What is an INFLUENCER? To me it’s someone that gets your attention in any number of ways. It could be a video I saw. Could be a book or article or blog post. Or podcast. Or someone I know in my actual, real life as opposed to online.
These are the people whose tweets I read, whose podcasts I listen to, whose blog posts I read, whose newsletters I make sure not to miss. They write and say things that make me sit up and pay attention.
These are listed in no particular order. Some I’ve been aware of for years, others not so long. Some that were influencers ten or fifteen years ago may have popped back into my consciousness to make the list. And in a sense, it’s incomplete because it will always be incomplete. Influencers come and go. The ideas, writings and videos that catch anyone’s attention also wax and wane like the moon. But to me, these are all worth checking out:
Seth Godin: Daily blogger, host of the Akimbo podcast, speaker, author.
Mel White: VP of Business Development at Classic Exhibits. Mel and I have known each other for close to a decade and a half. His insight and knowledge of the tradeshow world, and in particular the latest in tradeshow exhibit materials and trends has always been helpful. Not to mention his crucial help in making both of my books a reality. Here’s his TradeshowGuy Monday Morning Coffee interview.
Lots fun in this week’s podcast/vlog. Robert Middleton of Action Plan Marketing sits down to discuss the Five Pillars of Marketing for Self-Employed Professionals. So there’s that. You’ll also hear the story of how a search for a Harlan Ellison photo led to an article on Frank Sinatra which, well, you’ll just have to watch or listen.
On the podcast you’ll hear me tell the story of how, in looking for a couple of old photos from the 80s. It was when author Harlan Ellison did a book signing at Powell’s Books in Portland. I put on my sport jacket and headed down with a couple of items to have him sign.
Not every tradeshow manager faces the same challenges. Some are overwhelmed by being understaffed. Others have a boatload of shows to deal with and it seems as if there is never a breather.
But in the work I’ve done over the years with tradeshow managers, the same handful of issues keep coming up as being significant challenges:
Logistics: there are a lot of moving parts in tradeshow marketing. Shipping and I&D (installation and dismantle) make up a big part of those logistics. Add to that shipping product samples, getting everyone scheduled for the show and the booking a convenient hotel and many other bits and pieces and handling the logistics of tradeshow marketing is often outsourced. That’s one reason why at TradeshowGuy Exhibits we are taking on more and more logistic coordination for clients.
Exhibit Brand Management: keeping the booth updated from show to show. New product launches, new services and more means that the exhibit needs to be updated for upcoming shows to reflect that. It’s common, but the timeline sneaks up on people. In a sense, the challenge here is coordination between graphic designers, production facilities and making sure all items get done prior to the booth crates being shipped out.
Company Growth: Many companies we work with are doing very well. But that means moving from small pop-up type exhibits to more complicated exhibits with light boxes, custom counters and more – all of which ship in larger crates and would be set up by hired EAC’s (Exhibitor Approved Contractors). All of this change means that the person handling the shift is moving out of their comfort zone. They face a lot of choices around whether to hire installers, how to package the exhibit for shipping (crates vs. a handful of plastic molded cases, for example), and more.
Getting Good Results: Exhibitors who don’t get good results complain that tradeshows are a waste of time and money. Yet other exhibitors at the same show rave about how great the show was, how many new leads they made and new contacts they came away with, and how many sales were closed. So what’s the difference? Frankly, many exhibitors don’t prepare or execute well. Tradeshow marketing is not rocket science, but with all of the moving parts it’s easy to let a few items slip through the cracks. And those missing items can make all the difference between success and failure.
Budget: It costs a lot of money to exhibit at tradeshows. For companies that do tradeshows, the amount invested in tradeshow marketing is about a third of their overall marketing budget. Making all of their tradeshow dollars stretch as far as possible is an ongoing challenge faced by all companies. For a long list of ways to cut costs at tradeshows, check out this webinar.
Other challenges include booth staff training, record-keeping, keeping track of your competition and other items, but if you can keep these few items under control, you’re doing better than a lot of your fellow exhibitors!
It’s a good question to ask: how much do you delegate for tradeshow success? Most clients I deal with have someone in charge of the overall tradeshow project. Maybe they’re a Marketing Manager or Tradeshow Manager, or some other title such as Business Development Director. Most of them work with a small team.
Which means there is a certain amount of delegation and collaboration going on. Multi-tasking may be something that people try, but research tends to show that too much multi-tasking leads to less success. How do you walk that fine line between doing too much yourself as someone in charge of the project and just telling everyone else what to do, in essence leaving little for you except overseeing the project? Maybe if you’re a control freak you find it extremely difficult to give control over an aspect of the project to someone else – but you gotta learn how to do it! One of the challenges of doing it all yourself is that while you may have control over everything, there’s a chance that the standard of work will slip.
The good thing, I suppose, is that there’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ answer. Teams are different sizes, members have different skill sets and experience.
When it comes down to it, there are a handful of items to consider when managing a team for a tradeshow project.
Know Your Team
Many marketing teams we work with at TradeshowGuy Exhibits have an assortment of methods of getting the job done. For example, some teams outsource graphic design. Others outsource shipping and logistics. Some keep all of those things in-house. Most will hire an exhibit house for the final exhibit design and fabrication if it’s a new project, but the remainder of the tasks will often lie elsewhere. If it’s another show with your current exhibit, but a certain amount of updating needs to take place, it may not be as time-consuming and involved, but it still has to be done right.
Communicate Clearly and Often
The lack of communication is one of the biggest downfalls of collaboration and delegation. When a task is delegated, make sure that both parties are in full understanding of, and in agreement of, the specific tasks assigned and the deadline under which they must be completed. Even though you may have an in-person conversation or a phone call, I always recommend that a short email be created that details the tasks – if nothing else, in bullet points. There should also be an expectation that if problems, issues or challenges come up, that those will be brought to your attention as soon as possible. Like one of my old bosses once told me: “Bring me good news as soon as possible. Bring me the bad news even quicker.”
Know What to Delegate
Some items on the project to-do list will need approval from management for them to be completed. Other items will be less demanding. Since you’re in charge, it would make sense to keep the highest-skilled tasks to yourself, and the ones that till need buy-in and approval from management. Many tasks that go to other team members will also need instructions, especially if they’re new to your team. It may seem obvious to you how something is done, but if you’re assigning a task to someone, make sure they understand how it’s done – and how to know it’s done correctly.
Feedback is a Two-Way street
Once the project is complete, give feedback. If your team has done well, publicly thank them for the work and hand out genuine praise. But if some of them have come up short, let them know that as well. I’ve heard it said that you should “praise in public, criticize in private.” It’s a good approach. And make sure that all of your team members are free to offer their thoughts on how you’re delegating: did you give instructions that were clear? Did you make sure the right people got the right tasks, etc.?
Since we made the decision to exhibit at a regional cannabis show in January, the PortlandCannabis Collaborative Conference at the Portland Expo Center, we’ve been tossing around a lot of ideas on how to approach it. Thought it might be fun to share some notes about what is crossing our minds regarding the show.
First, the Cannabis Collaborative Conference is a relatively small gathering. Around 125 – 130 exhibitors will set up shop for a few days, January 22 – 24, 2019. There will be two days of conferences, breakfasts, lunches and networking. And of course, exhibiting! In discussions with Mary Lou Burton, the organizer, it was apparent that a number of companies that are not directly involved in the cannabis industry exhibit at the show. There are companies involved in banking, insurance, legal, energy reduction, marketing and more. Given that the show is pretty popular, and the industry is growing, we felt it was a good fit to invest in exhibiting at the show as a potential supporting marketing partner of companies in the cannabis industry that do tradeshows.
Now that the decision has been made, what to do?
As any tradeshow planner knows, it all revolves around budget. From booth space, to travel, from the exhibit itself to giveaways and more, budgets must be decided upon and hopefully adhered to.
At first blush, our budget for the show will be modest. Here are some thoughts on what we might do for our 10×10 space – #420. Yes, we’re in #420.
Exhibit: Lots of things to consider. After all, we have access to a lot of styles of exhibits, from pop-up graphic back walls that set up in seconds, to aluminum extrusion framed light boxes, to typical 10×10 exhibits (rental and purchase) to banner stands and more. The first thing that comes to mind is to do a big back drop (maybe even a light box with fabric graphic) with a large striking image, company name, maybe a few bullet points. I’ll work with a professional designer for this – I ain’t a designer.
Giveaways: of course, I have a couple of books that I’ll either giveaway or sell on the cheap. The organizers have said I can sell the books at my booth (some shows direct sales are not allowed, so I checked). We might also come up with some branded swag. If we can find an item that really makes sense for the show that is a good giveaway, we may do that.
PreShow Marketing: the organizers gave me a list of some 2500 people that attended the last show. While it might be helpful to reach out to them via email, our interest is more in the exhibitors – they’re our target market. We might do a couple of email blasts to the group to let them know we’re there and what we do. Email is cheap. Direct mail is probably not a great option, mainly due to the cost. But, even if the attendees aren’t exhibitors, many of them are retail shop owners and are potential customers for other items we can supply. Since I’m active on social media – and especially with the booth number 420 – you can expect that we’ll have a lot of fun both before and during the show promoting both the show and our booth space.
During the show: one thought is to make the rounds at the other exhibits at the very outset of the show opening and invite them to come to booth 420 to pick up a free copy of my book while they last. Once they’re there, we’d be ready to capture their information for follow up. And I think it’s always a good idea to have some sort of thing to do – some interactive element – which bears more thought.
At this writing the show is still 182 days away – half a year. And most of these thoughts and notes on what we’ll do is just that – incomplete ideas. Still, I always tell clients that when a show is a half a year away, THAT is the time to be slowly creating the ideas, talking with team members and getting the juices flowing so that as time goes by they will coalesce and become more concrete until they become a plan that can be executed.
Stay tuned! And if you’re planning to be in Portland in mid-January of next year, put this show on your calendar and come see us!
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.
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.
Got a tradeshow appearance coming up, but aren’t sure how to exactly get people to come to your booth? Maybe you’re tried emailing people, or spent a lot of time leading up to the show and during the show pitching things on social media but aren’t getting great results? It doesn’t mean that you aren’t doing it right – there are a lot of reasons why things either work or don’t work – but one thing that doesn’t seem to be used a lot these days is sending out snail mail promos to get prospective tradeshow visitors to your booth.
So let’s create a list of seven items that you should consider sending out, in order, prior to the show. Keep in mind, this will cost more than email. In fact, depending on the things you send out, you might kick up a pretty noticeable budget. But for argument’s sake, let’s say you’ve got the budget and want to really get people’s attention.
A NOTE: This will take quite a bit of planning and coordination. You’ll need to sit down with a graphic artist, your product development team to know what new products will be launching, perhaps an outfit that coordinates mail promotions – lots to think through, but I think it’s worth taking a hard look at how this may unfold and get a lot of people excited to come to your booth. I mean, snail mail! Pull it off right and you’ll have a lot of folks looking forward to coming to your booth.
Postcard Teaser Number One: Send this a few months, say 14 weeks prior to the show. On the postcard, do a “Save the Date!” tease, with the dates, times and location and bare bones information about the tradeshow, including your booth number. Nothing more. Just a teaser.
Postcard Teaser Number Two: Send this one about 12 weeks prior to the show. Change out the “Save the Date!” verbiage with a little more information. Be sure to include the details (show, dates/times, booth number, etc.), but add some more information. If you’re launching new products, tease that. Doesn’t mean you have to give away all the information, just let people know that you have X number of new products that they’ll be among the first to know about if they come by your booth at the show.
Send this about ten weeks prior to the show. It’s more than a postcard, this could be a flyer or letter that does the basics (show dates/times, booth number, new product launch, etc.), but invites them to go online and answer a 2-question survey for a chance to win something. OR…you may invite them to go online to a specially created landing page where they can sign up for an appointment with one of your representatives. The purpose of this email is for your prospect to consider making some sort of commitment to come to your booth.
Postcard Invitation to Pick Up a Gift: Send this eight weeks out from show time. This is one you can have a lot of fun with, but you’ll want to be careful as well. You might approach it this way: tell your recipient that you have a limited amount of branded tumblers or some other nice special gift – but the only way to get one is to either be one of the first 100 people by the booth on day one OR they can confirm an appointment and you’ll reserve the gift for them. Work with your promotional products expert to come up with something that fits your budget and also the number of guests you suspect might be able to make that commitment, depending on the size of the show.
Postcard reminding them of EVERYTHING: Send this just six weeks from the show. Tease your appearance, the new products launching, their chance to get a great prize if they book an appointment or are one of the first 100 to the booth.
Postcard or Flyer: Send this a month prior to the show. if you have a new exhibit that you’re going to show off, let people know that it’s going to be special. In fact, you might send out a teaser image (3D rendering or photo-in-progress) showing off a part of the exhibit.
Postcard Reminder: With just a couple of weeks to go, send out your last piece of snail mail. This could be a reminder or the various things you’ve already sent. If you’re planning to be active on social media, include mentions of all of your social media platforms and include any special hashtags that you’ll use during the show. If you’re doing a social media promotion, include that here.
This is a mere outline with a handful of suggestions. Get your creative juices flowing and figure out what items you can promote to get people to visit your booth. Maybe someone from your company is speaking or participating in a panel. Maybe you want to try some form of the “glove” promo where you send out a single glove and tell the recipient that they can get the other one if they come by the booth. There are literally thousands of things you can come up with that can be used in conjunction with an active, well-thought-out and well-executed snail mail marketing program that’s specific to your upcoming tradeshow appearance.