Trade shows are like first dates, first meetings, or job interviews. Unless you have an ego like Donald Trump, these "firsts" scare the bejesus out of you. They should. No matter how well you prepare, the unknowns trump the knowns by a ratio of about 10,000 to 1. If you've ever been on a blind date, or even a first date with someone you've just met, you know that a date is about being the person you strive to be, not the person you are.
Of course, not everyone has the gumption, the imagination, or the self-awareness to lift their game to the next level. Some people never grasp that first impressions are lasting impressions. They wear scuffed shoes to the job interview, slouch in the chair, chew gum, or dress inappropriately. They make the decision easy for the interviewer. On that important first date, when every word and every gesture is scrutinized, they monopolize the conversation, talk with their mouth full of food, and tell jokes that would offend Redd Foxx.
I suspect, however, that most of us strive to make a positive first impression. After all, we want to be liked, we want to be respected. In a typical social situation, we engage others in conversation in order to learn about their lives and to share ours.
Then why do so many trade show exhibits stink and so many trade show booth staffers stink even more. For the vast majority of attendees, their first impression of you is based on your display. It's their first date, your first interview, and the first meeting for both of you. Walk the typical trade show, whether it's a Chamber of Commerce "Meet and Greet" or your industry's lollapalooza in Las Vegas, Orlando, or Chicago. About 50 percent of the exhibits are creative, targeted, and well-planned. The booth staff understands their roles and makes every effort to behave like outstanding role models. No inappropriate scratching, no Starbucks coffee cups littering the display, no obsessive Crackberry distractions. They are there to work the show and understand that during show hours every interaction is a performance.
And then there are the other 50 percent. Let's start with the booth. My oh my. . . too often it's bulletin board artwork stuck to a booth built by the Alf and Ralph, the Monroe Brothers on Green Acres. Or if it's a professionally designed exhibit, it's long in the tooth, damaged, and the exhibit equivalent of Archie's jalopy sitting on cinder blocks. Now that may be acceptable at the local hobby fair, but wearing the trade show equivalent of a lime green leisure suit at the Governor's Ball is tacky (funny but still tacky). It screams, "I just don't care." Now you may be comfortable on your first date with a big piece of spinach stuck to your front teeth, but even if your date has matching green dental jewelry, chances are there will not be a second date. Trade shows are expensive, but the actual display is usually the least expensive investment over 2-3 years. So invest wisely.
Now the booth staff. This is almost too easy. So rather than riff on the stereotypical cell phone chatting, Motrin popping from a hangover, couldn't give a rat's @$$ booth staffers, let's take the high road. The reason too many exhibits are staffed with the wrong people is simple. They are the wrong people. They don't have a vested interest in the company's success, they aren't knowledgeable, and they aren't "people" people. Trade shows are not magazine ads or television spots. They are face-to-face sales opportunities. How often have you been to a Chamber of Commerce mixer and the local bank's display is staffed by a teller? The teller is pleasant and pleasant-looking, but he/she doesn't know anything about the bank's loan programs, CD rates, or charitable programs. The teller shouldn't be there. The local branch manager should be. Pamphlets, key chains, and cleavage are not replacements for one-on-one knowledge.
Ideally, your trade show staffing should have senior management participation. They have the knowledge and the vested interest. Too often, however, they wander the show floor like a band of schoolgirls whispering snide comments about competitors, eating candy, and planning the evening's activities. Never underestimate the power of a title. And unless your senior management is poison, meeting the CEO or President of a company in their booth can turn "interest" into an "order" almost immediately.
Want to succeed at your next trade show? Treat it like a first date. Look your best and mind your manners. Remember that first impressions are lasting impressions. And no matter how tempting that spinach omelet looks for breakfast, it's probably a good idea to select the oatmeal instead. ;-)
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