By Melissa T. Stock
Caveat Emptor–let the buyer beware; wasted time is wasted money when is comes to working a trade show. However, you can maximize your investment, see what’s new and find lots of great deals if you plan ahead.
So what IS the best way to work a show? We asked two veteran show exhibitors and attendees, Dennis Hayes, formerly Special Markets Manager for Ten Speed Press in Berkeley, California and Doug Skoglunds, owner, Bear Island Trading Post, to share their secrets of success, and most importantly, to reveal what entices them to place orders at a show. Hayes and Skoglunds combined attended more than forty trade shows a year, including the Fancy Food Show, the National Fiery Foods and Barbecue Show, the Natural Products Show, various gift shows and more.
MS: How should exhibitors and buyers choose what shows to attend?
DH: My advice is to contact key accounts and ask them to name the single most important show they go to. When you hear the name of the same show over and over, you’ll know where to start. Another great resource is the National Trade Show Directory. It lists every show, time and location.
DS: I try to find shows that are unusual. Also, I suggest you look for shows that will have a good sampling of the products you are looking for; it saves a lot of phone time later. For example, I started dabbling in hot sauce in my stores about two years ago. There just wasn’t anyone else offering hot stuff in Minnesota where four of my stores are located, so the Fiery Foods Show is a natural for me. I started out buying onesies and twosies of products just to see how they would be received by my customers. I went from ordering a case of hot products every two to three months, to ordering a case once or twice a week during the holiday season.
MS: What needs to be done before you go to a show?
DH: Knowing who you want to talk to in advance is key. It’s important to take a look at your existing product line and really think about how you’d like to grow your business. Do your homework and find out ahead of time what the trends are and what products are growing in popularity.
DS: First, I try to talk to people whose products I am interested in and find out if they are planning on exhibiting at the show. Next, I find out what show specials they will be featuring. It’s real easy to spend all your money quickly at a show and this helps me make a priority list.
MS: What is your procedure once you get to the show?
DH: As an attendee, I try to spend some time in advance scanning the show directory and the floor layout so I can make a cohesive plan that will allow me to see whom I need to see first.
DS: The first day I blitz the show–walking up and down the aisles picking up cards at the booths I find interesting, without talking much to vendors. I make notes on the cards and later that night go back to the hotel and make a plan for the following day, incorporating both the people I had scheduled to see before the show, and the new people I am interesting in talking to. I have found that if I just go booth to booth without a plan, it is pretty easy to get overwhelmed.
MS: What should exhibitors have prepared for you?
DH: It goes without saying that they need an interesting product and an attractive exhibit. They also need to provide proper send-along information. Important pieces include a catalog that will answer questions about the products they are featuring at the show, a price list, and purchasing requirements, such as whether cases can be split.
DS: They should definitely include shipping information, as well as what they offer in terms of dealer support. I really appreciate it if they provide flyers or posters which help me educate my customers on how they can use these products. I also think it is a great idea to offer merchandising, display and decorating ideas. For example, I learned that spicy cookbooks sell well when they are placed next to hot sauces and salsas. In fact, special placement helps with the sale of both products. A tip sheet is a great idea to help retailers.
MS: What entices you to place orders at a show?
DH: Definitely have a show special. If I like a product, but the vendor is not offering an incentive such as free shipping or a percentage of savings on the product, I am probably going to wait to purchase that product until after the show. I am going to use my budget on products that are a deal at the show.
DS: Free shipping is a big incentive for me. I usually order about 25 percent of the products I found at the show while I am still at the show. If there isn’t any incentive, I’ll wait until later. If exhibitors aren’t offering incentives, ask; chances are they will make you a deal.
MS: Is there other advice that you can offer?
DH: Exhibitors need to realize that realistically, it takes three to six months to judge the success of a show. Remember, the idea is to cement relationships at the show, not hard sell. After the show is when the real work begins. I often am very interested in a product at a show, but sadly, no one ever follows up with me. The last thing I would say is to remember that every lead is a potential customer. Never prejudge or make assumptions about someone stopping by a booth. Often times that person is the eyes and ears of a buyer who couldn’t make it.
DS: As a buyer, be willing to try new things in your store. Try small quantities, and give it some time to work. I really didn’t think that hot sauce would be popular in Minnesota, but the product is flying off the shelves, and people don’t even blink at the prices.