Don't use trade show to evaluate US market.

It is easy to get lost among the other exhibitors
at a trade show unless you know what
you want to achieve and have a plan.
Foreign manufacturers sometimes exhibit at North American tradeshows, "to see what are our prospects in the US?" This is seldom an effective type of market research.

There is a classic parable about two sales reps sent to a distant country to peddle shoes. After a day, one sent a message to company headquarters, "Coming home on next boat; no one wears shoes here." The other cabled, "Send lots of shoes; no one wears shoes here." But neither would have a valid impression of the true market if they formed their opinions while visiting the beach.

A company from the Netherlands, for example, exhibited at a recent World of Concrete. Not only is their brand unfamiliar in the US, their product category and technology are also foreign to US contractors without international experience.  The staff working the booth were unable to address technology transfer issues such as US building codes. Even their booth and sales skills reflected a European aesthetic and approach to business that does not communicate effectively to North Americans. Yet they were trying to judge the attitudes of American customers.

The Dutch exhibitors were frustrated since they did not know how to explain their product to American contractors. They were trying to "sell" instead of trying to "learn". Their mission may have been more successful if their effort was designed as a real market research opportunity.

For example, they could have conducted "aisle intercept" survey, asking people passing their booth to stop and answer a few questions. A drawing for a trip to Holland would have caught attendees interest and begun the process of building goodwill.

An Italian exhibitor had invested in a 400 sq. ft. island booth in which they had assembled a structure built with their building system - a material costing more than domestic products. Their system may have had benefits that justified the costs, but we will never know. That's because none of the eight executives working the booth spoke fluent English. While they had employed a translator, the individual struggled with the technical jargon of construction.  More, the firm built their demonstration project around the perimeter of their island, then sat inside the display as if they were hiding behind walls. One hopes that, at least, they enjoyed their junket to Vegas.

What are the alternatives
Before investing in the expense of exhibiting at a trade show, do some due diligence. It can be helpful, for example, to attend the trade show as a participant before deciding to exhibit. This gives you the chance to see your potential competitors. And informal discussions with people attending the show can also help you understand the market. Some of Chusid Associates' clients go further, hiring us to "walk the show" with them, so we can point out trends and identify key players.

You can also use a show for private presentations. One of our clients had us recruit targeted prospects to private demonstrations where our client could hold brief but highly informative interviews. Similarly, trade shows are a great opportunity for focus groups, since you can recruit a panel that reflects regional diversity.

One final suggestion: If you are exhibiting at a trade show to "stick a finger in the wind" as a way to judge a market, have your signage and literature translated into English. And avoid using idioms like "sticking a finger in the wind," an expression that might not translate well.