Attend a Trade Show for a Competitive Edge

Trade Show Badges
For several years now, I’ve been crazy about attending trade shows.  Whether you’re brand new in business, or have been established for years, the old-fashioned, around-for-hundreds-of-years trade show is an unstoppable resource with one of the best ROI’s you’ll ever find.  It’s a great way to find new resources, new ideas, and gain a competitive edge.  Here are the ways I’ve made trade shows worthwhile trips:

Attend Trade Shows You Don’t Belong At

The real magic is finding a trade show that is merely tangential to what you do.  I’m often asked at trade shows “Well, this is the (insert niche industry here) show….you’re in the wireless industry – why are you here?”  As long as there’s some minuscule link, I think you’ll find a refreshing new network, new ideas, and most importantly, you’ll find ideas and spaces your competitors aren’t capitalizing on.  Did you catch that?  If you’re in the wireless industry, then all your competitors are in the wireless industry, and you’re all at the same wireless trade shows.  But I bet none of your competitors are walking the aisles of, say, industrial fabric trade shows – and you’d be surprised just how much crossover and value there is between the two.

Find a Good Show

Trade shows are fairly scattered, with the databases on where to find them intimidatingly large – my personal favorite thus far is the TSNN DataSite.  Next, you need to decide which trade shows to actually attend.  This is the most important part:  go to 1 or 2 in your exact industry, 2 or 3 that are somewhat related to your industry, and maybe 1 that is barely related to what you do, if not completely unrelated.  I go to about 4-6 trade shows a year, and only 2 of them are in my industry.  The others are mostly unrelated.  And that’s the key.  You can find these unrelated trade shows by talking to vendors and clients.  Take anything you use in your business on a regular basis – raw materials, packaging, machinery, business services – contact these vendors and ask what shows they’ll be at.  It’ll give you a great list to start – these will be trade shows of your vendors’ industries – not yours.  Another gem is if you have an oddball client that uses your product in a weird way: maybe you make a product for one particular industry, and you have this one client in a whole other industry that uses your product for some off-the-wall use.  Call them, and find out where they’ll be.  There might be a trade show full of people who need your product that you never even knew about.  Chances are, your industry is packed full of the same old tired products with barely-new innovations.  Going to semi-unrelated shows allows you to cross-pollinate ideas into your product lineup, and come up with things your competitors and clients have truly never seen before.

Don’t just go as a salesperson – you’re there to buy, sell, listen, and network.

Don’t make the mistake of getting hung up on selling yourself or your product at these shows.  Saving $100,000 on printing is just as profitable as landing a $100,000 client!  Instead…try to observe, remain completely open minded, and have conversations with exhibitors and attendees that grab your interest.  Maybe you’ll see a great machine or software that could streamline the workflow of your company, a new raw material your competitor isn’t utilizing, or simply a great person to know for the future.  Sometimes you’ll see things that have absolutely no use right now, but you’ll go back and remember them a year later when you do have the need – so try not to be dismissive.  Remaining open-minded will be the hardest part: you’re bombarded with hundreds of vendors waving their products in front of you; try to just keep an open mind.  You’re there to connect the dots, and add value to your business.

If you’re not in business yet

If you haven’t heard this yet, then here it is:  trade shows are an amazing place to come up with new ideas.  If you have a passion for a certain field, and just need some ideas or details hammered down to give your business wings, then trade shows are a great place to start.  Remember – don’t just go where everyone else is going – cross-pollinate from other industries for truly innovative products.

Some practical advice

These are just tidbits I’ve observed over the years:

  • Most vendors won’t say everything they do right on their booth.  If they seem interesting, talk to them and try to drill down deeper into their business.  A great starter question is something like “so what products/services are you guys really excited about this year?”  It’s also plain fun.
  • Get in and get out.  If you’re there for business, you’re there for ROI, which means lingering for 2 days playing golf doesn’t do any good.  I like to attend 4-6 trade shows a year.  If I’m spending 4 days at each of these and 2 of those days are fluff, that’s over 2 full working weeks wasted time – too much!  If you’re spending 24 working days a year…3 weeks…at trade shows, you’re going to stop going.  Get in, spend the day or two, and get back to the office to put what you found to work.

Hopefully I’ve sold you on the value of these shows – they’re my absolute favorite source of inspiration and innovation.  Nowhere else will $40 – $100 buy you access to hundreds of new products, innovations, and new people ready to meet you.