One of the booths I visited at last month’s NAB Show in Las Vegas was Time Lapse Cameras. They had done a good job of outreach with a couple of press releases and the follow up back-and-forth emails – and the fact that this type of tech appealed to my inner geek – I looked forward to visiting them.
Which lead to an eventual chat with Josh Banks and Marie Ferguson of TimeLapseCameras.com for today’s TradeshowGuy Monday Morning Coffee. Add to that the fact that they came away with one of the NAB Products of the Year, well, it made for a fun conversation to learn more about their products:
Check out more from TimeLapseCameras.com here:
And this week’s ONE GOOD THING is the trailer from the upcoming Terminator movie:
Having never attended the National Association of Broadcasters Show in Las Vegas, I did not have a full grasp of the scope and size of the show. And once I was walking the floor earlier this week, it still took a few hours to fully comprehend how freaking big it is. There are nearly 2 million square feet of exhibiting space in 13 halls separable by movable walls.
Over 90,000 attendees showed up along with over 1600 exhibitors to see the latest in video and audio tech in all its glory: broadcast and cable TV, sports, podcasting, radio, lighting, cloud services and much more. It was all there. And it was overwhelming.
The biggest takeaways? As an old radio guy who started his career by playing single 45s on a turntable, I can safely say: we’ve come a long way (mentioning those 45s to the 20 and 30-something folks staffing the booths also was a good way to bring forth those puzzled looks along with a hesitant chuckle – yeah, I know I’m old).
Video is huge, as are the gigantic video walls, which seemed
to adorn nearly one out of three booths. Quality is impressive. Cameras are
going up in quality as the price creeps down. Seeing and playing with 8K
cameras showed attendees what the working video world will be working with soon
if they aren’t already.
Audio production, and in particular, the production of audio
in conjunction with video, is a really big deal. Avid’s booth featured a large
screen displaying how they mixed the music that was a part of the Oscar-winning
Bohemian Rhapsody. Also there were the Oscar winners, who sat on a panel discussing
Visitors also could partake in training on a large scale:
Adobe, Avid, DaVinci Resolve and many others were doing full-on all-show-hours
in-depth training on their latest products.
From an exhibit standpoint, I also saw something I’d never
seen before: many video camera and monitor manufacturers built set and had them
populated with stand-in actors. The idea was to give visitors a chance to put
their hands on the various cameras and zoom and pan and see how everything worked
under conditions that replicated what they’d find on an actual set.
I also saw at least three stationary cars equipped with cameras to film actors as they drove. One exhibitor went even further: behind the car there was a large video image of a road as if the car was moving. On the right and left were more screens with similar images. And for the coup de grace, a large video panel suspended over the entire car which simulated the movement of the sky, reflections of streetlights and more. An actor need only sit in the car and everything else is captured in one take, with little post-shoot work needed.
Lots of international exhibitors, including Europe and China, Korea and Canada among the more prominent. It seems pretty common that exhibits from China and Korea will set up exhibits with walls that enclose much of the space. I don’t see that as much from US exhibitors, so my hunch is it’s a bit of a cultural thing. I also don’t think humor passes easily from culture to culture. One exhibitor from China had a McLaren automobile on display (wasn’t really sure of the purpose, but it certainly looked sharp). As I was talking to one of the reps, I joked that maybe they should raffle off the car at the end of the show. All I got in return was confused look. Hey, I thought it was funny!
Exhibits were impressive from the big companies, and many of
the smaller companies also had a good look. Although as in any show, you always
see the smaller companies in the 10x10s around the edges of the main floor
struggling to be seen or to even have something worth seeing. The most
impressive things seen in the smaller booths were the company’s product lit up
with LED, or something moving that catches the eye.
Esports had its own section, showing off gamers and gaming.
We know that gaming has become a multi-billion dollar industry and if you
search for esports competition, you’ll find a lot. There were panels and
competitions taking place in the section, but frankly, since I’m not a gamer,
it didn’t hold my interest that long. However, my 18-year old son probably
could have spent all of the show in this area and it wouldn’t have been enough!
The tech that supports radio, tv, cable and Internet was
also displayed throughout the halls. Not being a tech guy, much of this was
over my head, but impressive nonetheless: network, audio, video controllers;
studio design and audio and video production boards, facility infrastructure,
transmitters, processors, automation software, captioning AI, streaming,
scheduling, logging, transcription…you name it, somebody was here promoting it.
I talked to well over a hundred people about the show, how
it worked for them, how it helped create leads, sell their products. Most told
me it was a great show for them. Several said this show in particular was the
one show that gave them most of their good leads for the year for them to
follow up on.
But not everyone agreed. One woman I spoke with said she’d been coming to the show for thirty years, and it’s not the show it used to be. One comment she made totally threw me. She said the “little Sony” booth wasn’t impressive at all. My jaw dropped because I’d been at the Sony booth (probably around 10,000 square feet) earlier in the show and determined it to be one of the top exhibits there, going so far as to walk through the booth for a minute or two shooting video to capture it all. But no, she said, “Sony used to take up a third of the hall!” She said that the networks (CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS) don’t send the people they used to, and the few they do send spend all their time behind closed doors in meetings, and don’t get out and mingle on the show floor like they used to. So her market wasn’t there to the extent they used to be. I found her perspective fascinating: no matter how much evidence you see to support one view, there’s always another view that’s just as valid.
I caught a couple of events on the main stage: opening day, NAB President/CEO Gordon Smith (and former Oregon senator) gave a keynote and ended by awarding MASH actor Alan Alda the NAB Distinguished Service Award. Alan sat for about 15 minutes after the award to chat about his career. I also caught the next morning’s panel, Tales from the White House Beat, featuring Smith chatting with ABC’s Cecilia Vega, NBC’s Hallie Jackson, CBS’s Steven Portnoy and PBS’s Yamiche Alcindor as they shared stories and insight into covering the Trump administration.
I was invited as a blogger which made me a member of the media, so I felt a bit of kinship with these professional journalists. I’ve been in radio news teams, hosted talk shows and been behind the microphone for decades, and it was great to hear the stories they told.
Lastly, a shout out to these folks: Josh at Time Lapse Cameras, Kent at Sharp Electronics and Suzy at FeiyuTech for their time and information. They reached out and invited me to check out their latest. Time Lapse Cameras has, as you might imagine, some great little affordable time lapse cameras which can be used to record any number of things from construction to exhibit setup and dismantle. Sharp showed off their new 8K cameras which are out later this year, and FeiyuTech demonstrated a new action camera, the Ricco, along with a handful of three-axis gimbals and other assorted goods for the video camera market. All good stuff and thanks for having me!
Naturally, your eyes will be on several different things when you are walking the tradeshow floor. And your agenda will be different as an attendee vs. an exhibitor. But if you keep your eyes open, you can spot a lot of cool and interesting things on the tradeshow floor.
The first day of a tradeshow, when the doors open for the first time, the first things you’ll see as you walk through the floors is how bright and clean everything is. Hundreds of people, maybe thousands, have been working for days to put on their best for you and all of the other attendees.
When you walk by a booth, look for the brand and image. Is it
well-represented? Are people smiling and greeting you, but not pushing themselves
on you? Are they asking good, engaging questions that make you stop and
respond? Are they trying to catch your eye?
Is their booth made from sustainable materials? Can you
tell? Is that part of their message – that they are a company dedicated to
being as ecofriendly as possible?
Also look to see if they have new products. If they have
samples, are they easy to reach? If they have demos, do they look easy to engage
with? If they have a professional presenter, is it obvious that’s the case and
is there a schedule for the day’s presentations easily available?
Is the booth crisp and clean and sharp? Or do you see ragged
edges? Is the carpet spotless and brand-new looking? All of these things
suggest something to you and help determine what your impressions of the
company will be.
If the company is giving away promotional items, is it
obvious? If they have some sample-like things on display but are not for giveaway,
is that spelled out? Are they looking to collect business cards in a fishbowl?
What is their lead capture strategy? Are they talking with
people, or just engaging enough to scan a badge, thinking that is going to be
Later in the day, or on the second or third day, look for
places where the booth might be fraying, where garbage might be piling up,
where personal belongings are spilling out of a storage area.
Look for stories. People engage with stories and the companies
that best tell their stories will be the most memorable. What stories are the
exhibits and their products and people telling?
Look for teamwork. Is the booth staff operating as a team,
or do they just seem to be….there? Are they dressed in identifiable same-color
tees, for example, or are they just in typical work clothes? Can you tell who’s
a staffer and who’s not?
If you can walk the floor and make mental notes on day one,
digest what you see, try again on the last day of the show when people are
almost in their “bug-out” mode. Things will be mighty different!
The exhibit halls at the Natural Products Expo West closed Saturday at 4 pm. By then, exhibitors were handing our their remaining samples, packing up things they could and getting ready to grab flights home. The last day of a big show like this one is always a bit different. Not as many attendees as the first couple of days (although still very busy), which left staffers with a little more time to chat in a relaxed mode.
Which is a great opportunity to meet people. Which I did. Even though I was pretty much dead on my feet by mid-day, I kept pushing through, knowing the end was in sight. I spent some of the day checking in with all of our clients that we had scheduled for dismantle the next day to make sure paperwork was all in place. Things don’t move in a tradeshow without the right paperwork!
Saturday started early by assisting in the dismantling of a new exhibit for a new client, Hop Tea, from Boulder, Colorado. They were set up in the hot new products section of the Hilton Ballroom, which meant that their exhibiting schedule ended a day earlier than the main halls in the convention center. I’m told they won a Nexty Award for new products, and their business – less than a year old – is off to a quick start. Glad to be able to be a part!
By the end of the day, I was done. Beat. Exhausted. So it was back to the Airbnb for a relaxing night, the only one of my 6-day trip. Friday night it was fun to spend nearly two hours at the Oregon Business gathering at McCormick and Schmick’s near the convention center. It’s a gathering that has happened for several years, and is designed to show off Oregon products from companies that may not necessarily be exhibiting at the show. Food and libations and good conversations flowed.
Sunday morning it was the dismantling. I was overseeing the takedowns of five booths by Eagle Management, which has proven to be a good partner: resourceful, efficient and generally quick to get things done. My job was mainly to make sure things were happening in a timely manner, and taking care of the paperwork: shipping BOL’s, printing shipping labels, etc. I admit I find it fascinating to see the before and after (and the during) of big shows. Once the show is over, hundreds of union workers come in and dismantle things quickly. It’s a helluva sight, really. Even though our truck was in line to pick up crates by the check-in time of 8 am, they weren’t able to load freight and leave until after midnight. Crazy, I know. Yes, it’s a busy show and hundreds if not thousands of trucks are all in a queue awaiting their call.
Overall impressions this year? It seemed busier than last year, if that is possible. New Hope usually posts their press release with exhibitor and attendee numbers within a few days of show close, so it’ll be interesting to review this this week.
From the list of exhibitors I visited last year, 25-30% of them were not at this year’s show. Big shows like this are expensive, and not all companies are ready to hit the big time and try to connect with thousands of buyers, brokers and retailers. That doesn’t keep younger, smaller companies from trying, though. Often the difference between success and failure at this level is having and executing a good plan, no matter what type of exhibit you have.
Later in the week, I’ll post photos of our clients at this show. Meantime, here are a few more clicks from the last day or so of Expo West:
I shouldn’t be surprised, but every year when the full exhibit floors are open, I am still a bit astonished at how many people are walking the floors. With over 80,000 attendees, Natural Products Expo West is a huge show. Not as big as the Consumer Electronics Show, but still mighty big.
So I spent the day walking, walking, walking and then walking some more. 19,221 steps according to my Fitbit! One major goal of the day was to make sure all of our clients were taken care of, so that meant making a stop at Target for requested supplies from a couple of them. Later in the day another client asked if I could track down a stapler, so after a few back-and-forth texts, another client was willing to lend their. I love when everybody helps out!
The second major goal was to drop by and say hello to exhibitors that I’ve met previously. As you may know, I’ve published two books on tradeshow marketing (here and here), and they are great calling introductory cards to start a brief conversation. Having been attending the show for almost two decades, lots of them recall me from previous years, so it’s good to reconnect, if only briefly. My main question to them is “how is the show going this year for you?” and 95% are very positive. One person said they weren’t coming back next year – they are just not getting the audience they want. The complaint is that the attendees in their booth were either other exhibitors or brokers and not retailers, which is what they want. I understand that not everyone has a great experience. I checked my list from last year and found that about a third of them are not here this year. From my perspective (anecdotal, not backed up by any data), there is a lot of turnover. But companies are still chomping at the bit to get into the show.
Since I’m Oregon-based, I lean towards finding Oregon or Northwest exhibitors. Many of them see me year after year, so even though we may never do business, it’s always good to make a brief reconnection. No selling, no pitching, not even a hint. Conversations usually revolve around (again) how the show is for them, and how their business is doing. So many businesses that I speak with are growing quickly, expanding product lines, and occasionally expanding their exhibit space. So I know that the industry as a whole is doing very well.
Over the years it’s been interesting to see some of the things that pop out and get your attention. A couple of years ago I couldn’t turn more than 90 degrees without seeing another bone broth product! This year, I see a lot of CBD-related products. I also see a lot of oat milk and keto-related products as well.
I’ve probably made this observation before, but it’s hard to walk the show floor without eating a fair amount of food. Most exhibitors offer samples, and many are literally pushing them on you. A bite here and a bit there, and after a couple of hours, you’ve had the equivalent of a meal. And it’s all (well, almost all) really good!
Let’s close out today’s diary with a few photos of some of the exhibits at the show. Backlit fabric graphics are still popular, as are eye-catching one-of-a-kind items in booths. Exhibit designers never cease to impress me with ways to capture eyeballs, communication messages in a 3D format and attention to detail.
Seeing “backstage” at any tradeshow lets you peek at the chaos of what it takes to put on the show. Backstage at a huge show such as Natural Products Expo West, with over 3500 exhibitors, multiplies that by several factors.
But when you’re personally involved in coordinating and executing the setup of a handful of exhibits for new and veteran clients, it can be exhilarating, exhausting and patience-testing.
But we pulled it off!
We are glad to introduce a handful of new clients this year, including Wildbrine, Organixx, and Hop Tea. We also did a new 10×40 project and coordinated the setup for a veteran client, Schmidt’s, and coordinated the setup of others, including Wedderspoon Manuka Honey and Dave’s Killer Bread. A long-time client that goes back over a dozen years, Hyland’s Homeopathic, finally shed their fabulous but aging Koa wood exhibit for a striking single plant photo blown up to 20′ x 8′. Crazy. Watch this space and our Twitter and Instagram accounts for photos of these and other exhibitors at Expo West.
We knew going into the show that there were opportunities for things to go sideways. That’s not abnormal in the tradeshow world, but this year it seemed to be multiplied. Due to the design and fabrication timeline of many of our new clients, and the coordination of incoming flooring freight from one of our vendors, we ended up shipping most of the new builds straight to show site. Not something we usually do. But it meant that many of the trucks carrying our freight spent hours in line getting crates unloaded. And of course, our last project of the two-day setup day, Schmidt’s Naturals, we weren’t scheduled to start setting up the exhibit until 3 pm on the day before the show opens. Which lead to a crazy chaotic dance with the freight logistics manager getting crates delivered in a timely manner (they weren’t, even though we could see them out the back door of the convention center for a few hours prior to them being delivered).
But as they say, all’s well that ends well. Once the crates were delivered, our crew jumped on the installation and cranked it out in about three hours, pretty impressive given that it was a new 10×40 exhibit with a lot of lightboxes.
Kudos to all of our partners: Classic Exhibits, who designed built most of our new projects (Schmidt’s, Wildbrine, Organixx); TimbrandMoss, who designed and built the Hop Tea exhibit; Eagle Management (and Stacy, our account executive who was relentless in working to make things happen in a timely manner); Brumark, who printed the custom flooring for two exhibits and provided flooring for another; Orbus, who printed the high-quality backdrop for Hyland’s. I also want to give out a shoutout to all of the GES folks I encountered along the way, who were exceedingly patient and proficient and made things happen very quickly.
While this seems like a lot, at least to me, I can only assume that other exhibit houses with many more clients are experiencing the same things on a much larger scale. Having said that, it was pretty substantial for us and helps start what we hope will be a great 2019.
From celebrity promoters to next-level artificial reality adventures, trade shows are becoming less about selling and more about experiencing. And that’s by design, as trade show trends shift with culture at large. Today, there are two big trends influencing the marketplace: 1. Consumers, especially millennials, are becoming more minimalist. 2. Simultaneously, consumers are shifting their spending away from goods and more towards experience-related services, says management consulting firm McKinsey.
Because trade show trends mirror what’s going on in the rest of the marketplace, the best event marketers are those who are totally tuned in to the buyer’s needs right now. To create effective trade show displays in 2019, you have to very closely understand what buyers want, what they expect and what will entice them to stop and take notice of your booth in a sea of competitors. Here are some of the ones we’ll be able to bank on this year.
It’s All About Immersion: Trade Show Experiences
The basic booth and table will no longer do. In today’s sales landscape, marketers need to stand out by creating displays that quite literally draw visitors in. The goal is to achieve effective narrative marketing by removing the consumer (not literally, of course) from the convention center and taking him or her on an exciting journey that elicits emotion. This can be done in many distinct ways, but some of the best are the ones listed below.
Artificial Reality—Companies in the tech space have been incorporating augmented and virtual reality components into their event displays for a couple of years now, but things are starting to really ramp up in this space. Experts are already predicting that AR will overtake booths at the world’s biggest tech trade show, CES 2019, with displays highlighting new AR products (especially non-wearable AR, like smart mirrors) and also helping to sell non-AR products using interactive, immersive demos and presentations. Experiential Design—Experiential design, though broad, vaguely refers to the art of creating spaces that provide some sort of experience. Often, this means taking a small corner of a convention center and transforming it into a totally different place entirely, like a store, a playground, an art gallery or a hotel room. For example, logistics giant FedEx recently showed up at the China International Import Expo with a giant airplane mock-up at the center of their display, while other big-name brands have developed full-blown store experiences at this year’s retail conventions. Multi-Sensory Experiences—In addition to the brightly colored backgrounds and banners that please the eyes, the coolest new displays have begun to incorporate elements that appeal to all other senses as well. Visitors will be able to jump into full-blown tactile, auditory and gastronomic experiences at this year’s trade shows, with big sounds, sights, smells and flavors to experience. Designers are also beginning to invite show-goers into exhibitor’s spaces to play and explore, with instruments, toys, seating areas and gadgets to try. Everything Brand-New—The 2019 Global Consumer Trends report published by the market research company Mintel gives us some fascinating new info on the latest consumer behaviors. The report showed that consumers are more adventurous than ever—they love to travel alone, experience new places and order foods they haven’t tried before. At trade shows and in other marketing sectors, we can expect to see an uptick in the new, fascinating, unusual and intriguing.
Appealing to the Consumer: Getting Crafty
To understand trade show trends, you have to understand what your audience wants. Most buyers at industry events are professionals with purchasing power (in fact, 81 percent of those who attend have some kind of buying authority), but they are also consumers who get giddy at the thought of fun, new experiences. You can bet that you’ll forge a positive brand image when you go for some of the ideas below. Shareable Elements—It doesn’t matter where they go, consumers look for “shareable” spaces and experiences that would contribute to nicely encapsulated social media posts. In 2019, we can expect to see many more booths creating special “photo ops” for show-goers to share to social media. This is great news for the marketer, as it offers more opportunity for building brand recognition and creating a positive presence across social. Special Guests and Performances—Take a look at some of the biggest conventions and trade shows for 2019 and you’ll see a lineup peppered with celebs. Last year, we saw big-name celebs like Tina Fey, Jamie Foxx and Spike Lee gracing the stages of big industry events, and this year’s no different. Look out for actors, musicians, change-makers and entrepreneurs beefing up the speaking agendas of the biggest conferences in tech, music and marketing. Everything Ethical—Again, trade show trends tend to mirror what’s going on in the greater consumer economy. Now more than ever, buyers care about patronizing eco-friendly, responsible and ethical businesses and will quickly alienate the ones who are less focused on corporate social responsibility (CSR). We’ll certainly see more brands in 2019 highlighting their CSR efforts in the trade show market, including through more eco-friendly displays and demos. All Things Personal—The personalization train hasn’t slowed yet. In fact, it’s primed to pick up some speed this year. As you probably know, buyers are gravitating to more personalized products and experiences across all industries, and this should be applied to trade show marketing, too. We can expect to see the most success coming from booths that create a personal experience by offering one-on-one staffing and personal engagements.
Paying Attention to the Consumer Market
As you can see, the most important thing about trend-spotting in the trade show world is trend-spotting in the world. If you can identify some of the key drivers of the greater market, and you can implement them into your trade show display strategy, you’ll be well on your way to a hefty return on investment from your event marketing efforts.
As a wanna-be 70s hippie I follow the evolution of the legal cannabis industry with great interest. Not because I don’t use it so much anymore, but I’ve always felt that the use of marijuana – or as its getting to be known – cannabis – should be a personal choice, and government shouldn’t be locking people up for simply using it. I figure if the state allows alcohol as a social drug, it has no valid argument to disallow cannabis. But politics aside, it’s a fascinating industry.
Now that cannabis is legal across much of the country, with more states (and countries – Hello, Canada!) to follow, the first thing you’ll be seeing is much more data coming out. For instance, I ran across an article which shows that the method of cannabis consumption is changing. In the old days, you’d roll a joint. Maybe you’d bake some bud into a batch of brownies, and hope you ate the right amount. But now there is data showing that people are smoking it less and eating it more or finding other ways to consume cannabis without smoking.
So why is this topic showing up on a blog dedicated to tradeshows and the event industry? Because there happen to be a BUNCH of tradeshows dedicated solely to cannabis. For instance, there’s a big show in San Jose this summer, the Cannabis Business Summit, put on by the National Cannabis Industry Association, that will attract hundreds of exhibitors and thousands of attendees. And a listing at the Cannabis Business Times shows quite a few cannabis related events.
I’ve attended at least a half-dozen cannabis events in Oregon over the past few years and chatted with dozens of exhibitors about the industry and how they’re finding their way through an industry that, until just a few years ago, didn’t legally exist. Now that it’s out in the open, it wants to shine. Hence, the explosion of tradeshows and conferences dedicated to the industry.
Another twist: in the old days, it was never called cannabis. It was called marijuana, and the scourge of the devil weed, or reefer, spawned panicky movies (Reefer Madness), conspiracy theories and so on. Here’s a quick take on the reason it’s called cannabis these days and is rarely referred to as marijuana.
And what about the exhibitors? How are they faring in a new legal industry? I’ve spoken to many of them over the past couple of years, and as you might imagine, it’s a mixed bag. Some exhibitors are well-prepared with sharp-looking, functional exhibits. Others have barely managed to put up a cheesy vinyl banner hanging from the back of the drape behind an organizer-supplied table. In other words, it’s like a lot of industries.
I heard talk from some exhibitors that when legal cannabis happened here in Oregon, a lot of money rushed into the industry. Businesses were snapping up storefronts, staking out their ground and doing what they could to promote their new businesses. But since that beginning rush (no pun intended), reality is a bit of a come down. Some businesses have closed, others are trying to sell. It’s a marketplace where a glut of product is keeping prices down. And this comes all with an industry that is heavily taxed by the state so that it can be regulated properly. I recently saw that Oregon suspended applications for new cannabis outlets due to the backlog. For a deeper dive into the Oregon Economic Forecast that looks closer at recreational and medical marijuana, check this out (direct PDF link).
All of which brings me back to the statewide event industry and how its working with cannabis producers, retailers and supporting businesses. Coming in January, TradeshowGuy Exhibits will take part in its first cannabis-related event as an exhibitor. We’ll be at the Cannabis Collaborative Conference in Portland on January 23-24, 2019.
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?
When I first got into the tradeshow world around the turn of the century (!), an issue that kept coming up time and time again was the color of tradeshow graphics.
There are a number of problems that come up with printing graphics with accurate color.
First, since we printed everything in-house at that point, we needed to make sure that the printer’s output was consistent with what was called for. A graphic designer will usually spec a PMS color (Pantone Matching System), which is a proprietary color space that identifies exact shades. That meant regular testing of the system to make sure that the color matched.
The inks in the printer must be of high quality so that when the computer that is used to process the print calls on the right combination of the various ink tanks.
Next, you have the computer monitor. Many clients would look at something on their monitor and think it looked exactly how they wanted it. Trouble it, monitors differ in their output as well. So, what you see on your monitor in your office may not be what I see on my monitor.
Don’t forget about the substrate you’re printing on. Whether it’s fabric or paper, simply by changing the source of paper from one package to another may bring a subtle difference. It’s the same with carpet dye. One dye lot may be slightly different from another, and if you try to match a new printed piece with an older printed piece, chances are good it won’t exactly match.
Then there’s the human factor. We all see colors differently, and usually the person operating the printers have a good eye for colors.
So how to address this? If you are trying to match a PMS Pantone color exactly, the best thing is to provide a paper-printed color sample that you like. For example, if you have a brochure or other printed piece that is exactly what you want, color-wise, make sure your printing vendor has that. If they have that piece in hand, chances are very high they can make adjustments in their process to create a printed tradeshow graphic that matches your desired color.
But understand that there a lot of variable! The technology has generally made it easier to color-match, but it’s not always guaranteed. Just work with your exhibit house or print shop if color-matching is important.