Back when I was working at the Merchants Insurance Group, circa early 80s, I had to find a new ad agency.  It was a priority challenge, and I was unclear about the process.  To make it short, I hired the then largest agency in Buffalo, Healey Schutte & Comstock. The agency quickly assigned a young account manager, David Warfel. He turned out to be a good fit for marketing novices. One of our many early challenges was to develop collateral materials.  We needed those materials to be upscale and were willing to spend whatever it took.  Our young new account manager asked, “So you want to go four-color?”  I said, “No, use all the colors–however many it takes.”  Thus began my education and slow slide into in the mar com world.  For the past almost forty years, Warfel and I have stayed close, sometimes with him being the client and me being the account manager.  After moving on from HS&C, David went to Y&R, and then BBD&O.  As a client he directed marketing at United Clearing in London, England and The World University Games before taking the marketing helm as VP of Global Marketing at Zippo Manufacturing.  During his long tenure in the business, he bought and managed a lot of trade shows, resulting in as many opinions.  The following from David might prove helpful.

“I get worked up about trade shows, which I really hate. Maybe I’ll write a book, “Trade Shows, Do It Right Or Stay Home.

Trade shows are complex and a big investment. I’ve been involved in too many shows.

When an exhibiter was asked why they were at a show, the answer I got the most was: “We have to be here. People would wonder why we aren’t.”
It seems they thought that it would look bad if they didn’t go:
that the company was having trouble, that revenue was off, that they were going out of business, or that they were afraid the competition would get a leg up.

What should be the most important consideration? Having a very clear reason, a defined objective, and a measure to determine if the objective has been met is the most important. But there are many reasons to go: to build awareness or a market position, to introduce something (old or new), to generate sales leads, to close on open deals, to meet specific players, to demonstrate leadership in the market, etc.

Your comments on “big idea, big promise, big creative are key, but they should be a three-dimensional execution of the current brand messaging. A show is not the place to introduce those elements but to reinforce them.

The booth and exhibit get confused. Sure the exhibit is Cinderella’s castle, but the exhibit is part of the booth, which should be a coordinated environment. All booth elements need to support the message. And that’s more than the sales reps in matching polo shirts with the company logo.

Successful retailers get this. Customers go into the suit department at Brooks Brothers. They enter a unique, special place, different from the main floor. It’s like a men’s club, board room, an upscale hunting lodge. They want to be there; it plays to their egos and aspirations.

Ok, a hardware show is not Brooks Brothers, but it can create a captivating environment that fits the space. Why does it need to look like the inside of a Tru-Value?

A show is in three parts: what you do before the show, what you do at the show, and what you do after the show. There may be 30,000 attendees, but how many are going to actually walk into your booth? Prime the pump. Give them a reason before the show. You have heard this: there is an invisible wall between the aisle and the booth. Visitors have the same hesitance we all have when going to a car dealer. They think if I go in, I will not get out without being mugged. Many attendees attend the show with a defined mission. Make your booth a planned destination in their mission.

Too often a box full of contacts and leads is brought back then ignored. There’s not a better prospecting list than a market that has demonstrated an interest in your business. Make them your best friends. Follow up: send thank you notes, send product info, invite them to something. It’s the reason to go to a show.

One last point. Many exhibitors are pretty savvy on the right way to manage show participation.  They know how to manage show data and follow-up. And that creates another problem. Some poor purchasing manager gets back to the office the day after a show and a hundred sales reps are calling to come see him. More competitive clutter for you to cut through.

Everyone in the trade show business talks about on-time, on-budget and great service. Those are just table stakes.  How are you going to differentiate yourself in a crowded competitive market?