I first got into the tradeshow industry as a fluke. I’d spent over 25 years behind a radio microphone, barely aware that such a thing as tradeshows existed. Sure, I went to local home and garden shows now and then, or the state fair where vendors put up cluttered 10’ booths to hawk their goods. But the idea of a large tradeshow industry with thousands of regional and national shows drawing tens of thousands of visitors was foreign to me.
I was between jobs, as they say, when I got hired as VP of Sales and Marketing. “You have good people skills; we can teach you the rest.” It was a small company. When it came to the idea of spending a large amount of money to set up a custom tradeshow exhibit to promote your business, well, I didn’t get it. Could it work? Sure. Would it? I was doubtful.
First Client: Kettle Foods
But I forged ahead. My first client happened to be a local company where I had a connection: Kettle Foods. We designed and built a 20×20 custom exhibit that they used for several years at Natural Products Expo West. They gave away a ton of potato chip samples, got great responses and told me that the new exhibit went over extremely well.
Kettle Foods lead to a referral to Nancy’s Yogurt, which lead to several other clients over the next few years. But I was still unsure of how effective the whole idea was. And while I was getting good responses from clients, to me it appeared only anecdotal. When I looked closer, I was seeing exhibitors meeting partners and clients, giving away samples, launching new products and feeling pretty good about it. But were they really getting good results?
Bob’s Red Mill
Then came Bob’s Red Mill. When I first met their marketing team, they had a smaller in-line exhibit that was mainly an off-the-shelf modular exhibit with fabric walls. Typical of the time, around 2005. We designed a custom 20×20 exhibit that they liked, and they were off and running. Shortly after that, I saw Bob Moore, the iconic Bob of Bob’s Red Mill, quoted in a Business Journal article saying that without tradeshow marketing they could not reach certain markets. By regularly exhibiting at tradeshows and meeting new distributors and partners, they were able to expand their markets, which helped grow their company beyond just the northwest part of the country.
When My Eyes Opened
That’s when I finally got it. Tradeshow marketing was helping our clients reach markets they could not otherwise reach. By investing in tradeshow marketing and setting up a nice functional and attractive exhibit that fit their brand at a national show, companies were expanding their markets and selling well beyond their original footprint. Which is why the conversation with clients and potential clients often looks at that angle.
Several clients have also told me that the very fact of having a larger and more effective custom exhibit that fits their brand is bringing them a two-to-four-times increase in their leads at each show. Two to four times! They’re telling me it’s just because of the new exhibit, but I suspect that the act of getting a new exhibit tends to focus the rest of the effort and the marketing team. They instinctively know that investing in a new exhibit property means putting a lot on the line, and the additional effort and focus on making that investment worthwhile adds to the overall success. The new exhibit is key, but the sense of urgency and commitment pushes the team to greater heights.
Why Companies Fail, and Why They Succeed
There are so many moving parts in tradeshow marketing, it’s easy to let a few of the critical pieces fall from your clutch. That’s one of the reasons I wrote two books about tradeshow marketing: to help exhibitors better understand the tasks at hand. I’ve spoken with many exhibitors who have essentially given up. They’ve spent a ton of money and have nothing to show for it. I can see why they’re skeptical of the process and the outcome.
Tradeshow marketing should be a part of an overall integrated marketing plan. They need good products or services, good branding, good customer service and everything else that communicates a positive message to their market. But I’ve seen evidence that many more exhibitors are doing the right things (or enough of the right things while still making mistakes) to make it worthwhile. Done right, a tradeshow is still the best place to reach a focused group of decision makers and influencers from companies that are in a position to make a buying decision. And done right, using digital assets such as videos and photographs after the show can “keep the show alive” long after the hall has closed.
My skepticism is gone because my understanding of the process has increased, and my experience at working with exhibitors has changed me enough to believe that tradeshow marketing can be an extremely effective way to reach markets that you would not otherwise be able to reach.