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What Not To Do at a Trade Show

TRAVEL LIGHT: Don't make yourself miserable by lugging around too much stuff.

COMFORT FIRST: Ladies, leave the stilettos at home.

SPEAK UP: Be sure to steer the conversation toward your needs.


Attending a trade show like the NRA Restaurant-Hotel Motel Show can be an expensive proposition for even the most budget-conscious traveler. Who hasn't gotten sticker shock from the rising costs of airline tickets, hotel accommodations and meals?

Those cash outlays, though, are just the beginning of the story. How about all the time you spend navigating the aisles? Whatever time you spend at the show is time away from your place of business. And that can represent an opportunity cost far greater than your total out-of-pocket expenses.

Of course, trade shows offer tremendous business opportunities of their own—for attendees who do things the right way. Here are tips on what to avoid to ensure a solid return on your investment in time and money.

1. Neglecting advance planning. Lack of sufficient advance planning is a key reason trade show visitors spin their wheels. "Preshow preparation is of paramount importance to any trade show attendee," says Robert F. Dallmeyer, president of R.D. International, a Los Angeles consulting firm. "Gone are the days when you could just show up at a show and start shopping."

To make every minute count, you can use the Internet to scout out the exhibitor booth assignments on the show's website, then plan the hours for maximum return on the dollars invested.

2. Defining goals that are too general. When deciding what you want from the show, avoid general statements such as "seeing what's new" or "seeing our suppliers." At the end of the show you will feel as though you failed to accomplish all you could. Instead, ask yourself what the biggest problem you have in your business is. Write it down in the form of a question on a piece of paper. Then take it to the show with the idea of getting answers from the staffers in the booths.

Consider these examples: How can I get a more reliable sourcing on the XYZ category? What new marketing programs will suppliers provide to move more XYZ product? How can vendors help us in terms of more aggressive cooperative advertising programs? What steps can we take to solve our customers' increasing complaints about XYZ quality?

One question‑or a series of similar questions‑‑will keep you focused on what you really need to accomplish.

3. Not developing a strategy to reach goals. "Define a game plan so all your steps are laid out before you arrive at the show," says JoAnn R. Hines, who attends close to 20 shows every year as president of the consulting firm The Packaging Coach, Kennesaw, GA.

The steps in the strategy should result in achieving your stated goals. Here are some examples: See X number of vendors to find the best sources for a specific product. Find out who has the best marketing plan in the XYZ category so we can move the merchandise faster. Call our top six suppliers prior to the show to set up appointments.

Part of a successful strategy is to allocate tasks among coworkers who will be attending the show. Do this early enough to avoid duplication of effort.

4. Failing to get a floor plan and booth directory in advance. Most shows offer floor plans that list booths numerically and directories that list exhibitors alphabetically. These are very often available on the web. Download them and use them to plan your day. Some trade show attendees load these maps into their personal digital assistants (PDAs) for reference during the show.

"Cross‑reference the directory with the floor plan to lay out a walking plan that maximizes the time you spend at the show," says Hines. The savings in hours will ensure that you reach your goals.

And what if an advance copy of the directory is not available? Try obtaining an exhibitor registration list or, if all else fails, use last year's directory. Companies often rent the same booths.

5. Not prioritizing sections of the floor plan. Try to estimate how many booths you will be able to visit for the time you have at the show. The average attendee spends about 13 minutes at each exhibit targeted for a visit, according to the Center for Exhibition Industry Research. To that you must add your walking time, eating, resting and chance encounters with peers. You should prioritize your booth visits to manage your time as well.

6. Making too many appointments. Don't get carried away when you make appointments. Trying to squeeze too many in one day can actually make you less effective on the floor. That's because you can easily fall behind and start rushing from one appointment to another before you have all the information you need.

"Rather than setting definite appointment times, I suggest you tell the booth staffers you will drop by during certain windows of time," says Hines. "Say something like, `I'll drop by between this and that time...'" If the staffer is busy when you drop by, don't waste time hanging around. Leave word about the next "window" of time in which you'll drop by, then move on.

7. Carrying too much. Travel light. Hauling a brief‑ case and other unnecessary items can slow you down and tire you out, making you less effective in the booths. If possible, carry only what you need to take notes, along with your specific questions and your floor plan.

And don't weigh yourself down with lots of product literature from the booths. Often you can check bags of literature or ship them home.

8. Wearing the wrong shoes. "Select a good walking shoe that has a compliant outsole," advises Steven Subotnick, a podiatrist in San Leandro, CA. "That means that the sole is not hard leather, but is soft and rubber‑like, so that it absorbs shocks easily."

You should also select a shoe that has arches that match your foot, especially if your arches are either unusually low or high. Better quality shoe stores have certified shoe fitters to advise you. And women should avoid pointed shoes, Subotnick advises.

9. Omitting an "early bird" visit. If you visit the show building early in the morning prior to the official opening time, you will find lots of magazines and product literature wait‑ ing in bins. "Gather it up, pack it in a box and check it before the show begins," says Hines. "Then it's out of the way." The show may also ship it to your office for you.

One bit of literature you can review right away: the trade show daily publication.

10. Not previewing the show. Schedule some time to "scope" the show before you start the walk that you have laid out. Walk the entire show floor quickly, looking for unexpected exhibitors or products. Take notes on what looks interesting. Then sit down and adjust your color‑coded floor plan and walking path to include them.

11. Following the crowd. You are showing your independence from the mob by planning a productive trade show visit. Take that one step further: Walk the show in reverse. "You will get faster attention from the booth staffers if you walk against the traffic," says Bob Donath, a trade show consultant from East Orleans, MA. "Most visitors start in the front of the show and crowd the booths. If you start in the back, you will be talking with staffers who are not already crowded by other buyers."

12. Ignoring the smaller booths. While you don't want to spend too much time at them, the smaller and newer booths can provide leads for new products that can make your visit even more successful. "You'll see lots of interesting, off‑the‑wall stuff from exhibitors who are new to the show," says Donath. "These booths are great for generating creative ideas."

13. Attending too many seminars. Be judicious when attending workshops. Ask two questions: "Is the material covered by the workshop so unique that I cannot obtain it elsewhere?" And: "Does the subject matter relate directly to my job and to why I have come to the show?"

14. Not steering the conversation at the booths. Here's where your goal questions really come in handy. Write your key question on several dozen 3x5‑inch cards. When you get to each booth, hand a card to a rep and ask how the company can answer your question. If the staffer doesn't have an answer right away, say you'll return later for the information.

Alternatively, use a statement such as "I need to make a business decision" to focus on your needs. Explain what the business decision is, then ask how the products at the booth can help you make that decision. If you find you know more about the products than the sales rep does, move on quickly to another booth. You can also jot down the name of a better qualified person who is expected to be at the booth later.

15. Writing sloppy notes. Where do you jot your notes? On the backs of business cards? In the margins of show directories? Along the tops of product literature sheets? Show visitors can think of as many ways to confuse themselves as there are blank spots on paper.

Avoid them all. If you return home with a bunch of sloppy notes on all kinds of various paper you'll never get them organized enough to achieve the goals you set for the show. Key your notes into your PDA, talk them into your tape recorder, or jot them into a small pocket notebook.

16. Not exploiting "slow" hours. Every show has hours when the aisles are calm. This is the best time to make appointments. . . especially with your high priority companies whom you really must see. Find out when the slow times are by calling ahead and asking the exhibitors or others who have attended the show.

17. Not monitoring promises to follow up. Don't let the exhibitor get away with breaking a promise to contact you with requested information. Many exhibitors fail to follow up as promised after the show has closed its doors.

Try carrying along a "buyer's guide." This is a long vertical card, roughly 4 by 8 inches. You can carry a couple of dozen such cards as you walk the show. At each booth, you pull out a card and fill it in with answers that the representative gives to your questions. Lines are included for such information as specific products or services seen, type, quantity and delivery terms. Way down at the bottom is a question: "What is the action step agreed to after the show?" Examples include telephone call, literature and personal visit.

18. Not updating coworkers. Prepare a brief report for your coworkers. What trends did you spot? Applications? New products and technology? Your sharing will not only spread useful and enlightening information, but will reinforce your learning process as well.

There you have it: The 18 most common (and costly) mistakes made by trade show goers. How many do you make? Make an effort to follow the advice in this article and you will go a long way toward ensuring the greatest return from the time and money you spend at your next show.

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