Get the Most Out of Trade Shows

Confronted with a veritable banquet of information opportunities, the casual (read: inadequately prepared) trade show visitor operates on overload from arrival to departure. He goes for the glitter and comes home with nothing more to show than sore feet, some hastily scrawled notes and several sacks full of product literature that will gather dust in a corner. Of course, it doesn't have to - and shouldn't - be that way. Here are a few key parameters to consider to maximize the value of your show/conference experience:

Plan ahead before picking an event. Seems like a no-brainer, doesn't it? Yet, you'd be amazed at how many people don't do anything of the sort.

First, choose the events that best suit the needs of your operation. How do you select between, say, a focused seminar program staged by a regional chapter of a relevant professional organization and a mega-show? There's only one way: do the research. Carefully read all promotional material or access the event's or organization's Web site for more detail. If you know people who have attended previously, ask them questions. Did they learn what they expected? If they were looking for suppliers, did they meet the right people and get the time and necessary expertise to help them?

Figure out who's going - and why. Make a realistic assessment of what you want to accomplish at an event. If your goal is education, determine who in your facility will benefit from what programs. If there are multiple seminars that interest you, try to send the right person from each department to the sessions that provide the maximum useable information. Make employees accountable for sharing what they learn. Inform them in advance that they will have to deliver a written or informal verbal summary to others in your organization when they return - and make sure this gets done.

If you're looking for specific equipment or services, bring all personnel involved in the decision-making process. This will give you the chance to make better-informed comparisons from the many choices you'll see at the show.

Of course, some operations are too small to send multiple staff members without major financial cost or disruptions in service. Give those who do get to go reasonable responsibilities, and try to rotate the staff members who attend events from year to year.

Prepare when you arrive. When you enter the event, grab the show directory, program manual or whatever the on-site publication is called. These guides almost invariably give you all of the information you need to navigate a show/conference successfully - if you take the time to read them. Don't walk right into the exhibit hall and wander; take a moment to make note of the product or service categories you most want to see, then make a list by booth numbers. Note the special events you want to attend and leave yourself time to get to them.

Talk to your colleagues. Events provide an unparalleled opportunity to cross-pollinate ideas. Enjoy the receptions and dinners - sensibly. Everyone wants to have a good time, but remember that you're there for a purpose. Save the late hours and heavy partying for your vacation.

Follow up. When you return to home base, conduct reviews for those who didn't get to attend, as suggested above. You can also develop a simple event evaluation form to use as an objective tool to determine whether an event deserves a return visit. And don't hesitate to call back suppliers for demonstrations or even contact seminar speakers to clarify what you've learned.


Checklist for Trade Shows

- Plan ahead to determine the most relevant events

- Register early and make travel/hotel arrangements in advance to save time and money (see "Making Arrangements," below)

- Decide who in your organization will benefit most from educational programs; send multiple staff members if feasible

- Create a mission statement for your trip; let employees who go know that they're responsible for sharing knowledge upon their return

- Review the show program carefully upon arrival

- Follow up with suppliers or speakers after your return


Making Arrangements

Just about any paid conference offers lower prices for registering several months ahead of time. And if you plan on sending more than one person, some events (such as Club Industry) offer discounts for multiple attendees. Even if you're registering solely for the exhibit hall (which is usually free), get your badge in advance. You'll save time and avoid waiting in long lines at the registration counter.

Well-organized events customarily make discount arrangements with airlines to offer reduced prices to attendees and provide specially priced rooms at convenient hotels. However, there are always specific deadline dates to be met.