Trade Shows-Business Necessity or Bacchanalian Orgies ?

It is the time of year when many of us have returned from tours of duty at various trade exhibitions in different parts of the globe . We regale our partners/pets/colleagues or anyone who will listen as to how knackered we are because of spending all day negotiating deals with existing or prospective clients, then continuing during the evening in dull restaurants serving mediocre food whilst trying to close the deal .

At the very same time, those willing to listen are thinking yeah right. You’ve spent the day lolling about on the company stand, followed by evenings of swigging wine , quaffing beer and spirits, stuffing yourself with over rich food and then sitting in the hotel bar drinking even more until the early hours of the morning.

The truth is probably somewhere in between.

Back in the dim and dark distant past (fifties, early sixties) exhibiting in various trade shows ,my parents told me of days where they had stock rooms (generally hotel bedrooms ) at various trade exhibitions, and at 6 when the show closed , would invite a number of customers , lock the doors, and play poker and drink until late , and were back on duty at 9 every morning .

I have done many, many exhibitions (probably a couple of hundred) in various countries and yes there have been some unnecessary late nights . And yes, it probably still goes on but nothing like before.

The point is does any of this of any real commercial benefit ?

Advantages of exhibiting at trade shows

The benefits of exhibiting include:

  • Raise awareness – exhibiting at industry events is a good way to raise your profiles and generate brand awareness. As well as taking a stand at an event, there are usually other advertising and sponsorship opportunities.
  • Meet in person – meeting face-to-face with potential customers is a great way to start building relationships.
  • Networking – trade shows are a great way to meet potential new customers, suppliers and to learn more about your competitors. 
  • Launch new product – trade shows are a good place to introduce a new product or service. Being able to explain your offering in person and answer questions is ideal if your product is innovative.
  • Build your database – meeting with potential customers at an exhibition helps you to start building your marketing lists and generate qualified sales leads.

My opinion on this has gone through various full circles . Up until the early 90’s it was about order taking . This changed quite dramatically. Within a couple years many exhibitors, including myself, thought is this worth the time and money any more . There were plenty of stand visitors but all the wanted to was look at product for a bit , and then just talk. Some may well say so what ? Talking is good . But that’s not how many of us thought at the time .

Over the next five years there was another change . There were less buyers, not just in the U.K. but worldwide. That equated to lower attendances . So we all got even more fed up. It has taken a long time for exhibitors to come to terms with this . No buyers not talking, no orders not writing . What are we here for?

The consequence is the shrinkage in exhibition space and in exhibitions. Hastened by the unbelievable bad attitude to exhibitors carried out by a number of event organisers. The one that comes to my mind is that of the Spring Fair at the NEC in Birmingham. A string of major exhibition organisers who have run the show and constantly dumped on their customers (exhibitors) from a very great height. Partly, as a consequence the show has shrunk from 21 halls to 8 and a bit .

So it comes down to what use are they, if any ? Do they have a purpose ? I would go as far to say that anyone involved in any level of the supply chain should visit at least one every year. Its about talking. Talking with suppliers, customers , competitors and any part of the chain you may come across . Looking at trends, ideas and generally get a view of where your particular market is going. Many, most especially retailers ( and include online operators) work in a bubble. The bubble being their own store or computer screen. That can create a very jaundiced view of the market. There is the possibility of finding that one product or supplier that you did not know or could not find , that makes your offering different from competitors. The same applies to exhibitors. It is the one time when they can see inside their competitors showrooms and talk to your competitors. So while you are talking, test out your new products (don’t have any? -make one up, its criminal not to have some new product at a trade show. There is no other way to show new items to as many customers in such a short space of time . And anyway, without fail they will ask what’s new ? we’ve got a new dog ! Is not the answer ( well it can but there should be a bit more 🐶).

Exhibitions do have their place. And it is often a very valuable one. What was very noticeable after the lockdown is that most attendees were delighted to be there to talk, both Exhibitors and visitors alike.

Orgies? Well I confess. Many years ago during The Harrogate Toy Fair (as it was called then) a major Toy Importer hosted Mud Wrestling in the Cairn Hotel . And was I invited ? Yes. Did I go ? Yes. Did I regret it ? Yes.