By Michael Perrault, P.E.
My first real experience as a participant in a “Trade Show” was with the local community business association. They decided to hold a trade show on the Town Common in September on the same day as the opening day for the fall community soccer program. The soccer program, in our Town, has an opening day parade for about 1,500 children of all ages, that ends at the Town Common. The business association hoped that the parents and the children would also stop by the big tent on the Common to visit the tables being manned by the various merchants in the Town. In anticipation of that show, I created a nice display with photographs of typical engineering projects as well as technical promotional handouts, company pens and coffee mugs with our company logo, etc.
The business owners arrived early and set up their table displays with great anticipation. What happened that day was similar to a biblical story describing swarms of locusts devouring everything in sight. If it was not firmly attached it was gone, baby gone. Children grabbing every and any free item as quickly as possible. A well seasoned magician could not have made those items disappear as fast as they did that day.
Parents did wander through the tent at a more refined pace and sometimes paused at the booths to talk with the business owners. Even long time Town residents came by to say hello and some actually asked a few questions. Those same people in subsequent years stopped by and asked the same questions again.
The intent of the trade show was to have the townspeople become more aware of the local business and what they have to offer the community. If the overall quantity of pens and other “freebies” bearing the names of the various businesses that were distributed that day are considered, then the intent of the trade show was met, provided that the children shared their “booty” with their parents and these collected items were not confined to the kitchen junk drawer.
For several years I participated in this September trade show. Each year I updated the display, handouts and give-away items. After four years, I noticed that certain people became regular returning attendees, like the elderly Maine couple that returns every year to the Fryeburg Fair (you will have to ask me about this story, it’s worth the $10). Same questions asked and the same answers given.
With all the costs, time and effort made to prepare for these annual trade shows, I could not clearly state that my business received any new customers as a direct result from participating in the trade show. When I decided, after several years, not to participate any longer in the local Business Association trade show, several of the business members were surprised. Of course they represent local Banks, Insurance Agencies, Restaurants and other similar businesses. Civil Engineering and Land Planning consulting firms are a little different from these types of local businesses.
The idea of doing another Trade Show was not on my top-ten list of things to do. However, I decided that a change of location, a different market target and new participants may have different results. The Metro South Chamber of Commerce was having a trade show / exhibition in conjunction with their annual awards luncheon. Being a member of this Chamber of Commerce, I thought that maybe this was an opportunity to network with other members that would be attending the luncheon meeting. The type of booth display, promotional handouts and “free’ items needed to be brought up to a more professional level as compared to the local show. The booth looked great and I was correct that members attending the luncheon would be present to visit the various displays on exhibit.
Experience is a harsh teacher. First, not all persons attending the luncheon arrived early enough to visit the various tables and displays, nor did a large number of these participants linger after lunch to view them either. Second, the total potential number of Chamber Members and Associates, etc. was limited to those people who chose to participate in the luncheon. Third, the reason that some people attended was simply that their boss bought a table for the luncheon and needed bodies to fill the empty seats. These casual participants, while not being interested in networking, became a new breed of trade show locusts.
What I did learn was to not hide in my display area, but to wander around and talk with the other businesses manning their own booths while leaving one person at my booth. The exchanging of business cards and brief introductions provided as many leads as the booth’s “raffle box”.
Having learned this valuable lesson, I experimented with a slightly different type of business exposition. One of the target markets for potential leads for a civil engineering and land planning consultant is the real estate sales industry. The Jack Conway Real Estate Company, who is probably the largest real estate firm in southeastern Massachusetts, holds an annual conference for their sales staff. This conference includes training seminars, workshops, presentations and a luncheon banquet. This conference includes a limited trade show exhibition area for businesses associated with the real estate industry. Having already made a presentation to over thirty sales managers, I thought that this show would be a good opportunity to re-introduce PMP Associates to not only the sales managers but to over a thousand sales professionals. New handouts and “freebies” that were associated with the real estate industry needed to be prepared and distributed. For this type of venue, the “raffle box” was quite valuable in harvesting business cards. Since all the participants are the “target”, it was important to feed these locusts. Since that day at the Jack Conway conference, I have been allowed to present a small seminar at six of the Jack Conway regional offices during a monthly sales associate meeting.
Since the experience with the Metro South Chamber was not everything that I had hoped, I decided to participate in the Plymouth Area Chamber of Commerce Business Expo. This one-day event had a luncheon for Chamber Members but the exposition hall was open to the general public. The event was well advertised and was well attended. For this event I kept the “freebies” limited to avoid having the display look like a tornado blew through the hall. Because of the larger scale of this Expo, there were more opportunities to network with the other business and have these businesses visit my booth and hopefully gain a better understanding about what we as civil engineers do for our clients
The photo to the right is the trade show booth at the Plymouth Area Chamber of Commerce 2008 Business Expo.
The leading question, “Trade shows – Are they for civil engineers?” can not get a simple answer.
If the intent of the Trade Show is to generate new work, for example, a kitchen sales company at a Home Show, then my answer in NO.
If the intent is to be introduced and network with the other businesses participating in the Trade Show, then I have to ask, why did I spend the time and money? I could have just attended without manning a booth. Final answer on this one is also NO.
Participation in a Trade Show may be worthwhile if the intent is for a long term marketing program that combines networking and name recognition. This long term program can not be limited to an annual trade show but must be combined with monthly events.