Don't just wander the exhibit hall at Club Industry East. Make the most of the trade show with careful planning and a buying strategy.

You always remember your first time.

Hayward Gulledge remembers his. Like most first-timers, he floundered around clumsily, not really knowing what he was doing. Eventually, however, he gained experience, and now he's a pro at working trade shows. (Yes, trade shows. What did you think?)

“The first trade show [my partner and I] went to, we just sort of walked around aimlessly, just sort of overwhelmed,” recalls Gulledge, who co-owns American Athletic Club in Myrtle Beach, S.C., with Tim Conner. “But, we've been doing this for almost 20 years, so…we now sit down and come up with 10 or 12 things that we hope to accomplish by attending the trade show, to make certain that the trip pays for itself.”

Eastern Philosophy

This is sound strategy for anyone planning to attend a trade show, such as Club Industry East (June 18 to 20 at the Jacob K. Javits Center, New York City). Before heading to Club Industry East — or any trade show, for that matter — you should always ask yourself: Why am I taking time out of my busy schedule to go to this event?

Once you know the answer, set objectives, as Gulledge and his partner do. Review the show materials and visit the show's Web site (clubindustryshow.com, in the case of Club Industry East), paying careful attention to the exhibitor list, seminars and events. The idea is to determine how you can accomplish your goals for the show. For example, when John Cooley, owner/manager of Final Results in Gilbertsville, Pa., goes to a show for the seminars, he plans his schedule around the topics that he wants to hit, such as retention or sales.

If you're going to the show in search of equipment, your preparation should focus on finding out what will be on display in the exhibit hall. “The [manufacturers'] reps are certainly out there calling on you, so I would ask, ‘Do you have anything new planned? What are you going to be showing…?’” suggests Jefferson Davis, owner/president of Competitive Edge, an exhibit consulting, marketing and training firm in Charlotte, N.C.

And don't just talk to reps before the show. Talk to your employees. “If I were the owner of a fitness facility, I'd want to take a look around my facility and ask my staff…, ‘What do you see happening in our club in terms of equipment, in terms of service, in terms of issues, that is costing us time, money or frustration?’” Davis says. “And I would go to the show looking for solutions to those issues.”

In addition to turning to staff for pre-show input, decide which employees will accompany you to the event — and what their responsibilities will be once you arrive.

Cooley brings most of his 35-person staff to New York for Club Industry East — an easy trip, since his club is in Pennsylvania. He sees this as a chance for staff bonding. His group walks the show floor, grabs lunch and explores some of the local sites.

Not that it's all fun and games. For instance, when Final Results is shopping for new equipment, Cooley's fitness staff will try out all the available pieces and report their findings back to him. Their opinions ultimately influence his buying decision.

Besides sending out employees to look for equipment at the show, you can send them to seminars to improve their job skills. Sessions can benefit all club employees, from front-desk staff to general managers, as long as they enter the seminars with the right frame of mind.

In Session

Don't just stumble into a session in the hopes of learning something, advises Davis. “I would suggest writing a list of two or three or four questions that you would like to see answered in the session,” he says.

If the presenter doesn't answer these questions, bring them up during the Q&A portion. (Most sessions will leave time for questions and answers at the end.) If there isn't a Q&A period, approach the presenter after the session and ask your questions. That way you'll leave the session with the insight you sought.

Gulledge is a big believer in educational sessions at trade shows — a conviction that can be tiring.

“I go to the trade shows primarily for the education,” he explains. “We take three or four of our sales members each time, and we take three to four seminars a day. So it's a very, very full day. That alone with walking the trade show floor and trying to squeeze in lunch, it's really exhausting.”

For that reason, planning your breaks is almost as important as planning your work. “I recommend not more than three hours on the exhibit floor at any time,” Davis says, “and I would try to have at least a 15-minute break in the middle of that where I could grab a drink of water or get outside and breathe the air.”

Attendees can avoid the “fatigue factor” (as Davis calls it) by maximizing their time on the show floor. Davis recommends that you look over the exhibitor list and separate the companies into three categories: must see, should see and will see if time permits. Then take the exhibitor list and map, and circle the locations of the must-see companies. This will allow you to hit your top companies in an efficient manner, row by row.

Another efficiency tip: Make appointments with key exhibitors. Traffic can get heavy, and exhibitors are looking for serious prospects and buyers. By setting up a meeting, you let companies know that you mean business.

“Exhibitors are getting more savvy and realizing that the best attendees will have objectives and set appointments,” Davis says.

If you really want to get an exhibitors' attention, come prepared. “Rather than allowing the exhibitor to start talking and take you where he or she wants to go, walk into the exhibit and state your agenda,” Davis offers.

In other words, when you enter the booth, state your name, your club and your objective (e.g., “I'm interested in treadmills”), then request to speak to someone who can help you. Don't just walk into a booth and stare at a piece of equipment or start working out on it. These actions don't set the stage for a meaningful dialogue. At best, you'll prompt booth staff to ask, “Can I help you?” or “Do you have any questions?”

Sweating the Details

Once you start a conversation with an exhibitor, keep track of important details. “Have a notepad and make notes in front of the exhibitor,” Davis suggests. For a high-tech look, carry around a microcassette recorder and tape your thoughts for later review.

While most of your meetings will probably occur on the show floor, you don't need to limit your activities to the convention hall. Gulledge, who claims that he does most of his buying at shows, points out that noise and traffic can sometimes make discussions difficult on the floor. So he prefers to take the conversations outside.

This may seem unconventional (pun intended), but Gulledge likes that trade shows allow operators to meet with vendors in a neutral setting. You can have dinner with your rep and the rep's superiors and really get to know them. This is a much more comfortable setting than inviting a vendor to your club or going to the vendor's facility, according to Gulledge.

Taking time to sit down with vendors is important, but a trade show shouldn't consist of nonstop meetings. Davis likens a trade show to an “adventure.” Get out and explore.

“Don't plan your entire agenda,” Davis says. “Leave yourself time to just browse and take things in. You never know what's going to grab you. Don't schedule yourself so tight that you're running from must-see to must-see, and you're missing all of the cool exhibitors that are all over the place.”

Cooley makes sure that he walks the entire floor at least once, if not twice. Gulledge also cruises the hall several times.

“If something catches my eye at a trade show that is not on our agenda, I would then reach out and ask if [the vendor] wanted to meet for a drink, or meet for a cup of coffee or dinner, what not,” he says.

Network News

If nothing new leaps out at you on the show floor, ask other attendees their opinions about interesting products and services. Maybe they have noticed something that you haven't.

“I do a lot of networking,” Gulledge says. “I've been in the business so long, I simply ask my peers, ‘Hey, what's new and exciting?’, rather than get the sales pitch from every single booth. Who's got time for that?”

Checking out the products and services on display is advisable for any attendee — even club operators who aren't at the show to buy. You never know when you may make a spontaneous purchase. For example, Cooley once went to a show in Reno with no intention of investing in new product, and he wound up leaving with a whole line of strength equipment. Why? The vendor made an attractive offer, Cooley answers. Besides, installations are good for business.

“We like giving our members new equipment all the time,” Cooley says.

Like Gulledge, Cooley typically does all of his buying at trade shows. In fact, over the years, Cooley has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on equipment at shows. And when he doesn't buy at a trade show, he buys because of something he saw at one — such as when he placed an order last winter for a product that caught his attention at Club Industry East 2000, held in Boston.

Best Buys

This isn't to suggest that Cooley is eager to throw money away at trade shows. He prefers buying at shows because the exhibit environment allows operators to compare equipment. You can walk from booth to booth until you find what you like best.

Another plus: You can get bargains at trade shows, Cooley points out. Exhibitors often offer show specials, and they may even sell floor pieces at a reduced price to save the cost of shipping the products back home.

Still, not every club operator is going to a trade show to save a buck. Gulledge believes in building relationships, not shopping for bargains. And trade shows are a great place for operators and vendors to work together toward a mutual benefit.

“I more or less build a relationship with certain vendors,” Gulledge says. “As long as they are taking care of me, I'll stay with that vendor.”

Naturally, some club owners may argue that show bargains justify the expense of the trip. Gulledge sees things differently. Trying out products, meeting with vendors, networking with peers and furthering education all make trade shows worthwhile.

“Anyone that doesn't go to trade shows, in my opinion, in this business is really doing themselves a disservice,” Gulledge maintains. “It allows you to sit down and talk about the things going on in your industry with people who face the same things you face every day.

“I've never gone to a trade show that when I got back, I thought, ‘Well, that show didn't pay for itself.’”


Club Industry East Special Events

Free Panel Discussion: “Giving Members What They Want: Now and in the Future,” June 18, 10:30-11:30 a.m.

Career Connection: June 18-20, booth 855, exhibit hall hours

Club Studio: June 18-20, booth 455, 45-minute group exercise sessions during exhibit hall hours

Internet Café: June 18-20, booth 231, exhibit hall hours

Welcome Reception: June 18, 5-6 p.m.

Early Morning Aerobics: June 19-20, 7-7:45 a.m. New York Marriott Marquis

Free Firefighter Fitness Seminars: June 19, “The Fire Service Joint Labor/Management Wellness Fitness Initiative,” 9-10:30 a.m., and “Fitness in the Fire Station,” 10:30 a.m.-12 p.m.

Keynote Address: June 19, 10:30-11:30 a.m., “Remaining Relevant” by former mayor of New York City, Edward I. Koch


Club Industry East

LOCATION:
Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, New York City

SHOW DATES:
June 18-20, 2001

EXHIBIT HALL HOURS:
Monday, June 18, 11:30 a.m.-6 p.m.
Tuesday, June 19, 11:30 a.m.-6 p.m.
Wednesday, June 20, 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m.

BOOTHS: 300

SEMINARS: 98


Show and Tell

How do you make the most of trade shows? Share your experiences. Mail us at: Letters to the Editor, Club Industry, One Plymouth Meeting, Suite 501, Plymouth Meeting, PA 19462.
E-mail: jerry_janda@intertec.com
Fax: (610) 238-0992