How to Survive Trade Show Season, Part One

It’s the beginning of a new year. Time to set a fresh round of quarterly goals, fine-tune your branding, and finally put that new internal strategy into place.

Oh, and it’s also trade show season.
And with that comes the trade show hangover.
Remember the last time you attended CES in Las Vegas, or that other major conference in a city near you? Remember how motivated you felt when you left the conference floor? You had listened to hour after hour of inspiring speakers, product pitches, and optimistic visions of your industry’s future. You probably felt like your own business was poised for take-off.
But there was just one problem. How many new customers purchased your product or enrolled in your service over the course of the conference? How many influential thought leaders agreed to promote your business? And how many reporters sought you out for an interview on your industry?
If you’re like most conference attendees—and believe us, we’ve been there—the answer is likely close to zero.
This, in a nutshell, is the trade show hangover. We often treat trade shows, conferences, and networking events like the gateway to massive revenue goals rather than another step on the path to stable growth. When that revenue boost doesn’t happen, we’re left dispirited, humbled, and uncertain of whether we should have spent the time and money to attend in the first place.
The reason this happens so often is that the organizers of trade shows and other conferences are highly adept at persuading us that their event will transform your business. They sell you the dream of instant success with a sales pitch that sounds tremendously enticing: thousands of potential customers, channel partners, and celebrities in one place, not to mention case studies of that one lucky participant per year who lands an amazing deal that changes their business and their life.
To be clear, the organizers of these events aren’t promising any of this will actually come to fruition. For some lucky few, they may actually experience the full rewards of attending the event. But for most of us, the chances of major success are very low—unless you know how to approach these behemoth events properly.
This is the first of a two-part series where we’ll explore the promise and potential of trade shows versus the reality of the average attendee’s experience. We’ll discuss what to expect from your trade show visit, as well as how to manage potentially unrealistic hopes. At the same time, we’ll also provide strategies for maximizing your trade show attendance and making sure your attendance fee and expenses are well-spent.
Let’s get started with an overview of what a trade show is not.
In a nutshell, a trade show—especially mammoth events like CES, which attract thousands of exhibitors from around the world—are not ideal places to do any of the following:

– Sell your product or service on the trade show floor
– Meet strangers who will help you land giant distribution deals
– Meet a reporter or blogger who will include you in a story/give you your “big break”
– Sign people up for your product or service
– Actually see the city the trade show calls home (you won’t go outside)

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s consider what giant events like CES are actually good for:

Your company is approaching “escape velocity” and needs a final push to make the leap.
In the startup world, there’s a term called “escape velocity.” It’s a metaphorical reference to the literal term used for the force rockets need to escape the Earth’s gravity and enter outer space. In the startup world, it refers to those companies that already have hype, momentum, and hockey stick growth but just need that extra push to reach sustainable success or become the primary player in their industry. Trade shows like CES can act as rocket fuel to propel an already successful or hyped business into a path of long-term stability.

Your company needs to refine your positioning or pitch.
If you’re working on a startup team or with a business that is launching a new product, you’ll likely need to do competitive research and analysis to see what fellow players in your industry or niche are doing, as well as what’s working and what’s not within your space. Trade shows are an ideal venue for some on-the-ground research into both competitors and potential customers. What types of products are succeeding and how are they positioning themselves in the market? What type of branding, and marketing efforts are attracting new customers? Using CES or another event as a market research opportunity can be a wise investment for a growing company.

Your company needs a central meeting place with potential customers.
You’ve set up a large number of in-person meetings with potential customers and distributors who are located throughout the country (or the world, in some cases) and are looking for one central location to meet and discuss business opportunities. With a big conference like CES, there’s a very good likelihood that the majority of your contacts will already be attending, making it an ideal venue for face-to-face meetings that cut down on travel time and expenses for your team.

Your company is looking for inspiration from thought leaders.
Perhaps your business growth has plateaued, slipped slightly from previous years, or hasn’t reached the heights you expected. Or perhaps you’re simply looking for insights into how to position your business for future growth or to take advantage of ongoing trends. The thought leaders that speak at conferences like CES are world-class and can offer well-researched insights into what’s coming next. If you treat their talks less as networking opportunities and more as learning opportunities, you could come home with a bevy of new ideas to future-proof your business.
Your company could benefit from general “awareness.”
To be frank, “awareness” in the context of a trade show boils down to nothing more than a lot of people seeing your logo. If you understand that the vast majority of attendees will have no intention of making a purchase and that most will not stop at your booth for anything more than free swag, the trade-off may be worth it. If even a small fraction of those attendees remember your name when they encounter your business again as they search for a product or service, the trip to CES may be worth the investment.

Your company is trying to “look the part.”
In business as in life, sometimes simply showing up is critical. In some industries, there is an expectation that major players will attend relevant trade shows, and many of your competitors may be spending the requisite money just to show they are part of the conversation, understanding that they won’t see a tangible return on their investment.

Your company is seeking to grow your mailing list.
Collecting email addresses and contact information for prospective channel partners and customers can be worth the expense of attending a trade show if you’re able to give them something valuable in exchange for parting with their personal information. Consider what information, resources, or insights you can share that are important enough for someone to share their email address and ensure that whatever you send in return meets a high standard.

You like to party.
Enough said.
Now that we have a better sense for exactly why you should (and should not) attend a trade show like CES, stay tuned for the second post in this two-part series, where we address how to use a trade show properly through step-by-step strategies for actually hitting your revenue goals.

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