for you and your company, whether you are a supplier or a buyer. Take advantage of the educational and networking opportunities offered by industry associations. Check with vendors you are interested in to see whether they have a road show or seminar coming to your area that can offer a valuable learning experience for you and your staff. These are often smaller venues in an environment that fosters more effective learning. Practice Makes Perfect Interestingly, the increases don’t seem to be as much related to how much we spend as they are to how we spend our time planning for the event and following up afterwards. At Presstek, we have gotten much better at doing trade shows. The first show we ever did as a company was Print '97. The show went well and we did learn a few things, just as we do after each event we organize. When I look back over the shows since that first one, I am happy to say that we have seen year-over-year booth traffic and lead generation improve. Interestingly, the increases don’t seem to be as much related to how much we spend as they are to how we spend our time planning for the event and following up afterwards. Our sales team is engaged early in the process, setting up appointments prior to the show. We do as much pre-marketing as possible, finding creative ways to market the event and drive customers to our booth, including print and e-mail communications, banners on our Web site, mention of our booth in print advertising, and banner ads on key industry information sites like WhatTheyThink, OnDemandJournal and PrintBuyersOnline. While we are working to deliver a return on investment for our trade show dollars with these efforts, we also want to make it a more effective experience for the buyers. And I like to think we are making progress in that regard as well. It’s all about striking the right balance. Make sure you use scarce dollars wisely and wring every drop of benefit you can out of your trade show experience.