Saturday, June 11, 2011

Dear Boss - I Wasted The Company's Money At The Trade Show

It is common for companies to sponsor trade shows and other business conferences.  As a vendor they usually receive several full-access registrations for the event, a booth in the trade show, attendee lists, and other VIP perks. There is a big investment in more than just the sponsorship, as the dollars spent add up fast when you consider the booth design, collateral materials, travel and lodging for employees, client entertainment, shipping of supplies, and the man hours for having a team on-site for several days.

Being a vendor at these industry shows is a great way to extend the corporate image, discover trends, get face-time with clients and prospects, gain competitive intelligence, and uncover new leads.  But the reality is many companies are wasting their time and money.

When the event is over it is common for sponsors to complain to the organizers about not getting enough value from their sponsorship investment.  The finger pointing continues when they get back to the office and they are asked for a report on the success of the participation.  Their complaints are always the same: Booth location was substandard, traffic in the trade show was low, the crowd was not decision makers, too many competitors were also vendors, and attendees were not interested in talking to sales people.

I have never heard of any sales and marketing professionals who return to the office and send the following email... but many should:

"Dear Boss; 
I wasted the company's money at the trade show. 
I know that you invested a lot of money in sending me to the event, but I failed to participate in a manner that would ensure ROI.  Instead I (and the rest of our team) sat on my butt, checked email and Facebook every five minutes, complained about the organizers decisions, and skipped out early to have dinner with my college buddy who lives in the city where the event was held.
While the attendees were in the keynote sessions I used that time to go back to my room to sleep off my hangover.  Then when they were walking around the trade show I stayed in the booth behind a table and tried not to make eye contact with anyone.  My strategy to get leads was to let the prospects come find me. 
During the networking breaks and happy hours I hung around with the other vendors.  As you know, nobody at an event really wants to talk to a sponsor, so I did not want to bother them.  There is that invisible wall between vendors and attendees, and I stayed on my side of the barrier. 
I appreciate that the company invested a lot of money in being a sponsor of the event, even though we did not get much value.  I wanted to let you know that I will be as much of a slouch at the next event, too, as sponsoring these things is just a "check the box" activity. 
I did want to thank you as I really needed this break from my wife and kids, as the baby is not sleeping and trade shows are a great escape for me from the routine of my life. 

Nobody in history has ever sent such an email, but that does not mean it is not the reality of how people flush marketing money down the toilet.

Here are the realities of trade show sponsorship:

1.  Your booth location does not matter.  If you are waiting for the prospects to find you, then you are not good at your job.  The best vendors go to the people, and are not overly concerned with the traffic by their booth. If you want to meet the people step out of your booth and instigate conversations.  Do not jump into "sales mode", but instead be in "human mode" and talk to others.

2.  Job titles do not matter.  Success at a trade show rarely means closing business on the spot.  Thus the best of the best are not concerned with the job title of those they meet on-site.  They realize that anyone from a prospective client organization can be the conduit to introductions inside companies.  Cultivating meaningful relationships, and then proper follow up, with a lower-level employee often leads to c-level introductions.

3.  Competitors are just additional people to get to know.  Being concerned that your competitors are present is silly.  Who cares.  If you are better you will win.  But better is not just about product or service, it is also your to tell your story.  Your prospects know about the other providers in your industry, they are not a secret.  Befriend your competition and you will discover competitive information, and also identity the right people to hire the next time you are looking to fill positions.

4.  Vendors are only separate if you make it that way.  You must be present to win.  This means participating in all aspects of the program.  The smartest vendors are sitting in the audience during the keynotes (and sometimes the breakout sessions) so that they know what is being talked about during the breaks.  They stand shoulder to shoulder with everyone else at the conference, not hiding in the trade show area. By being engaged you will position yourself as part of the "mini-society" that is created at an event... not just a vendor.

5.  You are always "on".  While at a trade show you must be constantly focused on the opportunities that exist.  When you sneak off to your room to sleep or catch up on emails you are not going to meet people.  Opportunities come from people, not from a list of emails.  When you skip happy hour, dinner, or time in the hotel bar to go see local friends you are at fault for any lack uncovering leads.

Have A Great Day.

thom singer

Thom Singer is known as "The Conference Catalyst". He works with meeting planners and conference organizers to set the tone for a meeting. His presentations educate, inspire and motivate attendees to engage deeper in the event and make meaningful connections.


Papa Bob said...

Bravo, Thom. Dead on. This is exactly why I hear exhibitors always saying, "this show sucks".

Jason Edwards said...

Great post Thom. I've been either an attendee or a speaker at conventions for 15 years and this is exactly how it's always been. Of course there are a few at each show who live your advice, but you're right, most don't. And here's the irony of it all; when the vendors are afraid to approach the attendees, it makes it a really dull show. Attendees love being approached, especially with some creativity. I can't think of many other environments where people are ready to buy.

Michael Thimmesch said...


I'd like to see that letter really get sent!

The people who complain the loudest about trade shows not working are the people who also put the least effort into them.

I wrote a similar blog post, "Read this if you think trade shows don't work" -- but chances are, the people who need to read it, won't:

Brian Wiggins said...

Great read. I will be sending this to our exhibitors for the two expos that we run here in Philadelphia. I hope they take your advice to heart.

Paine Prevention said...

Fun, but largely true.
I'm a reporter/blogger and attend a lot of conferences with the aim of getting news, getting contacts. I don't think I was ever as involved at a conference as I have been as a blogger and I advise everyone to take the same stance. Get up and get to show early, show interest and knowledge in your area, interview people, shake hands/exchange paper cards, rotate round the evening events and...enjoy it too. It's 4 days of hard work but the work-hard, play hard routine always pays off.

Michael K. Sherman said...

What a great read. There really is a difference that can be made. Not unlike the difference between good and great customer service, it just takes common sense and effort.

JaniceShokrian said...

Great post Thom and always timely. It had me thinking that the trade show world is just a microcosm of social media marketing: build relationships, pull not push, be nice, get engaged in discussions and not fear your competition.

thomsinger said...


thanks for your post. I think you are right about how a trade show is a microcosm of social media marketing.

I believe a trade show is a mini-society.... and societies have rules and social norms. We must work to help create those in a positive manner, as the short time frame can keep people from taking the actions to be contributing members of the society!!!