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Miles of Aisles

July 1, 2003
Everyone likes to debate the value of trade shows in the Internet Age, but if you work them right, they can outshine the Web.Now that the spring trade-show

Everyone likes to debate the value of trade shows in the Internet Age, but if you work them right, they can outshine the Web.

Now that the spring trade-show season is over and exhibitors can rest their weary feet until this fall when they have to tread the aisles again, it's a good time to take stock of the industry's love-hate relationship with these events.

Few people look forward to booth duty. Trade show time may not be the most rewarding hours you spend on your job, but when you work a show right, it's well worth the time you invest in it.

Trade shows appear to be at a crossroads. Some Web-centric marketing mavens believe the dollars they invest in booths, displays and travel can be better spent marketing their products on the Web. These exhibitors are moving their marketing dollars away from shows and into company Web sites and online portals.

Marketing dollars all eventually come out of the same wallet, and there's no question the money that exhibitors spend on Web-related activities is money they aren't spending on other types of marketing tools. But it's not fair to say that the soft attendance figures some electrical trade shows have experienced this year are directly related to the Internet - because some shows are doing very, very well.

For instance, anyone who attended any of this year's BICSI-sponsored trade shows knows there was a real sense of excitement at these events. Booths with intriguing new products drew crowds, and strong conference attendance in certification-based seminars attracted students. One industry veteran attending a BICSI show earlier this year compared the energy level there to an earlier era in the electrical industry. "It's what the electrical business was like 20 years ago," he said. "You can feel the excitement."

The Internet can't duplicate that buzz. Your customers can read about new products on the Web, but they can't touch and feel them. They can get answers to questions on the Web through FAQs, but it's not the same as getting the information from a knowledgeable salesperson. The Web just can't compete with the personal contact at a trade show.

This isn't to say that the industry's trade shows are maximizing their inherent advantages over the Web. They are at their best when exhibitors use them to market new products and if they offer certification-caliber seminars.

Exhibitors play a big role in creating buzz at a show. You can't just hope for attendees to wander by the booth asking, "What's new?" This sounds like Trade Show Marketing 101, but it's apparently a class that not every exhibitor takes. These trade show basics are worth repeating here:

Get the word out. If you have new products to promote, contact business magazines covering the show and your reps and distributors at least a month before the show.

Be prepared. Staff the booth with personnel who can answer technical questions.

Display products that customers can touch and feel. This personal touch is one of the irreplaceable advantages that trade shows have over the Web.

Be there. Keep the booth manned. An empty booth reflects poorly on your company.

Be friendly. Immediately acknowledge all visitors to the booth. While booth duty may be a great time to catch up with co-workers on the latest company gossip, it's not the reason your boss spent several hundred or thousands of dollars to get you and the booth to the trade show.

Keep software demos as brief as possible. I don't know about you, but my eyes glaze over after a few minutes of a demo. Have mercy on your visitors.

Work the crowd. Another key benefit of trade shows that you won't find on the Web too often is real-world feedback from customers on new products or products in development. Attention senior marketing executives: Work a show whenever possible, so you can talk with real live customers and get some unfiltered feedback about your company's products. You will never get this type of feedback from the Internet.

There's no question that the use of trade shows is evolving in the face of the competition with the Web for marketing dollars. But if I had a new product to market and I knew of a show that would draw the customers I wanted for that product, I would be glad to power down my computer and sign up for a few days of booth duty.