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Making the Most of a Trade Show

Aug 17, 2007
In the post today I had my Black Book delivered from the Spring Fair and it reminded me of something that happened last year, but would be good tell you now, if only to prove a point that is always true.

Firstly let me give you some background information. The Spring Fair is an annual trade show held at the NEC in Birmingham (some may say it is near Birmingham, but as I grew up about 2 miles from it I say it is in Birmingham). The Black Book is essentially the Spring Fair guide. In it are details of all the exhibitors at the fair. Normally you would get a copy at the fair itself, however this year I couldn't attend due to illnesses (mine, my wives' and my daughters' - we were all ill over a two week period) so I ordered a copy of the Black Book instead, as there were some suppliers I wanted to get details of.

To give you an idea of the size of the fair it takes over the entire NEC (20 halls), lasts five days and has approximately 4,000 exhibitors. There are exhibitors trying to sell everything from furniture and ornaments to Christmas decorations and software, there are even a few exhibitors from the adult industry (although they only display their less erotic and more family friendly lines). We run an online sex shop and even we can find new products at this show. So as you can see it is quite a major trade show. Before you carry on reading, make a mental note of how large this trade show is.

Back to my opening sentence about what happened last year. There I was standing in the queue, thinking about how knackered I was going to be at the end of the day when I overheard a conversation behind me. It went something like this:

Person 1: "Where shall we go first?"
Person 2: "I don't know."
Person 1: "Well what are we looking for?"
Person 2: "I thought we would just have a wander around and find something to sell on EBay!"

At this point I felt like turning round and getting involved, but I was too flabbergasted. This is the UKs largest retail exhibition and you are going to "wander around and find something to sell on EBay".

Now I'm not going to argue for or against EBay - that is for a later day, nor am I going to discuss people starting up in business (as these people obviously were and anyway everyone has to start somewhere). What I want to discuss is peoples stupidity when it comes to trade shows.

Why on earth would anyone want to spend a Sunday traipsing around the NEC on the off chance they find something? That is the wrong way to go about trade shows and:

(1) will quickly annoy you (if you can't find anything),
(2) will make you question whether you should be in business (it may be that you shouldn't be in business but that decision shouldn't be based on a trade show),
(3) will make you tired more quickly,
(4) force you into snap (and perhaps costly) decisions.

Running your own business is very hard work and often one of the hardest parts of it is deciding what product lines to invest in. So you should think carefully about these product lines, make sound business decisions and not rush into anything. This means that trade shows are often seen as daunting and to some people terrifying. I, on the other hand, enjoy trade shows and 99% of the time I come away from them feeling that it has been a good day and I have gotten a lot out of it.

To get the most out of a trade show follow my 3 steps:

Step 1 - Why are you going to the show?
This may seem like a stupid question but before you even think of the show you have to decide why you are going. If you are looking for new products that may be exhibited at the show or are just starting out then the answer is a no brainer.

If you want more products ask yourself the question are you increasing your product line for the sake of it or is there a real business need for new products? It maybe that your business is suffering and you feel that adding new products will give your business the kiss of life. But then ask yourself would current suppliers have what you need? Then again maybe you are not marketing your current product line efficiently.

You might be going to the show for other reasons. A trade show is a fantastic place to meet all your suppliers in one place and (hopefully) in one or two days. Remember though that asking yourself these questions is not necessarily about deciding whether or not you are going to attend (the answers may make your mind up for you), it is about setting the scene in your own mind as to what you want to achieve from the show.

Step 2 - Plan your show.
No matter whether you are already in business or are just setting up you need to plan who you want to see. Most trade shows will have websites so log on and review the exhibitors that are booked to be at the show or ask for a list to be sent to you.

From this information you can then decide which exhibitors you want to meet with. You need to prioritise them and be ruthless with this. Put the suppliers in a list and decide who you want to see most of all, then second, then third etc.

You don't necessarily need to put your main suppliers at the top of the list. If you are looking to meet up with new suppliers then seeing current suppliers may not be necessary (or maybe only for a quick hello, how are you, goodbye conversation). However if you are looking for new products from current suppliers then you need to spend some time with them. So pick who you think will be able to help the most and see them first. If you can get hold of a floor plan of the show then you can even plan out your route. To be honest I only plan my route on very big shows, where time is thin.

Step 3 - Work your plan.
Okay, so you have worked out who you want to see and why you want to see them, but as you walk down the first aisle you walk past a fantastic looking stand, just begging to be looked at more closely. You stop, look and slowly walk over to it. The representative comes over to you and you start having a conversation (there goes the plan and within 30 seconds - not bad).

I am not advising anyone to ignore all of the other companies other than the ones you want to visit, but if you are looking for new sexy lingerie for your adult store, why visit all of the lubricant and sex toy stands? You have gone to the trade show with a particular intent (from step 1) and you have set out your plan of action (from step 2), so why are you going against the reason you are there in the first place?

Instead, as you walk past the stands that look interesting make a note in your show guide. Then, if you have time, you can visit them later or if time runs out you can look at their website and give them a ring.

Remember that getting something out of a trade show may be that you don't have new products, however you may come away with new ideas of how to better promote the products you already have.
About the Author
Stephen is the MD of Venus Sales Ltd which runs the leading online adult store Temptations Direct.
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