Spring 2005 After the Trade Show

Trade shows are great for discovering new products and making new contacts. But all too often, people who attend them come back to mountains of backed-up work and soon forget to follow up with vendors and personal contacts, and fail to capitalize on trends and industry information they learn at the show.

It doesn’t have to be that way. “What you really go to a trade show for is what takes place after the event is over,” says Francis J. Friedman, a trade-show specialist and president of the consulting firm Time & Place Strategies in New York. Like golfers working on their follow-through, successful trade show attendees always try to improve their after-show swing. That means sharing knowledge with staffers, making follow-up calls with exhibitors, and organizing business cards and notes so they don’t end up in a heap.

But is attending a show worth the effort in the first place? Most people say yes—trade shows offer retailers numerous benefits. “Show time is very well spent,” says Joe Murtagh, president of The Source (Goshen, NY). “Where else can you have such concentrated exposure to such a vast array of

information that’s very well organized and presented? There’s nothing like being able to see the quality of goods and hold it in your hand.” Here are some techniques for capitalizing and following up on what you learn at the show.

Share the wealth

If one piece of new information from a show can help you make more profit, imagine if your sales staff used the same knowledge when dealing with customers. Make sure everyone has an opportunity to benefit from the trade show information you bring back, whether it’s from seminars, insights from people you met in the aisles, or new products at the booths. The key is to share this information formally—in a training session, a meeting or even a memo, depending on the content and the level of detail.

Then encourage staffers to share their insights. This can be very useful when it comes to making decisions to take on a new line of goods or services. “You may discover that you were being overwhelmed by an enthusiastic salesperson [at the show]. People who work with customers can help you decide what’s there in terms of solid stuff,” says Richard J. Brunkan, a partner at Humber, Mundie and McClary, a psychology consulting firm in Milwaukee. Staff feedback can also help you adjust your order levels up or down or the timing of additional orders. This is especially helpful in the case of new lines from young companies that may not produce enough inventory to fill orders down the line, leaving you with empty shelf space.

What happens after a show depends in large part on what happens before you go: good post-show follow-up depends to a great extent on advance planning.

Share the work

If more than one person from your business will be attending, assign different duties to each one—for example, one covers new products while another scopes out industry trends and so forth. And make sure everyone knows that they’re expected to report back with good info when you all come back.

“People engage in a very different level of note-taking when they realize they’ll be held responsible” for sharing with others, says consultant Mina Bancroft. “They realize they’ll really need to understand a subject.” Finally, make the post-show meeting a priority for your staffers. Before attending the show, she says, “put the follow-up meeting on your calendar so it doesn’t slip between the cracks later.”

Draw on each person’s abilities. “Because each person has unique strengths, each… sees a trade show with a personal perspective” and will communicate it differently, says Donna Messer, consultant and president of ConnectUs Communications (Oakville, ON). “Some learn by hearing; some by seeing; some by experiencing. So each person attending the show will describe what they saw in different ways to everyone back home. Encourage this, and you’ll have one heck of a team.”

And don’t forget those great seminars. Your whole staff can benefit from the knowledge gained there. Sometimes seminars have training materials you can give your staffers. If not, jot down the seminar’s key points and put them into a short memo to your personnel. Alternative idea: before the seminar, ask if you can record the seminar so that you can play or transcribe the tape for your staff.

Notes and cards

What do you do with all those notes you scribbled as you walk the aisles? And what about the business cards—jumbled and stashed in your pockets? If you aren’t organized as you go through the show, all these bits of good information can fall through the cracks. Too often they end up collecting dust on a shelf or disappearing into your files. But they don’t have to.

Develop a plan to process those notes and cards efficiently, and go to the show with your plan in place. Try this: Rather than writing your notes page after page in a notebook, divide the notebook into sections by topic—e.g., new products, trends, merchandising, industry info. Then when you get back, simply remove those pages and put them in file folders organized by topic.

Following up with vendors

Exhibitors can be as forgetful as buyers when the trade show is over. They move on to other things and may forget to send you the information they promised. To make sure this doesn’t happen, just mark your calendar—right at the show—with reminders to contact those vendors.

There are three benefits to prompt follow-up with vendors. First, it reduces the risk of misunderstanding. Your memory of what a vendor said may differ from the vendor’s, who may forget a deal that wasn’t put in writing because of the rush of attendees. So call the vendor and nail down the deal you and the vendor made at the show. Second, a call can confirm vendors’ rep visits to your locations. And third, it can prevent the problems that can arise when you wait too long to order, like delivery later than you want, or the vendor not being able to deliver at all.

Brochures and catalogs. Vendors will offer you tons of material as you walk the aisles. When you return home, that stack can be so overwhelming that you avoid looking at them for months. Instead, ask vendors to mail them to you, and file them in an accessible way, maybe alphabetically by company. Then create a computer database or spreadsheet that can cross-reference company names and products or services. That way you have fast access to that information anytime, even months later.

Business Cards. All those cards you collected often remain wrapped in their rubber-band cocoons, never to be seen again. Instead, categorize each card on a scale of #1-4 when you get it, with #1 being the most important to contact. And write any relevant information on the back of the card, such as what was interesting about the product, what needs follow up, or anything else you’ll need to know, says Brunkan. Then back home, call the #1 cards first.

Trade show buyer’s guides. These, too, can be useful long after the show. “The buyer’s guide is a wonderful resource with great shelf life,” says Lori Kurschner, VP of marketing for the Dallas Market Center. “It can be referenced for contact information throughout the year.” Kurschner also points out that many venues host Web sites with market-planning tools that can help track elusive suppliers in the months after a show.

If it all sounds like smart networking, it is. Trade-show experts encourage this kind of relationship-building. When an attendee actually follows through with vendors [they meet] at a show, a light goes on with suppliers” that they want to do business with you, says Messer. “You’ve brought to the attention of exhibitors that you are different.” And the results can be more than just good service: “Down the road, you may be called for a testimonial, or you may be offered something to try out,” he says. Plus, you’ll be among the first to know of any buying opportunities.

If you don’t follow up, says Friedman, vendors will treat you the same way. But if you establish a dialog, you become a partner for mutual profit rather than just another name on a customer list. “We’re in an era of relationship-building,” he says, “but the hard part is that we are hiding behind our e-mail and phone systems.”

Tell your customers

Your customer is the ultimate reason for all of this trade show activity. One way or another, you need to tell your customers about all that you’ve seen at the show. For your best customers, a personal call is one idea, but it may be impossible to reach everyone in a timely manner. That’s where creative communication comes in, either as a special mailing, a section of your regular newsletter, plus flyers or cards at your location.

Getting the biggest bang from the buck you invest in attending a trade show depends on how you bring back what you’ve learned. “If you end up with information overload, you won’t be able to process any of it,” says Bancroft. “The important thing is to have a plan that prioritizes the information.” The key is to “start processing the information while you’re still at the show, and especially as you travel back home,” she says. “Ask yourself, ‘What’s the top thing I’ve learned, and what will I do with it? Then tackle the pile of new information efficiently by breaking it into manageable pieces.

The more you keep your trade-show goals in mind, the more successful your trip will be. Take aim and follow through for a more profitable trade-show experience, and a more profitable bottom line.

Phillip M. Perry

Perry is a freelance writer based in New York, NY.
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