No Business Like Show Business

Trade and consumer exhibits are supposed to be about selling, not hassles. Here are are some tips to make the most of a bad situation

By Michelle Nichols

The ad promised a "Last Day of Snow," which was a catchy plug for a ski show that promised 100 tons of the cold, white stuff deep in the heart of Texas. It certainly grabbed my imagination: Imagine, snow in the Lone Star State! My youngest child had never seen snow, so we decided to go. We expected the show to be a lot of fun, yet, once we arrived, it proved to be a disappointment. Worse, from my perspective as a sales pro, it was a lose-lose afternoon.

The opposite -- win-win -- sounds like a football cheer, but it's the basic premise of any successful business transaction. Customers win when they feel they have acquired a great solution at a fair price. Sellers win when they make an acceptable profit and gain another happy customer. Even in these days of narrow profit margins, it's important for sellers to win -- if only so they can remain in business to continue serving their customers. When both parties win, there is a success-multiplier effect. What I want to do is dissect the ski show -- and then talk about building win-win relationships.


  Many of the show's exhibitors -- the folks who rented booths -- had traveled from far away, so they had already invested time, money, and effort. Real snow in large quantities was the main attraction, yet the three separate piles of the stuff all featured long lines of folks waiting to check it out. Most of the adult attendees were waiting their turns, which kept them from checking out the vendors' booths. Meanwhile, kids drifted away to dash through booths and exhibits, treating the exhibition hall like an adventure playground. A peeved vendor of car-audio equipment complained that his pint-sized visitors had broken headphones and scrambled the settings on his sample radios.

Crowd-control shouldn't have been an insurmountable problem: Disneyworld, for example, invented its Fastpass system to make sure thousands of visitors don't spend all day staring at the back of the patron lined up in front of them. A little creativity could have eliminated -- or at least minimized -- the galling inconvenience.

The second issue, for visitors and booth workers alike, was boredom. For employees, the chore of manning an undervisited booth can be an interminable torment. It's hard to smile as the long hours drag, and the shortage of visitors provides plenty of opportunity to dwell on the misery of aching feet.

In my view, the attendees at the snow show also lost. Our family of four paid more than $20 to get in. There could not have been more than 50 booths, and we spent over half our time shuffling along in lines. Nor were the booths very creative, offering only information on the destinations they were promoting, some specials, and the odd prize drawing. I shudder to think how much junk mail I'm going to receive as a result of leaving my name and address at various displays!


  In other words, the cost of admission was too much for too little. Unless there's a radical change in the show's formula, we won't be back next year -- and I can't help but believe that many of our fellow visitors will demonstrate a similar reluctance to return. As for the vendors, they told me attendance was down on the previous year.

What is the lesson here? Well, if you are in business and doing the show circuit, sooner or later you will encounter a lose-lose marketing situation. The natural first response will be to try and renegotiate. But even if the show's organizer agrees to refund a portion of your fees, that's only a partial solution. So why not win? Here are some suggestions for the show vendors:

-- Give out coupons to adults waiting in lines at other exhibits. These should invite them to stop by your booth and collect a freebie, even if it's just a balloon or a cookie.

-- Hire a juggler, magician, caricaturist, sword-swallower, fire-eater, tap dancer, or whatever -- and then come up with a clever way to tie the performer into the theme of your booth. A talent agency should be able to get you someone ASAP.

-- Use lots of bright colors in your booth, your employees' clothes, and on any literature or giveaways. Don't use more than two bright colors, but use them a lot. Your booth should stand out from its neighbors and inspire a sense of curiosity. Your goal should be to make visitors feel obliged to check you out before heading for the exit.

-- Avoid one-at-a time kiddie rides. They generate long lines that keep anyone from getting close enough to find out what you're trying to promote. One booth at the snow show had a winning idea: a cute train that ran around the outside of their large booth. The secret to success: no waiting since the ride was very quick and took 10-12 kids at a time. Kids rode the rails and left their parents free to evaluate the booth's offerings. A win-win!


  Building a win-win strategy isn't brain surgery. (My young son has been through brain surgery, so trust me, I know what I'm talking about.) What you have to do is put yourself in your customers' shoes, and vice versa. Consider using the phrase "win-win" in your marketing literature. Let your customer know you understand he or she has to win, or the two of you won't be doing business in the future. Likewise, let them know you need to win, too. Otherwise you won't be around to service and support them down the road.

I remember how Zig Ziglar, the well-known motivational speaker, used to explain this idea. He would remind his audiences just how difficult it is for one person to walk along a single rail of a train track. But if two people each walk on a rail side-by-side and hold hands, they can walk around the world.

Whether you're planning a booth for a trade show or putting together a marketing plan for the coming year, if you make the goal of every sale a win-win outcome, your business will grow. And if you accidentally get stuck in a lose-lose situation, jump in, get creative, and market your way out of it. Happy selling!

Michelle Nichols is a Sales consultant, trainer, and speaker based in Houston, Texas. She welcomes your questions and comments and can be reached at