Trade shows can be invaluable resources for learning about your industry and researching the market for a potential business. Going to a show as an attendee rather than an exhibitor allows you to gather a broad spectrum of information about the competitive landscape, and it also gives you a chance to find out whether a particular show will be worthwhile for you as an exhibitor.
Before the show begins, familiarize yourself thoroughly with the competition. Read their materials and look carefully at their displays. Then use that competitive knowledge to gain more information. Talk to people, ask lots of questions, and pay attention.
Some of the best information on your competitors (or potential competitors) comes from customers. That’s one of the many good reasons to talk to as many people as possible at trade shows. Every prospect has information you need, even if they don’t want or need your products. What are they interested in? Who do they buy from? Why? How much do they buy? When? At what price? The answers don’t have to result in a sale to be valuable. You can scout out new suppliers, scope out new and existing competitors, partner with allies and even shop for other trade show venues — all by listening to what these important visitors tell you.
If you see your competitors’ materials in the hands of a visitor, ask them what they think of the company, its people and products. How do their prices compare? It never hurts to hear from decision-makers about what they think is important. Also, people like to be asked their opinion. It makes them feel important. You’ll be surprised at just how much information some people are willing, and eager, to share. Ask them and they’ll probably tell you.
Most of this information is never written up or printed anywhere. It resides inside people’s heads and won’t come out unless they talk to someone. Why shouldn’t it be you? Make contact. Join the human network; it’s the most valuable (and inexpensive) network you can access. Attending conferences, conventions, and trade shows is still the best way to make connections and gather intelligence that you can use yourself or pass along as “inside” information to a customer, prospect, vendor, or partner.
If you’re thinking about a future trade show exhibit for yourself, pay close attention to your competition’s handiwork and look for unusual and eye-catching displays. Which exhibits draw you in? Why? What makes them stand out from the crowd? Find a way to incorporate those kinds of ideas into your own booth.
While strolling through the show, look for an ally. If you can find a suitable partner, offer to split the cost of a booth at the next trade show. Explore other synergies, such as a trade show pavilion. Is there a large company in your industry that sponsors an area for smaller vendors? You may want to take advantage of these opportunities in the future.