Safety Vendors: Stop Wasting My Time and Your Money At Trade Shows



By Phil La Duke

Last week I presented Hardwiring Safety: 7 Tips for Changing Culture at the Michigan Safety Conference. The Michigan Safety Conference is one of the best organized, biggest and longest running regional safety training conference—in fact, at upwards of 800 attendees  (with a large percentage of decision makers) it compares favorably with many of the international conferences at which I’ve presented. And with around 130 exhibitors it has a nice, attendee-friendly and manageable expo floor.  This year I tried a little experiment and the results of that experiment inspired me to write this article.

The experiment was simple: walk path every booth and see how many people supposedly working the booth would in any way shape or form engage with me.  Simple right? All I wanted to see is how many people would effectively do their jobs.  Like the Walmart greeters all they had to do is look me in the eye and say hello. Actually my expectation was lower than that of a Walmart greater, I would have settled for a nod.  Pretty tough to screw that up, wouldn’t you say.  So how many of these vendors passed the muster? Three, and while I make it my point not to do product review or endorsements I think they warrant mentioning. The three venders were SVS Safety  (a company that sells prescription safety glasses), Slice (a company that sells ceramic cutting tools) and FRG (an incentives company).

Years ago, I exhibited extensively; from ASSE to the National Safety Council and many points in between.  When my company exhibited at the Society of Safety Engineers EASTEC, SME sent all exhibitors a book, titled Stop Wasting Your Time Exhibiting at Tradeshows[1] The book was a God-send, and many of the tips I will share either came from that book, or were inspired from the advice given from the book.  I think it was self-published, but if you are serious about exhibiting you should check this book.

Here are my tips for people who either exhibit or attend tradeshows (I will delineate the two later in the post).

  • Make the most of your show experience.  Too many people focus on the show as a single event.  You can get a lot more out of the show if you think of it in three separate sections—before, during, and after.  Before the show you should plan the time that you will be on site.  I always try to find out who else might be at the show (customers, prospects, LinkedIn connections, and old friends). Once I know who will be at the show I can schedule my breakfasts, lunches, and dinners and either maximize my business or network with people who I might otherwise have to travel great distances to do so.
    From a attendee perspective, getting the most out of the show means research; most of us have at least a cursory idea of what technical sessions we want to attend (mine of course) and what topics best fit with our current or future plans, but beyond this, you should also research the vendors who will be exhibiting.  If there is something for which you are in a particular market, see if there are any prospective vendors exhibiting.  By doing research up front, you can ask intelligent questions about the products or services and not feel pressured by an overly aggressive salesman.

    Similarly, exhibitors should have also done their homework. Instead of finding out a particular company is going to be at the show and hoping they stop by the booth, exhibitors should be working the show weeks or even months in advance lining up meeting with prospects and customers and generally using the time together wisely.

  • Set Goals. If your primary goal in attending a professional conference is to have fun, get drunk, golf, or engage in similar activities unrelated to business, do everyone a favor and stay away.  Your boss,  your network, and anyone else you can think of doesn’t benefit from you “putting in an appearance” before scampering off to the pool.

    But if you ARE serious about deriving benefit from a trade show  then you better have goals.  Goals should be SMART goals—Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely—but in this case balance that against simplicity.  No one says you CAN’T have fun at a convention, so don’t get so focused that you suck all the fun out of the room, but a couple of simple goals, “I want to attend at least two technical sessions on ergonomics” or, for a vendor, I want to get 2 qualified leads per hour of working the booth.  Having goals will help you to improve your overall conference experience.

Now a couple of quick tips for attendees:

  • Don’t Chat Up A Vendor Because You Want A Giveaway.  Too often attendees waste there time posing as buyers because they want the construction hat squishy.  Be up front. If you want one ask for one.  You don’t have to pretend to be interested  when your not.
  • Don’t Express Interest Just To Be Polite.  People working the booth love the “send me some information”; they can point to these inquiries as sales leads and they will stalk you like furies as you duck call after call. If you have no interest just say so. It need not be weird  or awkward,  a polite no thank you will suffice.

And for the exhibitors:

  • Look alive.  You’re there to work; look like it.  Reading an eReader, talking on the phone, talking to another exhibitor, flirting with the booth babe next door (she doesn’t want to go out with you), or otherwise looking uninviting won’t make sales.
  • Make Eye Contact and Greet the Attendees.  A simple, good morning, will go miles toward inviting conversation, and unless you are talking to the attendee you will never know if he or she is a prospect, a competitor, or a pick pocket.  Many decision makers walk by booths simply because they weren’t engaged by the person working the both.
  • Know Your Goods and Services.  Nothing is more frustrating than the exhibitor who doesn’t even know the elevator speech.  If I am interested in what you are selling, I expect to be able to speak to someone who knows the ins and outs of your business, not a place holder who will tell me that I really ought to talk to Earl and he is wandering the show but will be right back, real soon.
  • Stick to Business.  Stop with the “Win and iPad” by dropping your business card in the bowl (let me let you in on a secret, I don’t give a damn about your ergo matts, I don’t WANT to get your mailing list.  But I will give you my business card on the outside chance that I will win. (Even know we ALL know that most of these contests are rigged in favor of you hottest prospects.) And you might as well skip the booth babes, yes they bring in traffic, but it’s for the wrong reasons. The curse of the booth babes is this, you attracted a crowd of over stimulated men who exaggerate their  desire to buy and their position to impress the model.  Both will  bring in traffic, but is that really what you want? Wouldn’t you want business instead?
  • Appropriately Follow Up.  I can’t count the times that I gave my business card to an exhibitor, told him that I was covering the show (usually for Facility Safety Management Magazine) as a safety journalist,  and would like to interview someone from their company.  Instead of a follow up call from their marketing department, I get put on another list, or worse yet, get the “our salesmen is going to be in your area and I would like to see if we can schedule an appointment”. To date I have NEVER gotten an appropriate follow-up on my visits to a booth.

In two weeks I will be a speaker at ENFORM Banff 2013 and I’m sure I will face the same gauntlet of pointless stupidity at the conference. But what can I say? I’m a glutton for punishment.


[1] Or something like that.  I don’t know and I don’t feel like going through all my books to find it just to satisfy the one or two pedantic jerks who read my work and smirk because I don’t do this or that.