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Scout Your Competition at Trade Shows



Now that January is here, it’s time to hit the building show circuit. Like many of you, my area features a couple of large shows and plenty of smaller, community-based shows. At The Deck Store, we choose our shows wisely and usually end up frequenting a select number of shows year after year that have proven most valuable to us.

Generally, I advise any lumber dealer or contractor to plan out his trade show activity a year in advance. That means if you’re thinking about exhibiting at a trade show next winter, then this year is the time to start planning. Before you get too far into trade show mode, I encourage you to first attend the shows at which you would like to exhibit to scout out the location as well as the competition. If possible, take pictures. For sure take notes. It is also important to do a walk-through of the trade show floor to know where your competition is located and to understand which way traffic flows through the show booths. Also encourage others to visit the trade show a year in advance and be sure to make note of their opinions and observations as well.

On your scouting trip, pay close attention to colors that are used in exhibitors’ booths. Particularly make note of how your competition makes use of their company logo. Believe it or not, I have seen competitors’ displays that fail to include their company logo.

When a potential customer comes home from the trade show you will want them to be able to distinguish your business from others. Some exhibitors try to set themselves apart by offering trinkets and freebees at their booth. I don’t recommend doing too much of this as it tends to bring in conversations that don’t necessarily lead to customer relationships. We make every attempt we can to qualify a customer before taking up our time and theirs with handouts and goodies. In fact, if we think that a customer may be interested, we ask if we can send them just one piece of mail after the show. We don’t want our information to get missed in a bag of literature from the tradeshow. With their permission, we have an address to send a pre-prepared package once we get back to the office. We can also make a personal note on the literature that even further distinguishes us from the competition.

Also pay close attention to your competition’s booth layout at a tradeshow. I prefer to not have anything between customers and myself. If a customer perceives that a table between you and her are preventing conversation, then she may just walk right by. I move tables to the side of the display. This layout is less cluttered. Plus, it opens up the booth to customers and makes you look more inviting.

Speaking of inviting looks, pay attention to how your competition appears in their booth. You’ll see a lot of customers walk right by someone who is standing with his arms crossed, or is on his cell phone, constantly eating, or is wearing a coat and glancing toward the exit. The more open and inviting the exhibitor appears, the more traffic the booth will see and the more quality conversations will occur.

Keep in mind that it costs a decent amount of money to display at a good trade show. That money isn’t well spent unless your time there generates quality leads. Say it costs you $5,000 in booth and exhibit expenses. If the show is 50 hours long over the course of a few days, that’s $100 an hour you’re spending to be there, aside from staff time away from regular duties. The competitor who is just standing still, handing out yardsticks to everyone who walks by sure is paying a lot to do so.

With a good idea of what your competition does at a tradeshow, you can then give some thought as to whether you want to go in larger or smaller than your competitors. There are advantages to both, but I have found that in this situation, bigger isn’t always better. As a potential customer forms opinions about you based on the trade show, those opinions can often be swayed by how expensive your booth and exhibits look. Don’t try to be too flashy only to price yourself out of consideration. The most successful booths, in my opinion are humble, genuine and demonstrate a partnership between you and the customer.