Trade Show Smackdown

SMM Staff

At the same time that businesses embrace technology that allows them to connect wirelessly, sell remotely and send marketing content automatically to prospects based on expressed interests, many of them also continue to cling to the timeless tactic of trade show marketing.

The death of trade shows has been forecasted since the days of dial-up modems, but whenever budgeting time rolls around, many companies are hesitant to cut exhibiting out of the mix. Some companies are confident that trade shows remain a crucial lead generator, while others continue to exhibit because they’re afraid what message they would send if they didn’t.

We asked a sampling of Sales & Marketing Management readers as well as visitors to the website HelpAReporterOut,com what value they see in trade shows and what steps they have taken as a result. Here is some of what we heard. More responses can be found online at Look for the link in our Additional Web Resources box.

Great for up-and-comers
Our company is No. 3 in market share in our industry, so we are more of an upstart.Trade shows are therefore a larger part of the overall marketing effort. We definitely look at trade shows as real sales opportunities – not everyone in our market knows us well. Also, for the past two years, we have been introducing new products on a regular basis, so we have something new to show customers. We measure our ROI and find that if we have new products and in some cases new vertical markets where we are introducing the company as a whole, trade shows are a good way to increase market share and sales.
Bob Randall, Vice President, Staging Concepts, Minneapolis

Where the fish are
We’ve always looked at trade shows in our channel as a mission-critical element in our outreach. I can think of no better way to spend my time and financial resources than a concentrated period of time in which I am able to visit with our key customers and develop new prospects “on my turf.” A serious trade show initiative will drive significant costs and suck up an amazing amount of resources. You'll learn more about logistics than you ever wanted to know and you may think you are making a deal with the devil at times. (We rented a wastebasket for three days and it cost us $68? What the heck is drayage anyway?). But, if you add up the quantity and quality of focused conversations that you had during the show, you'll most likely be hard pressed to match that making physical customer visits. There is really nothing like having a series of pre-qualified customers face-to-face in your booth, with your product/service present, in uninterrupted, focused conversations about how you can work together in the future. In the spirit of “fishing where the fish are,” trade shows offer a very high degree of value.
Mike Landry, Vice President of Special Markets, Tumi

The strong will survive
I do a lot of business development on behalf of clients and will argue that trade shows are not dying out per se, but they are being forced to prove their value unlike ever before. Darwinism for trade shows! While following an event’s hashtag on Twitter or Facebook event page can be useful to help follow the conversation, there is nothing that replaces having a face-to-face meeting with a potential partner. This is where events are being forced to curate their agendas and speakers more strategically and also be diligent in providing effective tools for people to connect before and during conferences to help facilitate networking. The old model of copy and paste usual suspect speakers from past events doesn’t cut it today.
Hal Bringman, Founder and President, NVPR

Don’t believe the hype
Our biggest caution is regarding the “expected traffic” that trade show coordinators communicate in their vendor/sponsorship packages. You basically want to divide that number by three and run your CPA and ROI numbers based on that more conservative audience. We have never been to an event that attracted more attendees than advertised.
Samantha Laliberte, Co-Founder, Ezzy Lynn

A media feeding frenzy
The leading media and press are in attendance with the goal of gathering info and meeting the exhibitors so they can write up articles about what is of interest to their readers within that segment. A trade show cost-effectively attracts a strongly motivated collection of reporters, editors and writers all looking for news and information to write about. This saves time and money. Email and video conferencing work, but meeting face-to-face is extremely important and valuable to furthering positive media relations.
Mark Shapiro, SRS Tech Public Relations

Tag and track your leads
It all comes down to how many new business opportunities your company has as a result of attending a show. That’s it. The “scan my badge and enter me into your iPad drawing” – most of these folks aren’t real leads. They want a free iPad so they don’t have to buy one for their kids. The single most important thing when loading leads into your CRM database is to tag all of them with a lead source. This will follow them along the entire journey and should never change. Since sales cycles vary in duration, it's important to run quarterly ROI analyses on all of your tradeshows so you will be able to tell when a lead turned into a prospect, and when a prospect turned into a sale – and everywhere in between. You’ll have a very clear picture of whether attending tradeshows is worth if from a financial perspective.
Jacob Baldwin, Global Manager of Digital Marketing, Emerson Climate Technologies

We’ve shifted our budget
We looked at how much money it cost our company to attend a trade show and the return on investment it generated, and decided upon an alternative route. We started to invest the money strategically in pay-per-click advertising and search engine optimization, our main areas of expertise. Being able to invest an additional $10,000 into pay-per-click advertising brought so much new traffic to our site and allowed for us to capture more leads than attending any trade show.
Jason Parks, Owner, The Media Captain

We went DIY
Trade show expenses have gotten outrageous. By the time you account for travel, accommodations, collateral, incentives, display, freight, staff per diems, space rental (and all the add-on expenses like electricity and extra chairs), you can only hope to break even. Nowadays it feels like attendees just want to see what’s out there (and enter drawings or get free stuff) — they’re collecting information so they can check you out online later, not looking to buy on the spot... if that’s a goal. That doesn’t mean we kicked in-person engagement to the curb. Instead, we conduct our own regional live training events to give our prospects value and promote our products and services at these events. We are able to control the costs, gain better exposure to our specific audience in the areas we targeted for growth and the likelihood of an on-site close is measurably higher.
Susan Nicholas, Marketing Director, The Mike Ferry Organization

Cutting back
Like IRS agents, trade shows serve some purpose but we’re not really sure what. As I considered our marketing budget for 2015, I did an analysis of our last three year's trade show and travel expense compared to the new business that resulted. As with any marketing initiative I wanted to know the ROI and it wasn’t good. Our net profit was half the total expenses that have been invested into trade shows. As a result, we will slash the number of shows we do this year. In the past three years, we have averaged eight shows annually. This year, we will be down to four or five – three that require flying someplace.
Louis Altman, Globafone

Swapping crowds for 1-on-1
We stopped doing them several years ago. Fun to attend, but no sales to show for the expense. Our biggest challenge was that at every show, seven or more of our competitors were there. The client/prospect was getting hammered on every aisle with a bigger and better promise (or better giveawayS). We now spend those dollars on getting in front of people one on one. Our sales are UP!
Steve Berryman, Regional VP, National Accounts, Jones Sign

As long as it’s fresh
Trade shows are great until they get stale. Typically, the same companies and clients visit the same trade shows year after year, so if you are the new guy on the block customers are generally interested to see what you have to offer. Products we have been offering for decades are new to these customers and we uncover opportunities that we didn't have. However, after a few years the new customers become the old customers and the trade show loses its usefulness. At that time we scale back and only go every couple of years and start looking for alternate locations or markets to target.
Andrew Tjernlund, Director of Marketing, Tjernlund Products

Think small
Working for a company that targets small businesses I think giant tradeshows are not worth the giant expenses. Some of the most hyped tradeshows turn into giant bills with little to no return. I am, however, a big believer in local tradeshows and events. Local tradeshows in Boston and southern New Hampshire provide us an additional avenue to meet potential customers. One thing to keep in mind at these events is the sales cycle tends to be longer than digital marketing or other marketing initiatives.
Katie Bisson, Technology Seed

A hard habit to break
I am the marketing director for a creator of natural, organic and vegan cosmetics. As I respond to your query, we are gearing up for [a national industry trade show] that takes a large chunk out of our marketing budget and we are not seeing any ROI from participating for the last three years. However, every one of our competitors still attends and so we believe if we don't go, it will be perceived as a fail on our part.I don't believe that trade shows are still relevant. I think it is much
more effective to go direct to the media and to retailers. It is less expensive to fly to them and schedule an appointment.
Madeline Johnson, CEO, Madeline Johnson Marketing and Public Relations

Dwindling results have us reconsidering
My boss and I constantly talk about whether or not we should still be attending trade
shows. While we both agree that the monetary value of trade shows is dying, we
also think they are still important to our business. Over the last five years, we have noticed that attendance for both exhibitors and attendees at the one major show we have attended every year is dwindling. We used to be able to at least break even; now, we definitely eat some losses. The reason we still go is because we think it is important to have a physical presence in front of our peers and potential customers. It’s almost impossible to quantify the importance of trade shows because outside of hard sales, you can never know just how impactful they are. Ultimately, it comes down to a gut feeling and the understanding that if we didn't go, we would regret it.
Steven Levine, Digital Marketing Manager, Jam Paper & Envelope

It’s all about who you send
The truth is most exhibits suck and companies waste money by [exhibiting]. Why? Simple: people are far too dependent on marketing materials, backdrops and product displays, and they forget about the primary purpose of being at a trade show. It’s all about building, developing and nourishing relationships. The days of “if you build it, they will come” are long gone. To make tradeshows worth the investment, send your top person(s) that knows about your goods/services, but more importantly, knows how to engage customers and build relationships. These people never sit down and always attract people to the booth by their first name and eye contact. I attend, work and hustle at more than 15 tradeshows each year and help grow my business 30 percent annually.
Cliff Budnick, Vice President of New Business Development, In-O-Vate Dryer Products

Leave your booth at home
I've often been struck by the fact that trade show exhibitors are stuck behind their booths while much of the interaction that takes place at these events occurs elsewhere. Often, attendees avoid stopping at booths because they don't want the sales pitch. Those that do stop tend to be those already engaged with/familiar with that organization. More meaningful and far less expensive connections seem to be made over beverages/food in the exhibit hall during and after sessions, at receptions, etc. Simply being there and interacting with those present can generate the same value, if not better, than investing full bore in developing and staffing an exhibit.
Linda Pophal, Strategic Communications, LLC

Exposure to serious buyers
Because trade shows allow you to deal with a real person, B2B buyers enter with the expectation that they will need to provide detailed contact information. When buyers provide more in-depth information, it results in higher-quality leads.
Craig Borowski, CRM Market Research Associate, Software Advice

Reconsider how you define value
There is still value in meeting face-to-face with prospective buyers at a trade show as long as one is very selective and doesn’t sign up as a “platinum sponsor” of every event. Also, if you look at trade shows as purely lead generation vehicles then you are probably going to be disappointed. I don’t necessarily judge the value of a show purely by how well it performs in terms of generating leads. There are other success factors one should consider when evaluating a show, such as its ability to help increase market awareness, influence analysts/reporters in attendance, or meet with existing customers to help further strengthen those relationships. These things won’t show up in the lead report.
Tedd Rodman, Yottaa

Buseinss speed dating
We find that the decision makers and top influencers of buying decisions don’t have time to walk a tradeshow, especially when most of what they need is at their fingertips. Even worse, the trade show floor seems to be more populated by competitors than potential customers. We have gravitated to key customer “speed-dating” events, which get us 30-minute C-suite-level meetings with 10 to 20 companies over a three- or four-day event. They are much more targeted, cost-effective and allow us to better track our “customer acquisition costs.” Coupled with a website strategy that encourages dialogue rather than just downloads, we have witnessed substantial growth and improved customer relationships the last few years.
Tom Stam, Minerals Technologies

Going, but redirecting spend
We are a service provider and offer consultant support and business advice to the veterinary industry. This year, we have decided not to have a stand at the largest trade show in the UK, but instead attend the show and spend time at all of our affinity partners’ stands. The reasoning: we have the same customers and want the same outcome for them – to give excellent customer care and a quality service. We had the choice of paying for a stand or spending that money on hospitality throughout the event, giving us more time in a more relaxed atmosphere to actually conduct business rather than make small talk whilst being bustled around. Our hospitality is available to our affinity partners also as a thank-you for allowing us to spend time in their stands. Working together is the key to the future, always stronger in numbers!
Janet Hughes, National Sales Manager, Denplan Ltd.

My prospects aren’t there
My target executive audience is no longer budgeting for shows, as the majority of information needed can be found via websites, YouTube and WebEx. We have found that regional events are much more productive. These events are generally half a day, allowing us to hold a morning and afternoon session. By bringing in a dynamic subject matter expert, we have generated meaningful connections with our target demographic. While this could easily be done via WebEx, it does not afford active interaction with your peers from multiple companies.
Cornelius Gorman, CIIS

Doing the Math
I see the following factors affect trade show attendance: 1) Less manpower. Companies have laid off and not replaced employees 2) Less manpower = more work for those remaining workers 3) Less time for remaining workers = less attendance at trade shows 4) Companies have cut back on their spending = less attendance at trade shows The above makes it all that harder to get in front of key decision makers. Therefore, I have cut the number of shows I exhibit at to a few versus the six to eight shows I used to exhibit at.
Richard O’Malley, E-Chem LLC