Keys To Expanding Your Business Through Trade Show Participation

By: Robert Thomson

Business owners have to take every opportunity to promote their firms, whether the economy is growing or slowing, and trade shows offer many advantages. Of course, since every dollar is more important than ever, your investment of money, time and energy has to be done carefully. The best way to approach thinking about trade show participation is by listing your goals and remembering that they should all revolve around expanding your business.

Although there are multiple keys to this process, perhaps one of the most important keys to expanding your business through trade show participation is defining exactly what your intentions are - and doing the right thing in the right place at the right time. What are the benefits you're expecting to see? Is your goal to test the market for some new product to gauge demand? Are you attending a show to develop new importing or exporting contacts? Is the idea to make immediate, mid-term or long-range sales?

Broad focus, narrow results

Of course, it is possible to accomplish multiple objectives at a single show, as long as you do not try to do too much or dilute your own efforts. However, even while you are, say, amassing a list of new vendor or distributor contacts, your mere presence at a trade show gives you a cost-effective way for testing reactions to your product or service in a certain market. By listening carefully and respecting professional opinion, you can also get valuable free advice as to how you could make your product even better.

All of these efforts, across a broad spectrum of concerns, will help you accomplish the narrower, more targeted result of expanding your business. Improving your product - its manufacture, distribution, marketing, etc. - is crucial to this effort, no matter what it is. In addition, knowing what your competitors are up to is always valuable business intelligence, and you can see them all "up close and personal" at the trade shows. You can learn a lot from them, just as you will from the various buyers, builders, consumers and others you will meet on a one-to-one, personal basis. Establishing new professional relationships is always a good thing.

Start close to home

Even if you have an internationally distributed product, if you have never been to an overseas trade show it is perhaps wise to start a bit closer to home. There are a million and one details for a successful trade show presence, and trying to work out the kinks in a foreign country may be a bit much to take on the first time out. Start as close to home as possible - your own city or county is ideal. From there, you can move to regional and national shows, improving along the way, until you can set up, tear down, make your presentations and run your booth in a professional manner.

If you intend to export (or are doing so but need help) you can get great assistance from any number of state and federal agencies that work to promote trade. Food product manufacturers, for example, can get a good idea of the demand for their products by participating in a U.S. Food Export Showcase. Coordinated by the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture in concert with the Food Marketing Institute Show, the event takes place the first week of May at McCormick Place in Chicago and puts U.S. food product exporters in touch directly with buyers from around the world who have already committed to making purchases.

If your food (or other) product is one that is a natural for international expansion, you could test market your products in an American city that has an ethnic population of the same market you are targeting. If you are contemplating an entry into the Asian market, for instance, numerous U.S. cities have substantial populations of ethnic Chinese, Vietnamese and Japanese people. These "ethnic group tests" can give you valuable feedback on your product, but of course they are not the same as doing overseas test marketing.

Choose the right show

Not all trade shows, quite obviously, are the same. One key question you need to answer is: Does a consumer or trade show best meet your needs? Consumer shows are essentially about introducing your product or service to the public, and getting various kinds of feedback to analyze, while your purpose in a trade show is to develop new contacts among importers, manufacturers and/or distributors. You need to ensure that the right target audience will be on hand for you to meet your stated goals.

As far as what show to go to, you need to do some research. There are annual events in every industry that are considered "musts," but there are also many "one time only" show opportunities. These may be produced by familiar names in the convention industries, or by a new company. It is always important to check the history of any ongoing events, as well as the bona fides of the promoters, especially for a new show. Double-check the reputation of the show's producers by contacting a number of past exhibitors.

Good advice (and the four P's)

Besides industry groups, there are many government agencies and non-profits that can assist you in developing a strong trade show presence and maximizing a modest budget, too. There are programs at the local, county, state and national level to help American businesses with all aspects of their activities. One often-overlooked source of excellent assistance is the Service Corps Of Retired Executives, located in many U.S. cities. You can make an appointment to speak with someone who has actually "been there and done that," no matter what it is you are trying to do.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember about trade shows, whether industry- or consumer-oriented, is that they are a serious investment requiring detailed planning and execution. Your company is presenting itself to the world, whatever the venue and wherever its location, and you need to be prepared, professional, polished and polite (call them the four P's). Finally, your tradeshow activities have to be of the same style and "flavor" as your other marketing materials, so as not to confuse the public with conflicting messages or sales themes. Do not reinvent your firm so that you can present some idealized version of it, or pretend to be something you are not. In the case of tradeshows and conventions, honesty is not just the best policy - it's the only policy. Don't claim excellence if you haven't attained it. Attain it first and then book the shows, not the other way around!

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