Trade Show TalesBlog

When Trade Shows Don’t Make Sense

October 11th, 2011 7 COMMENTS

TradeshowI’m about to become a heretic. Get those $6 bottles of convention hall Aquafina and Dasani ready. It’s the closest thing we have to holy water.

Since the mid-90s when I fell into the trade show biz, I’ve been conditioned to believe that every organization benefits from a well-planned trade show marketing program. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a Fortune 500 Goliath operating on seven continents or a three person non-profit in Elizabethtown, KY. Trade show marketing, when executed properly, is an efficient tool for finding new customers, spreading a message, introducing new products, and solidifying a campaign. And even as virtual trade shows have gotten more chatter, those of us “in the know” know that Face-to-Face Marketing trumps Face-to-Space (as we call virtual trade shows) every time.

To be honest, I need to take off the blinders. Trade shows do not make sense for every business. It may not fit their business model or growth plans. Or, they may not have the internal capacity or skill to plan and execute a strategy. For these folks, participating as an exhibitor would be a waste of time, money, and resources. That doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t attend trade shows. For some companies, attending rather than participating makes far more sense.

So, let’s take a moment to explore this idea and determine when trade shows, as an exhibitor, does not make sense.

1. Capacity: If you are one of those fortunate organizations that has more business than you can handle, then priming the pump at a trade show would only exacerbate the problem. You need solutions on how to handle existing business, and there are any number of shows for that.

2. Growth Restrictions: Some companies, and some non-profits, simply do not want to grow or are unable to expand for financial or personnel reasons. They don’t foresee their organization getting any larger (or any smaller). Many private practice physicians fall into this category.

3. Skills: Trade show marketing takes time and talent as well as money. Buying a display is not a plan any more than buying a car is a drivers license. Too many companies participate in trade shows without a plan and then wonder why the show wasn’t more successful. Frankly, there are very few unsuccessful shows, but there are lots of unsuccessful exhibitors. If you don’t have the time or the talent to be an exhibitor, then walk the show as an attendee or hire an exhibit house to coach you.

4. Cost:  Trade shows can be expensive, if you know what you are doing. They can be insanely expensive if you don’t. Done right (are you beginning to see a theme?), you’ll more than recoup your investment every time. Done wrong . . . at best, you’ll waste money . . . at worse, you’ll damage your organization’s reputation. If you can’t afford to look presentable, then don’t participate. It’s like showing up at a wedding in cutoff jeans, flip-flops, and a muscle shirt. It’s inappropriate and you’ll look like a duffus.

Duffus Family Crest

5. People: Who you send to represent your organization matters. Some exhibit personnel are lazy or confused. They’re there because the show is in Orlando and Mickey Mouse beckons. When attendees can track them down, they yawn, pick their nails, and scratch. Others have social skills that would make a third-world dictator proud. Still others know just enough to be dangerous. What they share could sink the company because of their lack of knowledge or their discontent with management, co-workers, or the selection in the company vending machines.

6. Management: If senior management doesn’t “get it” and only “tolerates it,” then don’t waste your time. Trade shows demand the attention and the support of senior management. While they may not be able to attend smaller shows, they should always be at the major industry shows — in the booth and greeting clients. A management team that never works the booth doesn’t understand the value of face-to-face marketing.

7. Bad Fit:  Some businesses, non-profits, or government agencies are simply a bad fit for any trade show: local gas stations, state prisons, para-military hate groups, illegal drug dealers, pimps, etc. I’m sure there are lots more, but it hurts my head to think about it.

It’s important to remember that trade shows come in many shapes and sizes. There are the biggies, like the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), medium ones like the National Electrical Contractors Association, and local ones like Home and Garden and Chamber of Commerce shows.

Every year, there are thousands of trade shows. Choosing the right one(s) can be challenging without the guidance of someone who’s been there and who knows the “ins and outs” of trade shows. That’s where a trade show consultant comes in handy. They can advise you of the right shows, the best exhibit design, and how to market yourself. In the world of trade shows, the expression “penny wise and pound foolish” is the mantra of many exhibitors. Don’t make that mistake. If you choose to be an exhibitor, seek the advice of professionals and plan, plan, plan.

–Mel White


Based in Portland, Oregon, Classic Exhibits Inc. designs and manufacturers portable, modular, and custom-hybrid exhibit solutions. Classic Exhibits products are represented by an extensive distributor network in North America and in select International markets. For more information, contact us at 866-652-2100.

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7 Responses to “When Trade Shows Don’t Make Sense”

  1. Mel,

    Excellent post. This doesn’t get covered enough. I read blogs and comments on social networking sites from exhibit industry ‘professionals’ that hop on everyone pushing trade shows (and especially hardware) with all the consultative selling of a aluminum siding telemarketer. And that brings me to my second point, not only is every company not a candidate for trade shows, not every potential exhibitor is a candidate for your piece of hardware du jour. The goal of every professional in this business should be to marry the Client’s needs (if there are any) with the appropriate solution. Maslow was right, when the only tool you have is a hammer every opportunity looks like a nail.

    Oh, and as for virtual trade shows, they are as effective as an alternative to the face to face interaction as phone sex is.

  2. mel says:

    Always a pleasure Mark. I’m almost afraid to ask what is the “hardware du jour” at the moment.

    Think back to the days when it was pop ups vs. folding panel displays. Each one trying to best the other for features. It was idiotic since they both served distinct exhibitors.

    BTW — I’ll have to take your word on the “phone sex.” 😉

  3. Scott Sharon says:

    This is an interesting post Mel. I enjoyed reading it. I have attended many trade shows and most of your points are right on. How many and which trade shows to attend is always a big decision to make each year when we do our planning and budget. Determining a value is always difficult even if you can track all the leads you get at each show.

    I’m also very concerned about what it may cost you by not exhibiting at a show. Not being at a major industry trade show can make your company look bad to some prospects. Some may not consider you as a serious contender for their business.

    Also, I never exhibit at a trade show without first walking it to see who attends and who exhibits. I have to make sure it is a good fit.

  4. mel says:

    Thanks Scott.

    The cost of not exhibiting is always a factor and difficult to quantify. Sometimes it comes down to past experience.

  5. gary camarato says:

    Just another seven reasons why you need more than a link to a website and money to exhibit at a trade show! It’s all that “other stuff” a true exhibit house will provide that really makes the difference.

  6. Thanks as always, Mel – at first i thought this was written “tongue-in-cheek”, but then I re-read it and decided, if it was, it was very subtle:). Not to say your points aren’t valid – I normally presume most businesses want to grow. as has been said before, trade shows are called “events”, but they are really processes, with a lot more planning and activity involved than evident at first glance.

  7. mel says:

    Hi Charles —

    Thank you for your comments.

    I wrote the article straddling the fence a bit. Yes, there are some companies or organizations that are not ideal candidates as trade show exhibitors. However, the bigger issue is that far too many companies do such a poor job planning and implement their trade show marketing program that, frankly, they would be better spending their cash on . . . well, anything.

    It’s funny how most of us rely on professionals to handle accounting, operations, purchasing, and engineering, but marketing . . . everyone thinks they’re an expert because they watch TV, look at ads, or listen to the radio.

    (Big Sigh!)


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