During a two-hour workshop with trainer, author and content marketer Kathleen Gage this week, I took more notes and learned more about small event collaboration for lead generation than I think I’ve taken in for years.
While it’s true I collaborate with other people, I certainly don’t do it at the level that I could. That was clear in this workshop. Frankly, the ideas Kathleen presented gave me a lot to chew over.
Think of a small event as one where you and some partners team up to bring a very focused target market together. This would generally a small group of anywhere from a few dozen to maybe a couple of hundred depending on your goals and scope of the event. The attraction to having people come to the event would be to have a few experts in the field share their knowledge. Show the value you offer, and if appropriate, make an offer during the event. It may or may not be appropriate.
Without giving away Kathleen’s secret sauce, the model for creating a winning event is to have a specific objective, determine what type of event will work, come up with a budget and assess your resources, find potential collaborative partners, and promote through media releases, email, phone calls, direct mail and more.
To me one of the key takeaways was to make sure that everyone at the event fills out an evaluation, where you ask the attendees if they are interested in a free consultation. During that follow up consultation, the conversation wouldn’t be focused on sales, but on determining if the potential client has a pain or a problem that you can fix. Only then would the actual sales conversation take place.
A few of the notes I jotted down during the event:
Create value before creating the offer.
Ask the right questions and get a better answer.
Disqualify people first – are they really qualified to do business with you?
What is your story? (Kathleen shared her story about her love of rescued animals – hence the pug photo!)
There is a difference between a “customer” and a “client.”
Until we create value, no matter what we sell, we are a commodity.
Get really clear on the type of client we really want.
As you search for your ideal client, look at your current clients: what are your common denominators? Kids? Pets? Sports?
Collaboration with partners using small (or maybe not so small) events can be a great avenue to growing your business, if done smartly and if the risk is minimized and spread around. Make it so that all partners have a lot to gain. It may not be like putting on a regular tradeshow, but a small private event can have a big impact, and I’m looking forward to exploring this whole concept with Kathleen further. Because, you know, in her evaluation she asked if I wanted a free, no-strings-attached consultation. I said yes.
What can you do to make your small company look bigger than it really is? And why would you want to do that? Perhaps you like the idea of being a small company, positioning yourself as a boutique company that specializes in working with a very specific type of client. A client that can afford to pay a little more for the personal service that you, as a small company, can provide.
Can They Find You?
Perhaps maybe the question isn’t that you should look bigger, but to make sure that the right companies are able to find you. It used to be that a prospective client would start to judge you on the size of your brick-and-mortar store. Then they’d gauge your ability to handle their needs. Sometimes a small neighborhood hardware store with personal service will serve a customer better than a big box store.
Back to the original question: how can you look bigger than you really are? And a secondary question: how do you attract the right customers?
Perception is everything, especially in a first interaction or first notice of a potential customer. What are they looking for and what do they find? I’m guessing that 98% of your potential client’s first interactions will be online, even they’ve gotten a referral. They’ll plug a search term in and click GO. They’ll look through the first 5 or 6 results, click one and spend a few seconds eyeing your website, if you were lucky enough to show up in the top half-dozen search results. If they have a name of your company, they’ll search directly for you.
One way to appear bigger – to show that you have a larger reach than companies bigger than you – is to blog. Consistently. Hundreds of people come on the TradeshowGuy Blog every month through random searches. The most popular are the ones that might surprise you. For instance, one of the most-viewed pages so far this year has to do with how a SWOT Analysis applies to tradeshows. Yeah, really. And over half of the companies that find that blog post are not from the USA. Another interesting factoid.
With over 700 posts in the past 9+ years, the search engines have archived them all, so random tradeshow-related searches will find them.
There are that many posts because years ago I made a commitment to post regularly and write about as many tradeshow-related topics as I could think of. The goal was to just do it (because I like writing and publishing) and see what benefits might accrue.
What about the page views of the TradeshowGuy Monday Morning Coffee vlog/podcast? While individual podcast posts aren’t in the top ten most pages, the category search of podcasts is in the top five most-viewed. Which tells me that while a specific podcast might not get a lot of views, people are searching the category to see what’s been posted recently. That tells me the podcast is gaining a little traction. Which also tells me that the time investment is worth it. Not only that, but each interview helps build relationships with those people, most (but not all) of which are in the tradeshow industry.
Someone asked me once if blogging, podcasting, publishing a weekly newsletter, posting videos on YouTube channel and spending time on social media actually gets me business. In other words, they’re asking if they should make the time and energy commitment to see if it gets them business? There is not a simply answer to that question. Let’s look at where business comes from. In 2016, 2/3 of our business at TradeshowGuy Exhibits came from people that found us online. In 2017, it was less than ten percent. In 2018, there’s not much to show on the bottom line (yet) as a direct consequence of people finding the blog and then contacting us to make a purchase or to inquire about a project. But when I do communication with people, either through cold calling, prospecting with people I know, or via email, when I bring up the blog or send a link to a pertinent blog post, the feedback is always positive. Especially when they see the depth of article on the blog with the number and types of posts (video, audio, photographic, lists, etc.).
Speaking of video, I’ve had a YouTube channel for almost a decade. In the beginning I had no idea what I was doing other than creating a few how-to videos and tradeshow advice and posting them. It wasn’t regular and not many of them were viewed more than a few dozen times. Although the first ever post has over a thousand view. In a sense, that’s still the case, although I do create a video version of my podcast and post it there as another way to get the content out there.
And that’s what all of that is about: creating content. Always. It’s not easy, but having done it for years, it’s not that hard, either. I just make time to do it.
Does the blog make TradeshowGuy Exhibits look bigger? In a sense, yes. So does the weekly podcast/vlog and the newsletter. It puts more and more materials out there online where searchers can find us.
Exhibit Design Search
Frankly, so does the Exhibit Design Search, which is a branded search tool that looks just like it’s part of our lineup of websites. EDS is the work of our main design and fabrication partner, Classic Exhibits, and we use it all the time. When we send some ideas from EDS to potential clients the reaction is often “Wow! I had no idea you could do all of that!” Aligning yourself with a company that offers such a great tool definitely makes us look bigger.
I’d add that using solid sales techniques, creating and executing a plan is part of the process of making TradeshowGuy Exhibits look or feel bigger than it might really be. I spent a year with Sandler Sales Training and picked up a ton of great ideas and techniques along with good strategy and a much better understanding of how buyers operate. Knowing how to approach people in a non-threatening way with an eye to understanding their needs has been valuable to the success we’ve had.
We also have a handful of other URLs that are used for various purposes. For example, TradeshowSuccessBook.com is a landing page that offers a free digital download of my first book in exchange for subscribing to my newsletter. TradeshowSuperheroes.com is a book-specific page solely for the purpose of promoting and sharing info on my second book. TradeshowExhibitBuyersKit.com is a landing page to promote a package of tools we put together aimed at potential exhibit buyers (as you might imagine!). And TradeshowGuyWebinars.com is a collection of webinars we’ve put on at TradeshowGuy Exhibits.
If you’ve followed me for any length of time, you are probably aware that I’ve been active on social media from the very beginning. That happened because I like to play with new toys, and social media seemed like something fun to play with. I’ve bounced back and forth from Twitter to Pinterest, from YouTube to LinkedIn, to Instagram and Facebook and back. It’s a great to engage with people, share opinions, point to blog posts and podcasts, and to see what other people are up to. I’d rank the usefulness and effectiveness by putting Twitter on top, followed by YouTube, then LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest. But that’s subject to change!
Making the Clients Look Good
Finally, what’s important to me is that when we deal with clients and prospects, we want them to know a couple of things: when you work with TradeshowGuy, you’re almost always working directly with the head of the company. And secondly, we want you to know that our success is tied directly to yours. If we make a company’s tradeshow manager look good to their boss by doing a great job, by providing an excellent service, by designing and fabricating an exhibit that gets extremely positive feedback, we’ve done our job. If we make you look good, we feel good. By standing tall when it comes to delivering great products and service, no matter our size, we look gigantic to our clients. It’s as simple as that.
Another Monday, another TradeshowGuy Monday Morning Coffee! This time, I sit down with Entrepreneur and Profitability Consultant Thor Conklin. We discuss a number of things, including micro-commitments, execution killers and how he move forward after losing a third of his team on 9/11. Thor also hosts the Peak Performers Podcast.
If there’s one business lesson I’ve taken to heart in the past forty years, it’s this: do the work. I can’t tell you how many times I tried to find shortcuts along the way, during my 26 years in radio and my subsequent 16 years in the tradeshow industry. Shortcuts are attractive. They dangle an easy solution to you. One that makes you believe that there is an easy solution to a complex, challenging problem.
But shortcuts rarely work. Sure, there are many ways to cut time off of tasks. Many ways to revise and improve a system so that you can get more done. But shortcuts? I have yet to see a good shortcut that really accomplishes something effective.
Last week I saw a post on Instagram from an acquaintance that is building a guitar. I got to thinking about what it takes to build a guitar, so I headed over to YouTube and watched a couple of videos on guitar-building. Not that I’d ever really build a guitar – that would be cool, though, and who knows, I might! – but I was curious about the process.
The point is: there are no short cuts to building a good guitar from scratch. You have to not only know what you’re doing, but you have to be pretty good at the steps. A beginner could look over the shoulder of a pro and follow the steps to a T, but the guitar probably wouldn’t be as good as the pro’s. As Seth Godin observed in a recent podcast, don’t worry about the end result. Instead, focus on the craft of being able to do the work – do the steps. Learn to be a good carpenter. Learn what it takes to measure and cut wood. Learn how to shape wood. How to paint. How to install electronics.
It’s the same in any endeavor. One of my main focuses in my daily business life is sales and marketing. From the time I started in this industry in 2002, I was tasked with bringing in more business, which is typically a combination of sales and marketing. I tried so many different things over the years: emailing, direct mail, advertising, cold calling, going to shows, you name it. There is no short cut. There is no Magic Button to create new clients, to make more sales. In time I resigned myself to the tasks needed to bring in more sales and concentrated on them. During a year of sales training with Sandler, I learned to not worry about the outcomes, to not worry about the results. Learn the steps, learn the techniques, and the results will take care of themselves. In other words, learn to do the work. Better yet, learn how to correctly do the work. If you do the work incorrectly, you’re still doing the work, but your results will not be what they will be if you do it correctly.
I’m a big believer in lifelong learning, so I always keep my radar up for better ways of doing things. Also – and this comes from experience – my BS detector has gotten better over the years. I used to follow every shiny object (looking for another shortcut!), but now it’s pretty easy to know what’s BS and what is good, solid information worth paying attention to.
Where do you stand on the meanings of the terms exhibit vs. booth vs. stand? For years after my entry into the industry in 2002, I was under the impression that a booth was an exhibit and an exhibit was a booth. Since then my take on it has become a little more nuanced. I don’t think I heard the term stand for years.
According to Exhibitor Magazine’s online glossary page, a booth is an “area made up of one or more standard units of exhibit space.” Given that a typical unit is 10′ x 10′, that could mean a booth could be any size: 10×10, 10×20, 30×40, etc.
Exhibit on the other hand, is oddly, not listed in the glossary. The specific term exhibit is a little harder to track down. Some glossaries don’t even list that single word as a descriptive term. Freeman’s listing mentions exhibit booth as an “individual display area constructed to display products or convey a message.” So we’re getting a little closer.
Pulling your hair out yet?
The Freeman listing for booth looks like this: “a display designed to showcase an exhibitor’s products, message and business ideas.”
IExhibita.com has no listing for booth but says that an exhibit is “a display used to convey a message. A specific tool of the communications medium of exhibiting. Also EXHIBIT BOOTH.”
Insta Worldwide Group doesn’t have the single-word booth mentioned in their glossary, but they do say that a “Bis “the amount of floor space assigned to and occupied by an exhibitor.”
So what about the term stand? It’s common in Europe, and doesn’t get much mention in the USA. But does it mean booth as in floor space or exhibit as in the actual fabrication and elements sitting in the space?
Again with the hair-pulling. Oh, wait, I really don’t have much hair to pull.
Exhibitor Magazine says a stand is a European term for booth. The Insta Worldwide Group glossary says a stand is “an area made up of one or more standard units of exhibit space. In U.S.its called a booth.”
Now let’s add one more term to the mix: display. It’s not an uncommon word in the industry, and is often used interchangeably with exhibit, booth and stand. But if you look for a description of the single word term display, you won’t find much. Search for tradeshow display, however, and you’ll have hundreds of exhibit houses and brokers eager to sell you one.
So where do we stand? Oh, sorry. Where do we end up?
My two cents:
A booth is the space that an exhibitor rents from show organizers.
An exhibit is the actual thing that gets set up in the booth space.
A stand will only bite you in Europe so don’t worry about it in the USA.
A display, to my mind, is a smaller exhibit, perhaps an accessory such as a banner stand, or maybe a back wall. But you won’t go wrong if you say you want to set up a tradeshow display. Or a tradeshow exhibit. Or even if you want to set up a tradeshow booth. People will know what you’re talking about.
I couldn’t sleep last night, so I sat up and jotted down a few thoughts and observations from what I’ve seen in the past 17+ years in the tradeshow industry. I got to thinking about the exhibition industry, as it is often called, from both the exhibit-production side and the exhibitor side. What things do I observe in seeing how other exhibit companies work? By reading industry periodicals and staying in touch with industry colleagues?
There are thousands of exhibit companies competing for your business. They all want a fair share of business available from companies that are looking to upgrade or replace old exhibits. The industry supports a lot of very big companies, as well as a lot of companies that work with just a handful of loyal clients.
Profit margin for exhibit companies is substantial but there’s a very good reason. Things cost a lot. There is a lot of labor cost. Without substantial markup companies couldn’t survive for long. I don’t have enough information on other industries, but I’m told that the margin in groceries, for example, is razor thin. Same for gas stations. What they don’t make on the margin still makes them a good amount of profit due to the sheer volume of products they sell.
Yes, you can find lower cost items and companies willing to provide lower cost service but at what cost in quality and service? If you shop around to find the lowest price, are you giving up a warranty or guarantee, or are you trading a few dollars for an inferior product?
Some exhibit companies have large spaces and large staffs. Massive overhead means they need to keep developing new business and selling more things to current clients. I’ve seen those up close and understand that the pressure to produce can be immense.
Smaller companies such as TradeshowGuy Exhibits still need to generate profit to survive and thrive but are not driven to the levels as the bigger companies.
From a “making more sales” standpoint, there’s no one single thing that is the magic button to generate sales for exhibit companies working to drum up more business. I’ve talked to numerous sales account executives at different sized companies and they all say about the same thing: sales are hard to make, there is a lot of competition, no one thing works, so they all do a combination of what you might expect: phone and email prospecting, advertising (print and online), meet and greets at tradeshows, and networking groups. Some are more creative than others, some more persistent than others, some more organized, and so on. But they all love it, because they like making their clients look good when the exhibit is finally set up.
Lightboxes (aluminum extrusion silicon-edge fabric graphics) can be a bit tedious to set up, but damn, they look sharp.
From the Exhibitor side
Many companies seem to be somewhat naïve about how the industry works. Shipping, logistics et al are almost like a black hole mystery box. There is a world of moving stuff around from the warehouse to the show site that many people rarely get involved with. Those that are involved are always looking at ways to shave dollars. And to a person, I hear them say, “tradeshow stuff just costs a lot.”
Most companies don’t have a sense of how much things cost and how much extra cost will be added along the way. Think drayage, Installation & Dismantle, shipping, graphic design and printing.
Many companies fail to take advantage of all of the various steps: preshow, postshow, staff training, in booth activities, social media, etc.
More and more companies I work with are hiring labor to setup and dismantle their exhibits. I find that of exhibit crews, about one out of three is a real pro and knows exactly how things work. One out of three know pretty well what they’re doing. And the third hired hand is usually there just for his willingness to schlep heavy things around – and you hope they do what they’re told. I also find that many crews assume that with a simple glance or two at the setup instructions, they know how it works. Often it does. But I’ve seen a number of occasions where a lot of time could have been saved if they’d only read the instructions in greater detail. Time wasted on a tradeshow floor is expensive.
Growth can happen quickly with tradeshow marketing. Many companies I’ve worked with over the past few years have seen substantial growth and are regularly increasing the size of their exhibits. As Bob Moore of Bob’s Red Mill famously once said, “Tradeshows have opened doors to markets that we would not have otherwise been able to open.” Or something like that – but you get the idea.
Opportunity abounds in today’s tradeshow marketing world, but it’s easy to lose $$$ if you make a misstep. Larger companies with deeper pockets have a natural advantage, but that doesn’t mean they are always doing the best they can. Smaller companies with few dollars can still use tradeshow marketing to attract people to their booth with creative marketing, great interactivity, attractive exhibits and more – and still crack open doors to new markets. Which leads to more growth (see the previous paragraph!).
For those companies that do get involved in tradeshow marketing – and certainly not every company does – they spend roughly a third of their marketing budget on tradeshows.
From the Personal Side
I’ve been in the industry since April 2002. It took years for me to get used to the industry and a few more to like and then love the industry and thrive in it. I came from the radio industry, which from a sales standpoint, moved very quickly. Yes, there are deadlines which don’t move and keep you on your toes in the tradeshow world, but it’s not like the radio world where a sales person could come in and need something to be written, voiced and produced and on the air within the hour. Which happened frequently. My first impression of the exhibit world was that things moved at a glacial pace. Boy did that take some adjusting!
Ever since I was a kid I wanted to work for myself. That radio thing was great for 25+ years, but in the back of my mind I was trying to figure out how to be my own boss. When I entered the tradeshow exhibit industry on a fluke when the radio industry changed, I was still working for someone else. It wasn’t until the owner of that company retired and I was thrust into the unknown (ever try to find a good-paying job in your mid 50’s?), I figured it was now or never. I’m still surprised by how well it worked out. There’s no guarantee, of course, but for now it’s good.
I can do marketing, blogging, podcasting, prospecting, phone calling, meeting people at shows and following up regularly – and yet when it comes time for a company to purchase a new exhibit, it seems no matter how much I try to stay in front of people, it’s easy for them to go elsewhere. Again, back to that magic button: how do you manage to stay in front of a decision-maker so that you’re there at the exact time they need you? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?
One way to differentiate myself was to write. Starting as a blogger in November 2008, producing ebooks and more, and finally writing a pair of books (Tradeshow Success in 2015 and Tradeshow Superheroes and Exhibiting Zombies in 2018) was my way of doing that. I couldn’t tell you how much it’s contributed to my success or helped make sales, but I like giving the book away to potential clients – and hey, a few even sell on Amazon now and then!
Another way to differentiate myself was to go back to using my radio skills. First as a guy who knew how to record digital audio and post it on our company website (anyone remember Real Audio?), and then as a podcaster on this blog. And of course, video is a gas, as well. My viewpoint is that the more real you are, the better chance you have of making a personal connection with someone who wants to do business with you. That’s always been my philosophy. Share who you are, what you like, and how you do things. In today’s world, making a personal connection is a way to get ahead.
Most of my blog posts are about the industry: how to do things, what works and what doesn’t, what’s new in the tradeshow world and so on.
But I rarely get personal on this blog. It’s not necessary, but on occasion it is kind of fun for readers to see who’s behind it all. Given that, I thought it would be worth it to explain exactly how I got here, and how I run my business.
I spent 26+ years in the radio industry as a DJ, Music Director, News Director/Anchor, Program Director (and more), but as the industry changed (technology, mainly), I found that positions in the industry were getting squeezed, and a lot of talented people were having a hard time finding a spot. I loved radio – still do, in fact, as a volunteer doing a weekly two-hour reggae show on KMUZ in Salem – but to make a living in radio just wasn’t feasible anymore unless I wanted to be a gypsy and take my small family with me to where the jobs were at any given time. No thanks, I like Oregon and want to stay.
The Exhibit World is a Thing?
As to how I got to the tradeshow world, I literally stumbled into it. With two young sons, I was working as an assistant manager trainee for Hollywood Video, when a family friend’s wife saw me at the checkout counter.
“What are you doing here?”
“Training to be an assistant manager!” I said proudly (biting my tongue and crossing my fingers behind my back).
The next day her husband called me.
“I have an opening for a sales position at my exhibit company. How would you like to talk about it?”
Exhibit company? What’s that?
“Sure,” I said. Couldn’t hurt. Might even be interesting.
We sat down a couple of days later and chatted for an hour. Ed Austin, the owner of Interpretive Exhibits, talked about the exhibit industry – both interpretive and tradeshow – and how their small company fit. As the hour drew to a close, Ed Austin, the owner of the company, offered me the job.
“I didn’t really plan on offering you a job at this point, but you have good people skills, a lot of other good skills, and we can teach you about the industry.” His offer doubled the money I was making at Hollywood Video, so it was a no-brainer. Exhibit industry, here I come! Hollywood Video, by the way, was a victim, like Blockbuster Video, of the revolution in streaming video.
Learning the Exhibit World and Changing Careers
For the next several years, I slowly learned the exhibit industry. The biggest cultural shift and change to my daily work was the fact that in the exhibit industry, compared to the radio world, things moved slowly. Glacially. In the radio world, I’d get an order to write and produce a handful of commercials, due in a day or two. Three or more days if I was lucky. Once you got the order submitted, you had to jump on it. Or in the case of news reporting, it was non-stop. You were always hopping to find the next story, or to get the latest on a story that was active.
I found that in the exhibit industry, though, especially when it came to interpretive exhibits, there were usually a lot of parties that needed to chime in on something. Once a discussion or meeting was complete on a topic, the next step was usually weeks away before anything was due.
Weeks! Sometimes a month or two, before the next step was due, and the various parties had to chime in. I couldn’t believe it. I was so used having to jump, it took a long time to adjust to the glacial speed at which interpretive projects unfolded. In a sense, I found it boring, because I was always looking for something for my ADD brain to do (more on that later).
We did projects for the Army Corps of Engineers, National Forest Service, Oregon State Parks and many other government and non-profit agencies. An earlier salesperson had ended up selling a large exhibit to a large corporation, and the company knew there was business to be had there, but frankly, corporate work was foreign to the management. They were used to going onsite to a muddy natural area and chatting with like-minded people. They were not used to putting on a nice sport coat and meeting potential tradeshow clients.
Which became my task: find some tradeshow clients. Sell some tradeshow exhibits. Get on it.
What’s VP of Sales and Marketing Do?
After a few weeks at the company, it came to my attention that the company website sucked. Given my need to have something useful to do (I knew almost nothing about sales at that point), and since I had put up a handful websites, I offered to at least oversee a makeover of the website. Which I did, which they loved. And with the title of VP of Sales and Marketing, I was given free time to do things other than just sell exhibits. I also knew that I needed more information on the industry, so using my radio skills, I set up interviews with industry consultants, writers and experts. The interviews were recorded and posted on the website (this was before podcasting was invented – I just found a way to embed the audio). I also wrote articles based on things I had learned and posted them on the website (again, this was before blogging software found its way into the world).
I eventually compiled about an hour worth of recordings and created an audio CD which I gave away, calling it something like Inside Secrets of Tradeshow Marketing. I put it on the company site for something like $79, but where it was really useful was giving it away to potential clients (complete with a $79 price tag).
The First Exhibit Sale
As for tradeshow exhibits, I had a friend at Kettle Foods in Salem (employee number 8, I think), and asked if they did any tradeshow marketing. Turns out they did. Turns out they were shopping for a new one. We made a pitch, and they spent $25,000 on a 20×20 custom exhibit that made its debut at Natural Products Expo West in 2003. Ed told me years later that the $25,000 job cost the company about $40,000, so it was a money loser. But we kept showing it off and it kept leading to new clients, so I figure it paid for itself many times over.
In any event, we were off and running.
The Kettle Foods exhibit led to a connection with Nancy’s Yogurt (10×20 custom), Hyland’s Homeopathic (10×20 custom, which was designed, fabricated and shipped in 35 days flat, I kid you not!), and Bob’s Red Mill (custom 20×20). We did a custom 30×70 for local spa manufacturer Marquis Spas. We did exhibits for Mountain Rose Herbs of Eugene (still one of my favorites), BioKleen of Vancouver. The most interesting sale I made, though, was on a flight back from DC to Portland. I was catching a connection in Denver, and the woman next to me ended up sleeping most of the way back from DC to Denver. As we were coming in to Denver, she woke up and we chatted a bit. I asked what she was doing in DC and she said she had been at Expo East. I had too! I told her what I did, she took my card, I got hers, and a short time later we did a new custom booth for Natracare, from England, but with American HQ in Denver. It proved to me that there are opportunities everywhere if you keep your eyes and ears open and aren’t afraid of piping up.
Somewhere along the way, an old radio friend has asked me what I was doing now. “I’m in the tradeshow world!” I told him. He said, “Oh, you’re a Tradeshow Guy, eh?” Somehow that name stuck. In late 2008, I was curious about the new whiz-bang online publishing platform of blogging, and started TradeshowGuy Blog, just wanting something to play around with and as a creative outlet. It’s been going ever since.
The Coming End of Interpretive Exhibits
The recession in 2008/2009 did a number on the tradeshow exhibit building world. Many companies that we knew of in Portland closed. Others consolidated or downsized. Interpretive Exhibits’ secret weapon, I thought, was that we were small. We managed to keep a handful of people on salary and bring in the fabricators when projects warranted.
But Ed was nearing retirement, and in 2010 told us that he would close the company down in 2011. Which he did on July 15, 2011. My last day at Interpretive Exhibits.
What next? Another Career?
Not really knowing which way to turn, I thought I’d keep in touch with some old clients while I collected some unemployment, took some time off, and looked for another job. Which I figured I would get at some point.
But it never happened. Being in your mid-50s and looking for a new job is not a fun exercise to say the least. And along the way, I did have some previous clients order some new things. Not a lot, but enough to make me think that I should stick with this entrepreneurial thing.
In the meantime, prior to Interpretive Exhibits closing down, I had teamed up with Roger Pike, an old radio friend in town. We had shopped ourselves around as public speaker trainers and social media consultants. We got a couple of clients, the biggest of which was a local employers association that hired us to do a twelve-week training for their presenters. This was in Roger’s wheelhouse (not mine), as Roger was (and is) a great public speaker and former college public speaking champion. Lots of fun, but as time went on I kept putting more of my energy into selling exhibits (which was about to turn more profitable), and eventually left the consultancy with Roger behind.
That’s because in 2012, Bob’s Red Mill decided that their current 20×20 was going to be phased out and would I be interested in helping them do a new 30×30?
Of course. I contracted designer Greg Garrett, whom I had known while working at Interpretive Exhibits, and had him create a design. Once the design was approved, I shopped it around to three fabricators, and Classic Exhibits in Portland ended up getting the job. Even though they were known as more of a modular ‘kit’ builder, they were stretching their wings and were hoping to become more known as a custom builder. This project suited that desire perfectly and they did a fantastic job on the booth if I may say so.
That job convinced me that I could make a go at owning my own company. Roger Pike and I had called our company Communication Steroids, figuring that it was clever enough and descriptive of what we were doing. I named my exhibit company Communication One Exhibits, not that clever or descriptive, but what the hell, I thought.
Over the next few years, 2011 – 2014, I did a couple of larger projects, many small ones and kept the mortgage paid and the mouths fed. And I found I was having fun working for myself. In fact, I really liked it.
By late 2015, I had mentioned to Mel White, VP of Business Development at Classic Exhibits, that I didn’t like the name Communication One Exhibits, and he suggested I use TradeshowGuy Exhibits, since I was the TradeshowGuy online anyway! After a little thought and discussion, I did away with the old name and brought in the new one.
I kept looking for ways to generate more leads, make connections with prospects, and show off my growing expertise in the industry. I had done a handful of speaking gigs, both while with IE, and with my own company, and while I liked it, none of it lead to any significant new clients. I finally put my head down and finished a book that I’d started on at least three times. The book, Tradeshow Success: 14 Proven Steps to Take Your Tradeshow Marketing to the Next Level, came out in late 2015, and I immediately used it as a ‘business card’ with potential prospects. It didn’t automatically get people to buy, but it was certainly something that almost no other exhibit house or exhibit salesperson could offer.
In 2015, I went back to doing webinars on a regular basis, even securing the URL TradeshowGuyWebinars.com. I did them monthly, but after a year decided that I wanted to do a more regular podcast, which led to the TradeshowGuy Monday Morning Coffee which launched in January 2017. My goal was to just BE THERE on a weekly basis, to talk about things that interested me in and out of business. I’d have guests, but the guts of the show didn’t ride on having a guest. I’ve had a lot of guests (you really should browse this blog to find them!), they were all terrific and had fun stuff to share. But I have as much fun putting short podcasts or mini-films together, too, when it seems right.
In 2016, I felt my sales skills – which had grown a lot since my entrée into the industry in 2002 – needed some help. I had joined Tip Club in Portland, a networking group run out of Brad Kleiner’s office in Wilsonville. Brad was a Sandler Sales trainer, and after learning more about what and how he taught, I joined his President’s Club weekly 2-hour sales training group for a year. Best sales training I’ve ever run across, and it gave me a great set of tools on how to prospect, uncover pain, close and service the deal. Rejuvenating!
Another item had come up a few times – the use of the name TradeshowGuy. Once someone asked me if I had trademarked it. Uh, no. I looked into, and found it surprisingly easy. And pretty reasonably priced, too. It took several months, but in late 2017 I got confirmation that the trademark went through. So yes, it’s registered now. I’m officially TradeshowGuy and the company is known far and wide as TradeshowGuy Exhibits.
As we reach the middle of 2018, I look back and see that I’ve been running my own business for seven years now, and it’s doing better than ever. It’s not easy, it’s not predictable, but it’s been rewarding and fun. And I really do work at it. I like working with clients – that’s probably the most rewarding thing, seeing their reaction to a brand-new exhibit that will go out into the public and represent their company, products and brand. Great feeling.
Who knows how far this thing goes? I figure if I can get another seven years out of the business, I’ll consider closing it down. After all, I’ll be 70, and may want to do other things. But hey, I still jam on my guitar, still bash my drums regularly, do a fair amount of hiking, bicycle riding and walking. I’m planning to live to be 120, so I have a way to go, amiright?
Since social media has become such an integral part of today’s online world – what would you do if you had to withdraw from Facebook, Instagram or LinkedIn? – I think the approach to how it is effectively used has changed. And it comes down to a number of factors. I’ve been thinking recently about how my use of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn – and to some extent, YouTube – has changed over the years. Thought it might be fun to spend a little time going over that here.
Let’s start with a recent change. When I first got onto Instagram, the name TradeshowGuy was in use, so I picked TradeshowExpert and moved on. Last year, in the process of registering TradeshowGuy as a trademark, I looked again and discovered that TradeshowGuy was no longer being used on Instagram, so I grabbed it. Figured the more accounts I could get with that handle, the better. I use the TradeshowGuy handle on Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. And have my eye on at least one more.
Back before we called it social media, we called it “Web 2.0,” which as a usable term was doomed from the start. I had heard about Facebook, and joined on June 1, 2007, when there were just over 20 million users. Yeah, I know, right? 20 million!
For years, I had just a personal account with Facebook, but eventually created a number of organization pages, including TradeshowGuy Blog on Facebook. I tend to not post a lot to that page, because it’s never gained much traction, with only 355 current followers. My newsletter automatically posts to the Facebook TradeshowGuy Blog page, and a few other items, but it’s lagging in my attention.
I joined Twitter on November 19, 2008. That’s when I first used the TradeshowGuy handle. It’s one month before I first posted on this blog. The first blog post came about when I interviewed Magic Seth for an older podcast that I was currently doing. The podcast was very random, with no rhyme or rhythm. Twitter took a little getting used to. Today on Twitter I jump in and out, and admit it’s my most-used platform. I’ll frequently use Hootsuite to schedule about 3-4 daily tweets, focusing on a mix of promotion of blog posts, videos, podcast, products and some totally random fun stuff. When I’m “live” and not putting out scheduled tweets, they usually are a mix of personal photos, retweets, links to articles I’ve found in and out of the tradeshow world and things that just interest me. And of course, when people respond or like tweets, I try to acknowledge them with an upbeat response. I also admit that when I just want to zone out and scroll through some social media feed these days, Twitter is my game of choice. It edged out Facebook a couple of years ago.
I signed up for a LinkedIn account on April 17, 2006. LinkedIn is a good platform for engaging with connections and entities and people you follow, and for letting people know about new blog posts, podcasts and videos. Engagement is modest, but it seems to be consistent. To me it’s all about presenting yourself as a likable, easy-going person (because that’s what I feel I am!) and avoiding religion and politics. In today’s fractured tribal world, I’ve found through experience that if you post a strong political opinion it can blow up in your face. And it’s typically unpleasant. For that reason, I stick to business.
Instagram, being a visual medium, is also great for business and personal. Given that the account has the TradeshowGuy handle, I do tend to toss a lot of business related photos up, but certainly not exclusively. My friends and family know me as TradeshowGuy, so it works both ways. And as I learned a loooong time ago, you really can’t keep your personal life and business life separate, no matter how hard you try.
The YouTube Tradeshow Marketing channel is used (almost) exclusively at this point for posting the video versions of my podcast. I do use it for other types of videos, but only sporadically. I took a look and see that my first video was posted November 2, 2008, right around the time I started this blog, got on to Twitter and more than a year after I joined Facebook. I am a little surprised that the first video has over 1,000 views! You’ll also find how-to videos, and some fun stuff in there as well.
Pinterest is my least-used social media platform, and I think that’s a bit of a shame, because when I do go there, I like it quite a bit. I occasionally will add pins to the various boards I have, many of which revolve around technology, music and movies and other fun things. I have noticed lately that there are almost 6,000 views of the various pins I have, so maybe I should spend more time there! But in my experience, creating new pins by uploading photos is a bit tedious, which is probably why I shy away from it.
Overall, while I’m still pretty active on social media, I’ve pulled back from my busier online days of 2010 – 2012. In fact, back then, this blog focused solely on blog posts about how to use social media with events, conferences and tradeshows. After a ton of articles with just the social/event focus, I opened it up again to the wider world of tradeshows and events. I think social media is important, and when I’m at an event, I’ll make sure to post a least a few things on a handful of platforms. I’ve found that Twitter is the go-to for most event-goers, and Instagram is a strong second. It’s easy to include hashtags, easy to share, easy to search, and generally a cleaner look than Facebook.
What about video? I use pre-recorded video regularly on the vlog/podcast, as you probably know. But here in 2018, live video is how a lot of people roll. You can hardly go a day or two without seeing some famous person such as Gary Vaynerchuk or Peter Shankman doing a live video on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram. I’ve done a handful, but my preference is recorded. Live video is fun, but it’s not really in my wheelhouse, and unless I’m on the road and have something interesting to talk about, I’d rather not just do live video of me, you know, having breakfast or something. Like some other people! But I expect I’ll do more live video as time goes on.
The most important online real estate you can have as a business, whether small or medium, is a blog. With all of the other platforms, you don’t own the platform. Rules can and do change, and those changes can have a big effect on how people find you or interact with you. And if you do something against their rules, you can find yourself closed out of your account, and you have to fight to get back in. Doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. With a blog, you are leasing a service which hosts your blog, but you own the content, and you control how it looks. Does it work? Yes, to a degree, but blogging and using social media doesn’t automatically bring new business in. In 2016, fully two-thirds of my company’s business came from people that found me online. It hasn’t been that significant since then, but to me, being out there on social media, and regularly creating content on a blog is one of the best and cheapest ways to be found online – and when people are ready to buy, they go looking for someone that can solve their problems.
Engagement is Key
The bottom line to a successful social media program is to understand three things: realize that it’s a never-ending task, that you have to be yourself – even if you’re representing a company brand – and that you have to engage. That means responding when people comment or ask questions. And don’t wait a day or two or a week. Respond as close to real time as you can.
I think we all approach time management skills a little differently. For instance, I don’t think much about it beyond blocking time out for prospecting calls on a near-daily basis. I set goals on a weekly basis, and have deadlines for those goals, such as at least two blog posts per week, and getting the weekly podcast/vlog produced in a timely manner.
Mixed into that are tasks that come and go depending on current projects. If I have a handful of clients all preparing for the same show, I have a tracking sheet showing the status of each project and remaining tasks, and a timeline for those tasks.
There are a number of things I’ve learned over the years that seem to work for me. What works for you? There are hundreds of thousands of pages online that can show you various approaches to time management, but for me it boils down to the following items.
Goal setting: what do you want to accomplish and when do you want to get it done?
Prioritizing: get the top two or three most important things done early in the day and the rest of the day opens up to a lot more. Prioritizing also means removing things from your task list that shouldn’t be there; things that can either be left undone or delegated.
Self-motivation: this gets to the heart of why you’re doing anything. Why do you work? Why do you exercise? Why do you eat what you eat? What motivates you? We all have different reasons for getting out of bed, for working, for taking time off. If you happen to be self-employed, your motivation is going to be different than that of the person going to work who may depend on a different kind of motivation to keep on task.
Focus: Twitter? Facebook? Chatting with a friend online? Making a phone call in the middle of trying to write an article? Responding immediately to an email that pops up? All of these and more can distract you from the focus you have on any given task. I’ve read that if you have a couple of hours of work that needs to be done with great focus, plan on working through it in chunks of time. Set a timer for twenty minutes. When it dings, take a short break to stretch, go outside, grab some water – whatever works best for you – and then get back at the task. And keep that up until that specific piece of work is done.
Decision-making: in a busy work environment, we are all often pulled in several directions. Should you help someone else? What meetings should you attend? Which task is first today? Decision making is part of prioritizing, but it can quickly move into an area of having to decide what fires to put out.
Planning: plainly put, planning is the ability to see all that needs to be done during the foreseeable future and creating a plan that fits. The foreseeable future can mean looking five or ten years ahead, or it can mean looking a few days ahead.
Delegating: I mentioned this a little earlier, but if you have the ability to delegate or outsource some tasks that you really don’t need to do, this can free up your time.
Keeping good records: sounds simple, and it is. If you know how to find things quickly, you waste little time looking around. They say a cluttered desk is the sign of a genius. If everything is within arm’s reach, that might work best for you. But others find that keeping an uncluttered desk or workspace works best. What works best for you?
Patience. Or maybe the ability to see the bigger picture. Yes, I’ve certainly been caught up in trying to get a large amount of work done under deadline (don’t we all at times?), but if you have patience enough to see how that piece of crazy work fits into the overall picture – the 30,000 foot view, as it were – you will realize that not only is the craziness temporary, but next time something similar arrives, you’ll have the perspective and the patience to get through it with a lower amount of stress.