The 3 Rules of Tradeshows

Inspired by discussion elsewhere, I thought it would be useful to write an entry with broader utility.

There are two kinds of trade shows. The kind you sell at and the kind you buy at. This post deals with ones you sell at or would like to sell at. Please follow all links so I don’t repeat myself (too much) and be sure to read the comments of those entries.

The three rules of tradeshows are

  1. Knowing where and how you want to show,
  2. getting buyers to your booth, and
  3. having reasonable expectations of what a show can do for you by understanding who the show is designed to serve and who runs them.

Rule #1 is where and how; know what you’re getting into.
The first rule of trade shows is, never ever sign a contract to exhibit at a tradeshow you haven’t walked. Never. Ever. If you want to show at a larger venue like MAGIC, walk every part of the show. You must understand that you may not get to pick which segment you’ll be placed in so if the representative wants to put you in Street but you want to be in Slate, you cannot agree to the change unless you’ve walked Street because unfortunately, you often don’t get to pick where you’ll be.

You don’t need to have your own booth; you have the option of seeking a sales rep to represent you ¹. I think this is the best option to start with. When you walk the show, keep an eye out for independent representatives who carry product lines that complement yours.

If you want to go to a show because you think it legitimizes you and gets you some exposure, it’ll be an expensive lesson that won’t return what you put into it. There is a perfect show for you; take all the time you need to find it.

Rule #2 is getting buyers into the booth:
You must understand that the show is responsible for getting buyers to the show. It is your responsibility to get the buyers into your booth. The show is merely providing a central location where buyers can meet with their vendors -and of course, perhaps pick up other products. I wouldn’t expect show management to be very sympathetic if your traffic is slow, they will say you should have made pre-show appointments.

Every show is different but you also can’t expect the tradeshow to provide you with a list of pre-registered attendees so you can mail or email them in advance with the hope of setting up appointments. It is important to read the fine print in the exhibitor manual/agreement beforehand to make sure it compliments your strengths or compensates for some of your deficits. Some shows sell lists of buyers that fit certain criteria in advance of the show but those can be rather expensive. Many (most?) exhibitors don’t buy these lists. Most exhibitors send sales collateral to their customer base about the show and solicit appointments that way. They will also mail to buyers who may have visited their booth in seasons past (here is a dandy form to use to capture data).  I realize this is difficult if you’re just starting out -which is another reason you might consider getting a sales rep because they have established relationships with buyers and will market on your behalf.

Rule #3 is having reasonable expectations of what shows can do by understanding who the show is designed to serve and who runs them.

This is the most poorly understood concept of all. You think that because you’re paying for booth space that you are the customer and therefore have a lot of pull, and they have to make you happy. Maybe, maybe not.

First, do you know how shows start? Shows start because independent sales reps  -usually road reps- get together to organize one.  These are often hosted at hotels and are called “room shows”. If the show takes off, the reps create an official organization to run it and the show becomes a property unto itself. This is why many shows (particularly regional ones) are called “X representatives X (region) Show”. Most (all?) show charters prohibit manufacturers from owning a piece of the show; it is not unusual for smaller shows to prohibit manufacturers from showing so they must acquire representation. By the way, does anyone know what MAGIC stands for? It’s an acronym that stands for “Men’s Apparel Guild in California” because that is who started it. It was a men’s show (I still remember when it was mostly a men’s show), a bunch of reps who sold men’s stuff were annoyed at the price of booth space and lack of differentiation so they high tailed it to Las Vegas where rooms were cheap.  Now it’s the biggest wholesale apparel show in the world.

Now, since reps start shows, they need to set things up to attract buyers so that is the major priority and interest. They care about retailers more than manufacturers because it’s easier to pick up another brand (since there are so many to choose from) than it is to pick up another buyer.  Indirectly, this is the reason that most manufacturers cannot source from the sourcing pavilion at MAGIC. That is set up for retailers to full out their merchandizing mix with some private labeling. I realize that the situation is fluid and ever changing but if you find something there, consider yourself lucky rather than smart.

The last reason it is important to know it is reps who set up shows is to understand you rarely have control over the location of your booth on the show floor -especially if you’re new. Signing a contract to exhibit is not like buying an airline ticket and getting a seat assignment. Sure, they’ll try to place you where you prefer but only if it makes sense for their buyer attendees and is convenient for them.

Moreover, you should expect to get the worst booth assignment at your first show. If you come back again, you can expect a better slot. Without a doubt, seniority rules. This is another reason to consider getting representation because a given sales rep has been showing there all this time and probably has relationships to get a placement they like.

Shows and show cultures vary a great deal; a good way to think of them are as clubs (many of them are called clubs) and you should take some time to get to know them because some have better reputations than others. WWIN is one show that gets rave reviews from buyers and exhibitors alike. By contrast, Pool is a feeder show for both exhibitors and tradeshow employees so the culture is young and fresh -but also inexperienced and with little in the way of continuity and customer care.
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¹ There is probably a lot of link rot in this post but I explain the tactics in great detail to locate reps. Be resourceful!

Related:
All tradeshow entries on this site

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