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What I Saw At The Trade Show

Enterprise -- My Company


Trade exhibitions are a sales powwow, a research lab, and a manufacturing seminar all rolled into one

For three days, I have trudged through Chicago's mammoth McCormick Place, peering at exhibits. My feet have blisters in various inconvenient spots, and my mind refuses to focus on Converting Machinery & Manufacturing for another minute. That is, until Ron, the plant manager of our family business, and I reach a booth displaying a computer-based training system. My mind clicks: Here's something we can use for our company, which prints produce packaging. Instead of training new hires on a printing press--which can be dangerous--perhaps they could get their bearings on a simulator.

Nothing may come of my enthusiasm, but it's for such exposure that I go to trade shows. Small companies like ours don't have researchers to comb through new technology. And none of us has time to jet around tracking down ideas. Sure, we read industry magazines and keep an eye on rivals. But the only place to gather lots of intelligence fast is a trade show.

TACKY. Some wags don't believe this. They think trade shows are excuses for golf and drinking. And there are excesses. Thanks to too many scotch-and-sodas, industry luminaries have unraveled before my eyes at social hours. I myself have stayed too long at hotel bars. But trade shows are great places to pick up gossip, check in with customers, and meet new ones. This April, while I set up our display at the International Fresh-Cut Produce Assn. (IFPA) show in Vancouver, my brother played golf and met a potential customer from Florida. Without the golf, without the trade show, no sale.

I'm not alone in my shameless boosterism of trade shows, however tacky they may be. According to Tradeshow Week, attendance at such events grew 10% during the mid-1990s. More than 100 million people went, and 1.25 million companies exhibited last year. Managers would not spend $10 a square foot for booths if they weren't getting some bang for the buck.

Still, it's easy to throw money away. One company at the IFPA show threw up its standard display. Big mistake--since it was decorated with snack-food packaging. Many potential customers and a few rivals took it as a sign they weren't committed to the produce business. Yet I'm sure that wasn't the message they intended to convey when they plunked down $4,000 for space.

Avoiding such blowouts requires planning. First, we decide whether a show is worth the effort. Will our customers be there? Could we tap new customers? If either answer is yes, we try to make our booth appealing. For the IFPA show two years ago, we solicited ideas from line workers, a friend in retail, and my photographer wife. The result of our brainstorming? An old-fashioned flower cart with a canopy to display produce packaged in our bags. An employee with carpentry skills built the cart; another painted it. The booth helped land two customers. And it cost only $500.

Then there's visiting booths of other vendors, which requires a different mind-set. Here the objective is education. This Chicago show is the only chance for a company like ours to discover potential suppliers. This year, we met a press manufacturer from Barcelona who builds a top-quality eight-color press, a company selling ink-dispensing equipment, and another small outfit that sells handheld meters for checking the acid levels of inks--a critical quality-control measure.

Perhaps I like trade shows so much because I'm a newcomer, having been in the family business only a year. The shows can provide crash courses in the technology issues and personalities that dominate an industry. At McCormick Place, for instance, I learned in a few days all about printing-press drying systems and new water-based technologies to make printing plates. And after sitting together at a trade-show dinner, a key customer and I became fast friends, cementing our business bond. Oh--one more tip for potential registrants: Don't wear thin-soled leather shoes.BY KEVIN KELLY

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