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Trade Shows

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Trade shows have been around for eons... since Biblical days, if you count the markets and bazaars of ancient times. On the other hand, the Internet, the World Wide Web in particular, is a relatively new medium of exchange. Yet, trade shows and the Web have the same two primary roles: to provide information and to showcase and sell goods and services. Maybe there really is nothing new under the sun.

The objective of this paper is to stimulate your thinking on how you might more fully exploit the less obvious business opportunities (compared with promotion and sales), that trade shows offer.




THE TRADE SHOW AS CAPITALIST RESEARCH TOOL

Assess the market

Collect ideas for improving your own booth

Identify potential reps, licensees, joint venture partners, suppliers

Scout your competition

Keep up with the latest technology

Conduct informal surveys

Look for a new job

Although you may certainly accomplish all of the above research activities at a single trade show, you will probably have a primary objective in mind. We cover each of these individually.

Assess the market

If you're planning on entering a new market, particularly a new international market, there is no better way to get the "lay of the land" than by walking a trade show in the industry. Here in the United States, we seem to have a trade show for everything. Understanding who the major players are, how business is (or isn't) conducted in a specific country ... or at a specific trade fair ... could save you immeasurable amounts of wasted time and money.

As a hypothetical example, let's say you're a European manufacturer of a specific type of building construction/maintenance material that is frequently specified throughout most of Western Europe, but is apparently not used much in the United States. You've done some preliminary research, and have found that there are a few small domestic suppliers, but no major competitor in the market. You also believe that your water-based material poses no serious environmental threat.

It's early January, and you know that the annual Plant Maintenance Show takes place in Chicago during early spring. Perfect timing. Not only do you make arrangements to attend the show, you have the time to map out a strategy for entering the U.S. market, should that prove feasible. This includes talking with the EPA or people knowledgeable about the relevant environmental regulations, finding out what distribution channels are typically used and determining whether using independent sales representatives or selling direct is most practical, assessing the trade show itself as an effective marketing medium (to evaluate whether you should have a presence there next year), who the competitors and suppliers of substitute materials are and how they market, standard pricing practices in the industry, which trade journals are the most targeted, and maybe even identifying some possible manufacturers representative agencies.

All this and the opportunity to attend a seminar or two, meet people in your industry, and accumulate other important information in the space of about 3 days -- you could hardly find a better return on your market research investment.

Another idea: when time to attend or funds are limited, you might try persuading your trade association to sponsor this type of research and thus share the cost among several members.


Collect ideas for improving your own booth

Focusing solely on the trade shows in your own industry will generally produce oh hum ideas or worse, stimulates you to copy your competitors' approaches, pegging you as a "me too" vendor. If you're a software producer, try attending a sporting goods show or a lawn and garden show. Your best ideas likely will come from trade shows entirely out of your industry, just because not many people venture out of their own industry very often. In management practices, however, this is called bench marking, i.e. finding the best of the best and adapting the ideas or processes to your own situation.

What are some of these new ideas you might capture? A clever give-away, a creative way to add motion, color, texture or sound to your booth (all proven methods of drawing visitors into your space),and the all-important what not to do (eating, sitting, reading the newspaper)

This is not to say, however, that you should avoid walking your own show or keeping tabs on your competition. Au contraire. Just don't be lulled into thinking there's nothing new under the sun. There may not be in your own back yard, but in the next town? Who knows?

Identify potential reps, licensees, joint venture partners, suppliers

Here, both exhibitors AND attendees are prospective "bedfellows." A good rule of thumb is that the aggressive ones are out there, meeting people, giving talks, involved in committee work.

Scout your competition

A new practice has crept into some types of trade shows the past several years, particularly among the computer hardware and software shows. Major (often the top) players in their markets, such as Microsoft and Apple, choose to stay away from shows they traditionally supported in favor of hosting their own shows, with several selected, non-competitive partners. So, keep in mind that although a major competitor may be conspicuous by its absence, it's the smaller player's absence or reduced presence that may signal trouble for them, and opportunity for you.

Keep up with the latest technology

Trade shows are exciting events ... captive audience; the media hungry to cover new product unveilings; hands-on demonstrations; ability to compare competing offerings just a few steps (or miles, if it's a mega show) away.

Conduct informal surveys

Suppose you have an idea for ... What better place to research than eye-to-eye with hundreds, perhaps thousands of "experts" attending, exhibiting and presenting seminars?

Start by asking show management about the industries represented by the expected attendees. They will probably be able to provide you with a breakdown of last year's attendees, by percent. Don't expect them to provide you with a mailing list, though.

Next, prepare a list of companies within the industry segments you are interested in surveying.

Look for a new job

If you're ready to expand your horizons, trade shows are a good place to look, but not to sell. Look, because you can tell a lot about a company by the way the company presents its public face compared with others in its industry and the attitude at atmosphere of its front-line people. Get as much information as you can about the company without taking too much time of the booth personnel. They're there to sell. Get the name and title of the appropriate person to contact after the show. Your cover letter should include the fact that you visited their booth and found the company's message compelling.

Don't sell, because the decision-makers are not likely to be attending to the booth. Even if they are in the booth, they, like the marketing and sales folks, are there to sell, not to buy. Since you only get once chance to make a good first impression, don't blow it by disturbing their main interest, which is to meet and greet their own prospects.


We hope this stimulates your thinking about the business information treasures that trade shows offer. They are a practical supplement to your electronic and traditional field research efforts.

Technology Management Associates, Inc.
(312) 984-5050jogucwa@techmanage.com

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