Best of Show

Warning: tradeshows are highly emotional, ego-driven events - do not get sucked into the hype.

Despite what the most earnest Marketing Executive will tell you, tradeshows never make or break a company. Ignore your sales and marketing people when they tell you that your company will be embarrassed if you do not purchase an expansive, $150,000 booth. They should be embarrassed for uttering such ludicrous advice. If one or more of your team members has booth envy, require them to memorize the refrain from Public Enemy’s “Don’t Believe the Hype”.

Splash in the Revenue

If you are not closing sales at a tradeshow, the investment to place a booth on the show floor is likely unwarranted. Using a tradeshow to establish brand identity and make a splash is usually money poorly spent. Only Big Dumb Companies (“BDC’s”) have enough money to waste in such a profoundly inane manner. As noted in Conventional Wisdom Isn’t, in many instances, bigger is not better.

Your customers will buy from you because your solution economically fulfills their expectations. They will not remember what your tradeshow booth looked like by the time they get on the plane to sleep off their hangover on the flight home. Booth size does not matter to them and it should not matter to you either.

Assuming you are closing business on the show floor, you can enhance your close rate by making it as easy as possible for your prospects to become customers. One way to do so is to create a streamlined, show-only contract that is short, limits your prospects’ risk and can be signed right on the show floor without the need to get the prospect’s legal team involved. Depending on the nature of your product, this might be best represented as a Paid Pilot or some other demonstration oriented sale. Pricing should be positioned as a show special and you should give your prospect an easy out if your solution does not satisfy their needs.

Boothmates and Conference Rooms

The Fringe method for maximizing the impact of a tradeshow is to cajole one of your partners into giving you a small portion of their booth space. This will save you money while still providing you presence on the show floor. The very public affirmation of your relationship with the BDC will also enhance your credibility. If you properly leverage your partnership exposure, you should be able to encourage other BDC’s to partner with you.

You can also economically establish a presence at a show by booking a conference room or suite in a nearby hotel. Use such rooms for private meetings, to perform product demonstrations and entertain prospects in a controllable and intimate setting. This approach allows you to play upon prospects’ and potential partners’ egos by emphasizing the exclusive nature of a private invitation to your solution suite.

As noted in Competing From The Fringe, tradeshows are ideal settings to gain competitive insights. The confidentiality afforded by a private forum will preclude your competitors from gaining firsthand competitive knowledge that they might be able to use against you.

Nurses in T-shirts

Do not confuse chachkie interest with product interest. At one tradeshow I attended early in my career, our company had one of the busiest booths on the show floor. We had a very novel product that was new to the market. We also were giving away really cool T-shirts.

The Chairman of the company, who also attended the show, would tell anyone who would listen (and even some who would not) that, “our booth was nearly knocked over by nurses”. In a vacuum, this was a true statement. Unfortunately, the nurses were interested in snagging a free T-shirt and really could have cared less about our product. The minority who had a legitimate interest in our product had no influence on the buying process. As we eventually (and quite painfully) learned, our product was purchased by surgeons and hospital administrators, not nurses. As such, we should have escorted the nurses out of our booth to make room for real customers, rather than giving away T-shirts purchased with investors’ money.

The fact that the Company’s Chairman was at the tradeshow is indicative of some of the challenges we faced as a Management Team – see Founderitis for suggestions regarding how to deal with a rogue, misguided Chairman.

Lessons Learned: Qualify your lead source, properly differentiate product interest from chachkie interest and only give out chachkies to potential decision makers.

Tradeshows Are Not Vacations

Tradeshow organizers place marginal shows in resort destinations for obvious reasons. They know that BDC employees are more likely to attend a show if it is hosted in a desirable locale, even if it is a complete boondoggle.

Unfortunately, your firm does not have an equivalent travel budget of the typical BDC. As such, remind your team that they can take plenty of vacations once your adVenture is purchased by a BDC. Until then, tradeshows should only be attended by people who can drive sales. Less is more – a small team focused on closing sales in a private suite is enough.

Be sure your team understands that the proper way to look at competitors’ lavish booths is to assess how many sales they must close to recoup their costs, let alone make money. You might also remind your folks that you prefer to put cash in your employees’ pockets while investing the remainder to fuel the company’s growth, rather than purchasing glitzy, ego-driven tradeshow monstrosities.

It's fake that's what it be to 'ya, dig me?
Don't believe the hype...

Public Enemy

Tradeshows are marketed based on fear of loss. Entrepreneurs are encouraged to believe that they must pay top-dollar for the ideal booth location, compelling chachkies and an imposing booth that will capture the imagination of its potential customers. Don’t believe the hype.

Your decisions related to tradeshows should be devoid of ego and emotion. As with any significant expenditure, deploy a rigorous and disciplined return on investment analysis to each show. You can secure your place on The Fringe by rejecting booth envy, focusing on closing sales on the show floor and policing tradeshow attendance to avoid them turning into company paid vacations.

Do you have any tradeshow tips and tricks you care to share? We would love to hear about The Fringe initiatives you have used to drive show sales and/or reduce tradeshow costs.

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John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara's Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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