In praise of the trade show

At Bays we have recently enjoyed our second year of exhibiting at the Security & Policing Expo in Farnborough, UK. Over three days we had the opportunity to showcase some of the solutions we are developing, met existing and potential clients, and networked with partners and friends from the sectors we work in.

It was an enjoyable if tiring three days. But was it worth it?

The value of attending trade shows, particularly taking a stand and exhibiting at them, is often met with scepticism, and there are valid arguments against it.

Exhibiting can be expensive, especially for small businesses. Research done in the US suggests that for SMEs, trade show participation is often the biggest single line item in the annual marketing budget representing between 5% – 35% of total spend. So it needs to pay back.

Which brings us to the problem: it is often difficult to show a return that justifies the investment.

To assess the trade show ROI as either good or bad, we first to determine the measure of success. Often trade shows are viewed only through the lens of sales and business development. So a common evaluation metric is the number of sales or sales leads generated. For certain, generating interest in your product is a sensible objective for trade show participation, but is it realistic to expect to transact much new business on your stand?

If your product is low cost and simple to understand, then maybe. But if you are selling a novel, expensive or complex product or service, then many customer interactions are going to be needed before a sale can be chalked up. In which case, what was the contribution of your trade show stand to this success? There definitely was one. The opportunity that allow customers to see the product and meet the people who would deliver it. This interaction could have played a crucial role in their decision-making process. But, might the sale have happened if you hadn’t been at the show? The reality is, you’ll never really know.

But what about sales leads; it’s easy to see if the show generated good leads or not isn’t it? Well, again, maybe. But what is a good lead? Is a lead that doesn’t end in a sale good? And if a sale does occur, within what timeframe should it be attributed to the trade show? And as above, what was the contribution of the show relative to the other customer interactions that will have happened? You might get a lot of new people on your stand, but most of them will fall into one of three categories:

1. People who are interested in your product were already aware of your business and planned to visit you at the show.

2. People who saw the stand and came to check out what you were about, but who then decided they were not interested.

3. People who came to your stand, because you had the best freebies or maybe best looking representatives.

Which of these are you counting as new leads generated?

So winning new business and generating new leads are indeed valid reasons for doing trade shows. But, if your product is complex, using this as your only measure of success is problematic when you need to convince yourself or others that a trade show is a worthwhile investment. Happily though, there are other good reasons for being at trade shows:

  • Building and maintaining brand awareness. If you are an SME business particular, exhibiting at trade shows is an effective way of staying in the minds of customers and partners who might want to work with you, and provide a great opportunity for initial, informal conversations around current opportunities for a collaboration. Also a good display with the right people on the stand lets people know that not only are you still around, but that you’re doing well, which is never a bad thing.
  • Gathering intelligence. Talking to customers, including those who may not lead to business in the short term, is the most effective way to identify and understand their unmet needs. This valuable feedback can then be integrated into your product development process, offering insights that is high value and come at a lower cost in terms of relationship risk compared to formal sales meetings. Likewise, trade shows provide you the opportunity to see what your competitors are offering and to learn from the way they are positioning their product.
  • Honing your pitch. As well as gathering information to improve your offerings, being on a stand for a few days provides lots of valuable opportunities to practice your pitch. While it’s easy to tell your story coherently in print, telling it to the stranger in front of you many times reveals very quickly how well you know your stuff!
  • Meeting potential partners. Apart from engaging with customers and competitors, trade shows provide a wonderful opportunity to reconnect with past collaborators and discover potential new partners for future work. These face-to-face interactions, whether scheduled or unplanned, often reveal important new developments in your market space that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. They often prove to be the richest source of new ideas.
  • Motivating the team. Working on a good exhibition stand for a day or two is a rewarding team experience. Not only does it get people out of the office for a few days, but it also gets them out of their silos and out of their comfort zones. The show provides a great focus for the business: planning the event, having the solutions ready that we want to showcase and being the best professional version of ourselves on parade for a few days. And the planning, delivering and celebrating of the event is done as a team.

And last but not least, spending a few days at our recent trade show was a vivid reminder of the importance of being part of a community. In a world where WFH and online meetings have become the norm, it’s easy to forget that we are all social creatures at heart who thrive through being part of a bigger collective, independent but connected.

Coming together as a community of clients, collaborators and competitors helps us feel more purposeful, gives us a better understanding of the work ecosystem we’re in, provides a better perspective on the challenges and tribulations of everyday work life, shows us where we are good and where we can be better and gives us the opportunity to learn and share.

And it was fun. Tiring yes, but fun. I recommend it.

By Kevin Cornwell

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