Pierce Hollingsworth

Trade shows represent an opportunity to make contacts, reinforce relationships, cultivate business, and even close deals. Yet few companies use the experience to its fullest potential.

To help companies make the most of the upcoming IFT Food Expo, to be held in New Orleans, La., on June 24–27, IFT in February held a full-day workshop called Food Expo U. It detailed how exhibiting companies can apply quantifiable goals and objectives to their trade show participation for maximum results.

The program featured Jefferson Davis, president of Competitive Edge, a Charlotte, N.C.–based company specializing in effective trade show strategies. I asked him to summarize his key points so these methods, tips, and techniques could reach a broader audience. Here are my questions and his answers:

What’s the first step in making a trade show experience pay off?
Face-to-face contact. That’s what it’s all about. Any other benefit a trade show offers can be captured though other media channels for the most part. You’ve also got a unique dynamic where the customers are coming to you with a relatively open mind. They’re far more receptive to newer, faster, better, cheaper, improved, safer, longer-lasting than they are back at their place of business. Your booth is your turf—it’s your space, so you can control the experience within your exhibit.

What do you need to do before the show to maximize your ability to take advantage of that face-to-face opportunity?
The key is to know who the faces are and how many of those faces you can interact with during the show. One of the formulas we used during Expo U is called exhibiting by the numbers, where we multiply the total number of exhibiting hours by the number of staff that will be working the booth to derive total available staff hours. Then we multiply by a conservative number of face-to-face contacts each staffer should make in a given hour. That gives us a total number of target interactions—our primary trade show objective. [Example: 21 total exhibit hours times 8 people in the booth equals 168 staff hours. A contact rate of 4 per hour equals 672 potential contacts during the show.]

How do you manage that kind of effort?
Surveys indicate that the biggest average expense is booth architecture, which represents 29% of total cost. Exhibiting companies must ask why the emphasis is placed here, instead of on the people who are going to work that exhibit. If you had 8 staff working your booth and you’re investing $50,000 for the show, divide that by the 168 staff hours and your cost per hour per person is $298. Not many companies realize that’s what they’re paying per hour per person. If we actually had to go into our pocket and hand this person $300 an hour, would we have this person in this role, and how would our expectations change?

What should we be looking for in terms of quality interaction?
Use available survey data to identify the target customer within the show audience. Also identify how many of those people you can expect to be at the show. Let’s say that I market a cellulose gel. And suppose IFT survey data say 8% of the total audience over the past two years had an interest in cellulose gels, with 3.5% of those planning to purchase. If 20,000 attendees are expected at Food Expo this year there are about 560 people walking around that show floor who plan to buy. Those would be the people I’d want my people face-to-face with.

How do you target those people?
Scan the preregistered attendee list and look at product interest categories. That is an audience that has raised its hand, so your job is to get on their list. This list tells you not only who they are but also how many of them will be there. Once you have that number you can plan your exhibit more effectively.

What are the hidden pitfalls in trade show planning?
Failing to set goals, not enough pre-show planning, too much focus on logistics and exhibit architecture vs staff training, ineffective or a lack of targeted pre-show marketing, not holding staff meetings before the show opens, not providing staff training, and not recognizing that your people are going to either make or break the success of the show.

What’s the most effective way to make sure the right people show up at your booth?
Postcards are a low-cost, high-impact promotional tool. At Expo U, we outlined two types of campaigns. One is general awareness, where you reach to the industry at large. That would use a combination of Food Expo media opportunities, general trade advertising, and IFT’s advertising sponsorship on the Internet. The high-profile campaign tries to secure a visit or an appointment, using a very tight list, maybe only 50 or 100 names.

What role do premiums and incentives play in this process?
Rewards are an important part of the strategy. Determine what that customer is worth on the initial transaction and what you are willing to invest to virtually guarantee that you’ll get them to your booth.

We’ve got the right people now, how do we make the most of it?
Set a definitive lead goal, based on the number of interactions. Also, make sure staff can distinguish between a lead and an inquiry. A lead is a person who has received personal attention, key questions have been asked, answers have been recorded, and the next step has been identified and agreed on by the visitor. Also, you should have someone who’s checking the leads, as well as a central place where all leads are deposited.

How important are ancillary activities like hospitality suites?
Exhibiting hours are your fixed playing field. You can extend them by using the morning before the events open and the evening. Obviously, hospitality can play a key role. When they’re at your hospitality event, they’re not at your competitor’s.

Contributing Editor