Trade Shows — Is it time to Reinvent them?


Trade Shows — Is it time to Reinvent them?

First, let me go in record saying that the IPI Show management, Kim, Bonnie, et al,  did a great job mounting their event. It was one of the best run yet. My problem isn’t with THIS show, its with these shows in general.

First lets look at it from the point of view of the exhibitor.

The typical scenario is that you spend a minimum of $10,000 (OK they guy behind us with two pieces of paper and a brochure may not have spent that much, but my guess is that my number is pretty close) and as much as $150,000 on a booth and what do you do.

1. You sit and wait for people to come by and look at your stuff. 2. You may hope to justify the expense to hold a dealer meeting or a sales meeting during the show. 3.  You leave with a bunch of leads. 4. You take your sales staff out of the field for a week. 5. You consume your company for a month prior to the show to put together a good appearance. 6. And in the end, what do you really get that you wouldn’t have if the show in this form didn’t exist.

I had a conversation with someone who is new to the US parking market and they noted that the "real" deals are done not on the floor but in restaurants, hotel suites, and demo rooms spread all over the neighborhood. What the successful vendors should do is set up appointments with potential customers that are coming to the show and spend one on one time with them, over coffee and cake, learning about their problems and explaining in detail just how they can help — something impossible to be done in the booth.

He said that trade show selling is a three part process, first you meet someone in the booth, then you call them back and confirm they are a truly interested, then you fly to their office and make a presentation and take it from there. "Why not start the process with the formal presentation/meeting at the show, develop the relationship there."

But to do that, you have to know who they are in advance. I’m not sure you don’t. Most exhibitors know their target market, they know their potential clients. If it were me, I would spend the six months prior to the show reaching out to them and setting up meetings at the show. It would reduce the cost of sales calls as the customers would be coming to you. Those that were truly interested could be parsed into small meetings where the "nitty gritty" of their projects could be discussed and resolved. After the show it would be "proposal time" not qualifying time.

Reduce the size of your on floor investment on your booth and fight for their attention at one on one events, not for their attention at the impossible selling situation at the show.

An example — I sell deck coatings — Why do I want to talk to the IT department at a local university? If I called a number of universities and cities prior to the IPI (That’s basically the demographic) and I found a dozen people who had deck problems, wouldn’t it be better to set up one one one events with them – Wouldn’t they be more impressed that I sought them out and wanted to work with them — rather than simply sitting in my booth and waiting for them to arrive?  You can buy the IPI membership list or receive it free by becoming a member. A few phone calls might get me some deals.

Of course you still have a booth to pick up the ones that you missed — but one person in that booth could qualify them and set appointments for focused meetings. Sure you have to work much harder before the show, but consider the results — One vendor told me he spent more time in the hotel lobby than on the floor. "That’s where the real business is done."

Ok, now what about the sponsor (in this case, the IPI).

The organizer spends a huge amount of time and energy, probably half the time they have during the year, on the event. They go nuts during the three or four months before the show, and begin planning the next one the day after. It seems to consume organizations. What is the goal of the event? Is it to have a first class trade show, to put on training sessions, to meet and go about the business of the organization, or is it all three, and can it be all three?

There are those who know how to put on trade shows, those who can mount informational events, and those that can hold a national meeting. Is it reasonable to expect all to be wonderful when done by the same group?  I don’t think so.

When we did the video interviews, we asked many attendees what they thought of the "content" sessions. To a person they had difficulty remembering which sessions they attended and what they were about. It was like they went there to satisfy a personal requirement, not to learn about parking "stuff."  Of course some were well attended, standing room only  — but I don’t know the size of the room. There were nearly 1800 people in attendance at the IPI, (exhibitors and attendees) and if 250 went to a session, what’s with that?

The exhibit hall ran smoothly, but it was the "same old same old." There was edible food, the requisite band so exhibitors near it couldn’t talk, ladies in Mardi Gras get up passing out beads, and booze in the afternoons. Where’s the sizzle? Where’s the steak? Are we putting on a party so people can network (a lot of that on the floor, but is there really –  I’ll get to that later) or are we trying to bring professionalism and training to the industry?  Does the organizer know?

As for networking — everyone said they came for networking — but aren’t they REALLY just meeting old friends and renewing friendships. Do people actually meet NEW people that can help them with their parking issues. How does a person from podunk college who may have a retiring personality actually meet and talk to the head of parking and transportation at Major University who is on the board of directors and has little time to talk?  Sure I can walk up and introduce myself to anyone, but its taken years of practice.

Show me the money. Of course the organizer wants to make big bucks. The show is a major income stream for the organization. Nothing wrong with that. But how much, as a percentage, does the organizer actually get of the millions that flow through an event such as this?  The costs would fund a small country.

They seem to scrimp on things that are important (air conditioning during the set up and tear down) and spend spend spend on things that aren’t (bands and bead girls during the exposition, mega bucks for a keynote speaker — Mineta was great, but was he worth and five figures he was paid)…Who are we trying to impress, anyway. Oh yes, I wonder how many more people would have attended if they knew that they could use a hotel not connected with the show and save $50 a night on their room rates. For the time our group were there it saved us a cool $1000. May be chump change to some, but not to us.

Yes, you get a "special" rate if you stay at an event connected  hotel (there were three and then four at the IPI) but that the "special" rate is usually higher than the normal rate you would pay if you just called up and made a reservation.

OK, what about from the point of view of the attendee?  Why are they there? When I asked that question, it was 1. The trade show  and 2 Networking. But where did they do the networking — on the trade show floor. So, if that’s the case, we have exhibitors who are there to show off their wares, and people who attend to stand in the aisles and talk to each other and not go into the booths.

So these 800 or so people paid upward of $500 each to come to Tampa to go to a trade show (that should have been free) and stand around and talk to their peers. Is this the reason for the last problem I see with most of these events:  The attendance is horrible.

The IPI attendance has been, for all practical purposes, Stagnant for the past decade. They get about 1000 exhibit personnel and about 850 to 900 attendees. Of course they tout the number at 2000, but lets face it, the exhibit personnel didn’t come to talk to their competitors, unless they were looking for a job.

The attendance peeked last year at a bit over 1000, but that was in Vegas. If the city is the draw, I wonder what its going to be like in Dallas (next year) or Denver (the year after). 900 people in an industry that has a minimum of 15,000 managers, senior managers, owners, and the like. Why don’t they come?

I think its because of time, money, and publicity.  Time (and timing) is important — The IPI trade show (that’s why they come, remember) is spread over three days, four hours on the first, day, seven on the second, and four on the third. An the first day is Sunday. So if you want to have a prayer of seeing the entire 175 exhibitors, you have to come in on Saturday and Leave on Tuesday night (probably Wednesday AM). Those that blasted in for a day were on a treadmill and frankly were of no use to exhibitors and they had no time to network.

The costs are high — They charge between $70 and $130 a day just to enter the exhibit hall, and if you want to register for the entire event (dinners, parties, all the sessions, etc) its between $500 and $800 bucks. And remember, that doesn’t count airfare, hotel, food, etc.

The key: Most come for the exhibits and the networking…

Publicity — No one outside the IPI hears about the event. There’s pull here.  For people to attend, many must budget a year in advance. Others simply don’t know about it. The organization promotes to its member and they get about 80 to 90% attendance, that’s pretty good (but a lot of those are exhibitors).  But remember, that’s only about about half of one percent of the potential. To grow this show, you have to reach out to non members. And you have to do it now. Not next July. The event needs PR, it needs sizzle, it needs to reach people who need its services.

OK, I know, from personal experience that its much easier to edit that it is to create. I can sit here and take  potshots all day long. But the facts are that if the IPI wants to stay its same size and have the same show year after year, they can do so. It will be successful and make some money and the membership will be proud.  But if it wants to grow the show and become a true mover and shaker in the industry, a paradigm shift is in order, and everyone must be on board — exhibitors, organizers, and attendees. We were told last year that the IPI was reinventing itself. There have been meetings and committees forming all year long. If that’s the goal, this event wasn’t a good start. It was a good show, a good event, but it had a sameness that looked backward, not forward.

OK, when is that planning meeting for 2008. I"ll be happy to attend, no charge.


Picture of John Van Horn

John Van Horn

5 Responses

  1. WOW! It was all I could do to get through this long dissertation. I think the conference deserves better. I was in the Exhibit Hall for 90% of the hours it was open and made several new contacts as well as caught up on industry gossip. I had many people stop by our booth to talk about the latest in lighting and automated parking facilities. I met 3 new automated parking vendors that I didn’t know existed. I was able to get educated on the latest parking equipment features (changes every year). Nowhere can I get such a comprehensive look at all the different vendors. Congratulations IPI on a great conference!

  2. Don:
    Thanks for your comment. I agree that the IPI did a great job — As I said in the first sentence. However I don’t agree that these shows, in general, are perfect. It is true that consultants can be educated at these shows, but I was concerned about the general thrust of the show vis a vis the cost of exhibiting and attending. If only 700 or 800 people attend the largest parking show in North America, I think its a problem. If a Skidata or an Amano or a Scheidt and Bachmann spend six figures to come to these events, do the really get value received?
    All organizations, the IPI included, need to rethink these big events.
    All the best

  3. John: I couldn’t agree more. The only one who could’ve said it better (or at least as well) is your alter ego (woof).
    Best regards,

  4. As a vendor, we have come full circle with the large display, smaller display, dinner parties, etc. We had to put a pencil to it and strike a happy medium that gives the best return on our investment and helps us bid low when needed. We were very happy with the contacts made at the meet-and-greet and the closing event as well as the booth traffic itself. The location, hotel, and event planning were great. We wish the power pitch hour categories had been more realistic, ie. there were no meters in the meter session, only pay station and cell phone payment people because they had no where else to go? We’re concerned that Dallas will be a poor draw, so the speakers and sessions will need to make up for that. Perhaps San Antonio or Baltimore would have been better?

  5. the same here i couldn’t agree more! they charges a lot for the entrances! they practicly are getting rich and richest

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