Trade Shows: What I Learned Working the Other Side of the Booth

food-trends-overhead-shotI spent 20 years working trade shows from behind an exhibitor’s booth table. And in my role as a business-to-business magazine editor at those events, that’s where I typically remained — available to meet readers and discuss stories or story ideas. I’ve written plenty of articles over the years packed with tips about how to get the most out of attending a trade show, but I never truly worked a show as an official attendee until last week.

Now that I’m running my own business and not exhibiting at trade shows (at least not yet), I’ve started experiencing these things from a whole new perspective. In eight days, I attended two very different kinds of trade shows: The Wisconsin Grocers Association‘s Innovation Expo, held at a waterpark resort in the “Waterpark Capital of the World” known as Wisconsin Dells, and the InBusiness Expo & Conference for Madison, Wis.-based professionals. I had no booth I needed to watch, and nobody was pulling me in multiple directions. Just me against the clock, trying to take it all in before show hours ended.

Here are three key observations I made, which also can help other trade show attendees — and maybe even exhibitors.

1. Most people are friendly — if they want to be. If they are exhibiting at a trade show, that often means they like interacting with others. Sure, they want new business. Who doesn’t? But even if you’re not an obvious buyer (I wasn’t), the majority of exhibitors still will take the time to chat and get to know you and your company better. Now, I’m not naive; they could simply be trying to make the time go faster during a slowdown in traffic by talking to you. But I always tried to stay congenial when I manned a booth, and at the two shows I recently attended, not one person at either of them blew me off. Some individuals and companies were even interested in my services, so we’ve been chatting some more. Take note, exhibiting companies and expo planners: That kind of friendliness is the main reason I’ll probably return to both shows again next year.

2. Freebies either work or they don’t. As an exhibitor, I was discouraged from grabbing booth freebies, even if it was nothing more than a bite-size Hershey’s Bar or a small workout towel emblazoned with ESPN’s logo, and I’m still a bit sheepish about sauntering up to a booth offering goods or services that don’t interest me just to grab a flash drive. But at the WGA show, I was encouraged to grab. So I indulged in several pieces of pizza, a variety of cranberry-based products, a cool and delicious organic/gluten-free snack and some extremely juicy pineapple pieces. I also walked out with three thin pizza crusts, two packages of the best donut holes I’ve ever tasted (Thanks, Clyde’s!) and some crappy caramel apples. My haul at the InBusiness Expo included a beer glass and a $5 gift card (very cool), lip balm, a toothbrush and orange-colored Kit-Kats (acceptable) and one of those cardboard fans on a stick (indefensible). Do something to make me remember you — for all the right reasons!

3. Tearing down early is not OK. I remember how it felt to spend 10 hours in a booth looking at the empty aisle in front of me but resisting the urge to start packing up — fearing expo officials would notice and sell my much sought-after piece of show-floor real-estate to someone who would better follow the rules next year. So why does early teardown still happen so frequently? Are another 20 minutes really going to kill you? Neither show was what I would call “dead” when I started noticing exhibitors dismantling and eventually vacating their booths with an hour to go. I know sticking around can sometimes be tough, though, and often the reasons for an early departure are completely legit. That’s why my goal now is to arrive at future shows sooner or, if that’s not feasible, work the floor faster.

Either way, I’m ready for my next trade show.