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The XYZs of trade-show success Featured

10:08am EDT July 22, 2002
While other company execs were busy grumbling over the small turnout at a business-to-business trade show last year, Jimmy Gartner was happily chatting away with prospects at his company's crowded booth. "We stuck out like a sore thumb at that show," he recalls.

Gartner, president of Mentor-based XYZ Corp., isn't the least bit coy about the strategies he employs to achieve success at trade shows. In fact, he considers himself something of a carnival barker when it comes to bringing prospects through the door and into XYZ's booth.

"What makes an event an event is that people believe it's a big thing," maintains Gartner. "It doesn't matter what the industry is. It doesn't matter what the product is. Think about a grand opening. What makes it grand? You have to breathe life into it so it becomes an entity on its own. You have to make people believe that if they miss it, they feel as though they've done themselves a great disservice."

A successful trade-show strategy requires a lot more work than simply renting a booth and showing up, Gartner warns. It takes extensive preparation before the show and an unwavering dedication long after the booth's been torn down and carted away.

Creating the event

The most important thing, says Gartner, is that you have to know your customer. For him, it's any businessperson who needs software training. At a February trade show, XYZ offered free training sessions on ACT!, a widely used contact-management program. But just offering the sessions wasn't enough to ensure a successful show. The company's prospects needed to know about the promotion well before the show began.

So Gartner purchased the back cover of a software magazine and advertised the free training sessions as a major event at the trade show. "That went out to 100,000 or so places," he says. "We got upwards of 70 phone calls a day asking about the training." He then placed additional advertising in several local business publications (including Small Business News), all announcing the free training.

That was followed by more than 15,000 direct-fax newsletters, which invited potential and current clients to visit XYZ's booth at the trade show and participate. The company, he notes, also uses monthly newsletters as part of its normal operations to update potential and current clients about XYZ's ongoing business.

Finally, XYZ's staff told every prospect, client and vendor with whom they spoke during the weeks leading up to the show to come and visit the booth. They also sent those people free tickets to the exhibition. "If they're not aware, it's just an opening," says Gartner. "You've got to put the 'grand' into it."

The pre-show preparation paid off. Says Gartner, "A lady from BF Goodrich called and said they'd like to reserve some seats for the free training. I told her we couldn't do that because it was first come, first serve. I'll be damned if they weren't the first ones waiting at the door to come in."

Create a sense of value at your booth

One of Gartner's biggest pet peeves is when companies feature the infamous "fishbowl" giveaway contest at their booth. The premise is that show attendees will drop their business cards in the bowl for a chance to win a prize and the company will garner a large stack of potential business leads.

"Those aren't qualified leads," Gartner argues. "A business card is not a lead. That's someone who wants to win a prize. They've got very little interest in your business. I'd rather get 10 good business cards at the show than 100 cards from people who just want to win something."

So Gartner tries to offer something of value that his company can continue to provide after the show. Simply put, find some promotional tie-in to whatever it is you're selling.

"What is perceived value?" asks Gartner. "Am I getting a cup of coffee? Will I get a free subscription or a free product trial? What gives the prospect incentive to come see your booth is to offer him something he can use. But don't just expect floor traffic to come in and hand you a credit card."

Interact with your visitors

When Gartner attended his first trade show back in 1993, he remembers watching exhibitors sitting and watching as show attendees strolled past their booths. "They just sat there," recalls Gartner. "Some didn't even greet the people who stopped at their booth to look at literature. It didn't make any sense. I mean, isn't the whole goal of attending a show to meet people and present your products and services to potential clients?"

That's why Gartner makes it a point to talk to visitors as they pass by the XYZ booth, inviting them inside. He stresses the point with his employees. "If you've got 20 people at your booth, you'll have 40," says Gartner. "That's because there's something going on. A crowd draws a crowd. The more people that stop and look, the more other people will be drawn in to see what's going on."

Gartner says this can also be achieved by providing visual effects at the booth, such as large computer monitors with ongoing color-laden presentations. "You want to do whatever you can to get that traffic," he says.

Follow up

No matter how successful a show is on the floor, it doesn't mean much until after the event is over. That's when a company's sales staff has to follow up on every qualified lead acquired at the show.

Gartner remembers talking to colleagues after the 1993 show who said they were disappointed with the results. "I got eight deals out of the show," he says. "Nobody else got any. That's because they didn't do anything with the leads. Why even do a trade show if you're not going to call the people back afterward? It has to be a part of your whole game plan."

XYZ takes time at the show to qualify leads by asking attendees what types of software they use.

After the show, sales reps determine whether those prospects can become clients-either through further training or upgrading their existing software to newer releases.

That's one reason Gartner warns against the fishbowl strategy. "Why get that many unqualified leads that your sales reps can't call back on?" he says. "Don't do a disservice to your reps and overfill their boats when they're already full."

Gartner says the trick to a successful show is considering the big picture and treating the trade show as part of a company's entire marketing strategy. "The trade show, itself, though it's what people see, is really only one small part of the little pieces that get you there," he says. "Sometimes it takes hundreds of hours of work just to have one successful show."

How to reach: XYZ Corp
(440) 269-1177