Are Trade Show Dynamics Changing?

Are trade shows dying or not? CSI’s Product Representation Practice Group took up this question in a recent meeting. Their answer seemed to be, “maybe.” Trade shows will fail if they don’t adjust to today’s audience and leverage the thing they do best: face-to-face contact with a rep and a product.

Practice group members agreed that there’s no shortage of trade shows right now, so they choose their venues carefully. “We could attend a trade show just about every day,” said Practice Group leader Alana Grifith, FCSI, Lifetime Member, CCPR.Hear a recording of this meeting.

Reasons for going to a trade show, even in this economy, include:
  • Checking out the competition: Where else will you get a guided tour of the other guy’s product?
  • It’d be noticeable if we weren’t there: Part of maintaining a reputation in the industry is being seen in a well-appointed booth.
  • A tradeshow is a big trip that replaces a lot of small trips: You can see contacts in one visit instead of booking a series of trips to an area, which makes it a greener, cheaper choice.
  • Leads, leads, leads: Any opportunity to shake a hand and meet a potential client is valuable.
But the big reason to attend a construction industry trade show, whether it’s a national event or a local table-top display, is touch. The web may provide reams of data about a product, but construction people prefer to touch a material and understand it with their fingers as well as their minds.

“There’s an intangible but very real difference between a relationship formed over the phone and one established in person, and definitely between a gadget you’ve only seen pictures of and one you’ve held in your hands,” according to a blog entry Griffith quoted. “(People) will understand things in a tactile way by using all five sense that they may not have understood by using only one or two.”

"If you're in more of a textile business, how do you do it if you're not going to a traditional tradeshow?” one participant asked. “They figure they can Google the word 'dry wall' -- but it doesn't mean those products are available, or available for through distributors you trust."

"This is a tactile industry,” Stirling Morris, CSI, CDT, said. “There's a lot of great information on line, but trade shows won't go the way of the dinosaurs for construction."

"Is the next trend in trade shows to be bigger & better?” Griffith said. “It really could shape our industry."

The challenge for product reps is to understand how the value of a trade show is shifting, and to adjust their goals for an event accordingly. Although LinkedIn, Facebook and other social networking platforms have made it easier to stay in touch (as have cell phones and laptops), trade shows still have the advantage when it comes to eye contact and handshakes.

If a rep can make the booth work smoothly with the company website, it’s even better. Products with comprehensive websites and responsive, knowledgeable product reps get spec’d, Griffith said.

"A lot of it comes down to how we expect to resource information,” a rep said. “I've got offices with architects who don't want literature anymore. How do we show value to these people face-to-face?"

“We need to identify with a new audience,” Griffith said. “They don’t want the same old trade show experience.”

Several group members reported they still expect to generate leads at a trade show.

"When I'm in my booth, I usually get quite a few,” one rep said. “There's always people there I haven't met."

Generating the right kind of leads can be tricky. A gimmick, such as a prize-drawing, may draw attention, but the people dropping their cards in the fish bowl who aren’t potential clients are getting between the rep and a person who could be.

One rep reported that she now produces cheaper versions of her literature so that she has something to hand to someone who is not a good lead, but who wants the material.

Reps also have to be prepped for booth work. They need to know:
  • How to engage: "A lot of people aren't stepping out and engaging the professionals,” a designer said. "I can hit four or five rows before someone says something to me."
  • How to focus: Chatting on cell phones and with the guy in the next booth can keep a rep from talking to a genuine lead.
  • How to eat: Don’t eat in the booth if you can help it. Schedule breaks for booth staff.
  • How to behave: "It's our job as professionals to be warm and friendly and to communicate about our products,” a participant said.
  • Where to put the furniture: A booth should always feel open. Setting a table at the front for you to stand behind just makes it harder for traffic to wander in and out.
  • How to set the stage: Use giant, beautiful images of the product; looping videos of real construction projects; samples that lift, swing, open and shut; education sessions and demonstrations that answer questions; and booths made out of the product. A California caller recalled a company that sold security doors, and kept a steel door in the booth that had been shot with various weapons to prove their point. "That was the only thing in their booth, and it showed what different weapons do to their product. I can still remember it years later."
"It's like being in a storefront window, and you're the mannequin,” Griffith said. “If you're inattentive or not zoning in on what they're looking for, that's pretty bad branding for what you pay for a trade show."

Morris recommended holding a meeting of the reps that will be in the booth to discuss how to effectively work the booth. Exhibit organizers can help, too, by holding a meeting of all the exhibitors to discuss booth do’s and don’ts.

"You can do a lot in a booth if it's done well,” Griffith said. “It's all in how you display your product and how you engage the traffic that's walking by."

The Product Representation Practice Group’s next meeting will be April 12.

Got an idea for a session? Send it to CSI Education Manager Erica Cox at

CSI’s Product Representation Practice Group is a community for people working in product representation, whether they represent one manufacturer or several. The group also welcomes any design professional, specifier, or others to join us if they have an interest in these issues. Join the group! It’s free!

CSI is now planning the 2011 Product Representative Academy, to be held in Dallas in February. If you’re interested in the PRA, join the Product Representation Practice Group to make sure you’re getting the scoop about this event.

Chusid Associates will be speaking on trade shows at Construct 2010.

View our
archived article on trade shows.

*This article was reposted from*