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Fair Flops…

It’s likely to be another spring season of wasted opportunities, bemoans Mr. Loadlink.

We’ve all heard the song, ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business’. Ok, it’s hardly George Benson’s ‘Give Me The Night’ but Irving Berlin’s lyrics are more meaningful than it originally appears. It’s a foot-tapping tune that hides the irony within. Upon the first listen it feels as though the song champions the stardom of show business and all its bright lights. However, it’s more tongue-in-cheek than that and actually points to the trials and tribulations of the industry. Berlin refers to ‘The headaches, the heartaches, the backaches, the flops’, for example.

He also quips:
‘There’s no people like show people
They smile when they are low’

You might not realise that because the tune is so catchy and upbeat.

Our show business (trade expos and fairs) and show people (organisers, exhibitors, and visitors) are very different, yet similar. There’s something about the word ‘show’ that makes us feel buoyant and jovial. It conjures up images of time out of the office, perhaps overseas travel, networking dinners, cocktail parties, and sales. Call it a ‘fair’, as they do in many parts of the world, and the connotations are the same. Even ‘expo’ is punchy and cool. It’s not ‘meeting’ or ‘seminar’, which are altogether different.

Trade events and show business have much in common.

Trade events and show business have much in common.

The problem with everyone skipping to an exhibition hall in such high spirits is that they fail to acknowledge what hard work it is. It’s like the little girl or boy who idolises a singer or dancer and wants to emulate their success. They see the sequins, glamour, and adulation, and want a piece of it. What they don’t see is the ‘…closing when the customers won’t come’ (Berlin). It’s the same for inexperienced trade show exhibitors or attendees who cross the threshold of the Big Show naive and ignorant, or the veterans who’ve not really respected the process for a long time but never had a cause to change.

I want to share a few faux pas and funnies as they relate to both vendors and visitors, as we approach another busy exhibition season, which typically starts next month (February) and stretches into the early summer, marketplace depending.

Greatest hit

Before you start throwing the, ‘Mr. Loadlink, you sound like a broken record,’ line at me, consider this: most exhibitors continue to approach trade shows badly. They’re not listening to people like me who’ve spent years on stands and in aisles. Millions of dollars of marketing budget is being poured down the drain every year because businesses don’t know how to exhibit professionally and efficiently. Similarly, many visitors are wasting their time too. When they throw the bag of freebies into the airport trash and discard those business cards of people they never really wanted to speak to, they’re tossing away respect for themselves and their employers. I’m serious. And I’ll keep my message on repeat until the situation improves.

The first group of people I’m going to heckle is exhibitors, with my three top peeves:

  1. Cement mixers
Eating is cheating, especially on an exhibit

Eating is cheating, especially on an exhibit

George Benson doesn’t go on stage thinking, ‘Where’s my baguette? Let’s take a big mouthful before addressing my fans.’ And nor should an exhibitor be stuffing their face on the stand or booth. I’ve seen vendors offer an outstretched hand to a potential customer with their paw covered in crisp or potato chip crumbs. I’ve witnessed smartly dressed representatives of companies with mayo smeared all over their faces and pickle stains on their ties. Then there are the exhibits with shiny products on show, fantastic graphics, but remnants of breakfast all over the carpet.

Tip: Eat breakfast and then frequently—it’s a long day at a show—but do it away from the stand

  1. The IT crowd

Some people would say that mobile phones are the scourge of society. I don’t necessarily subscribe to that (I use my phone a lot) but there is a time and a place to text your friends, post a tweet, or check an email. This misdemeanour can be extended to use of tablets, laptops, and hands-free telephones—you know, the annoying earpieces people have when you don’t know if they’re talking to you or their mum, until they say, ‘I love you too’.

Texting, typing or making / receiving calls on an exhibit is like a rockstar stopping a concert to order a pizza. It lacks respect for the process and the audience. I heard a guy once speaking to someone on the phone as they tore down a stand (half an hour early, I might add) lambasting organisers for wasting his week. Actually, he missed most of the opportunities on offer, huddled in the corner of the stand sending emails.

Tip: We’ve all got to keep on top of business but factor in a time before, during, and after the show to do so. If an important call does come in and you’re not with a customer, excuse yourself and take a walk.

U r missin out on a sales opportunity btw :-(

U r missin out on a sales opportunity btw 🙁

  1. Disappearing act

The trouble with shows is that there are distractions away from the expo, some of which I referenced earlier. Exhibitors may be jet-lagged, hungover, delayed by traffic or all of the above, maybe even before the show has started. At the other end of the fair, whether it is two, three, five or more days, there’s the temptation to sneak off to catch the earlier flight, or take lessened footfall as a cue to head to the hotel.

Other times, an exhibition stand is left empty because one person has been asked to cover too much ground and make visits, sit in a conference, and staff a booth. Whatever the cause, an empty exhibit is bad for an image and great news for that company’s competitors. Would you chase down a business that couldn’t be bothered to put someone on the stand when you’d made an effort to visit him or her? Me neither.

Tip: I’ve sold load cells before a show has officially opened and moments after another has closed. Plan attendance, meetings, flights, etc. with constant booth representation in mind.

Allow for traffic jams; many trade shows add congestion to an area.

Allow for traffic jams; many trade shows add congestion to an area.

Just visiting

Visitors don’t get away with it completely, although I am appreciative of the fact that they invest time and money into what is likely to result in more cost, so my tone (I hope) is more advisory than critical. When a vendor participates in a show, they’re looking to sell their wares to make money. For an attendee, a long flight, expensive hotel room, and days away from the tools might result only in a request for more funds to buy a series of forklifts, for instance. That said I see too many visitors wasting time and missing good opportunities. Again, I’ve picked my top (bottom) three:

  1. Not buying a ticket

The biggest mistake many potential visitors make is not attending a show. Few marketplaces are really good at communicating messages up and down a supply chain and not many purchasing decision makers have the time to look at what every existing or prospective supplier is doing in terms of product improvement, innovation, or diversification. Further, technology is driving change, in some sectors more than others, at frightening speed. Researching and attending the right shows is a great way to keep informed about the solutions available.

Tip: Avoid looking for approval for attendance based on cost. Focus on productivity and safety improvements. Look for co-located activity such as conferences and seminars that might add more weight to participation.

  1. Feeling sheepish

Trade show organisers spend a lot of time and money researching footfall and attendee habits at exhibitions. It’s a science in its own right. Their overarching mission is to put as many people in all areas of a fair as early as is feasible and for as long as possible. Entrances, signage, theatres, cafes, and everything else you see at a show are there for a reason. But a visitor can—and should—set their own agenda. There’s no point walking the length of aisle number one in the morning because everyone else is, when you know the solutions you seek are on the other side of the hall. Engaging with visitors just to be polite wastes everyone’s time. Prioritise and only go window-shopping if a schedule allows.

Tip: Look at an exhibitor list and floor plan in advance. Make a list and plan a route. If it’s really important to see someone, approach him or her before travelling and fix an appointment.

Following everyone else can be a mistake for trade show visitors

Following everyone else can be a mistake for trade show visitors

  1. Restricted view

Some visitors attend shows alone and others travel en masse. Regardless, it’s important that a delegation flows around a hall so people can get to where they need to be and vendors get a steady flow of traffic past their stand. Holding meetings or stopping to talk in large circles in the middle of an aisle creates a blockage. Depending how large (or small) an expo is, this can cause problems such as a potential customer avoiding an area because they can see it is too densely populated. We’ve all seen bunches of visitors huddled together with their giveaway bags and goodies at their feet, exchanging notes. When it’s on the doorstep of an exhibitor it not only blocks the light but also potential custom.

Tip: Conversations are a key component of trade show participation but find a suitable place, like a quiet corner or cafe. Highlight such areas when planning a pathway around a show.

When I look back on my career, many of my fondest, funniest and most successful moments would have happened in and around trade events. I went to my first show as a naive novice, as we all do, but I’ve always been willing to learn and observe. It’s people’s general reluctance to do the same that frustrates me most.

As Berlin wrote, ‘Let’s go on with the show, let’s go on with the show’.

Mr. Loadlink

Not a sandwich or cell phone in sight.

Not a sandwich or cell phone in sight.

Frat Party…

We can advance as a fraternity and respect company policy. In fact, it makes business sense to do so, says Mr. Loadlink.

We’ve all signed a contract or two in our time. Many would have included a lot of small print that some of you probably didn’t read or get checked by legal counsel. The type of document and your response to it might have been dictated to by the nature of the society or market where the terms could have been enforced. Some regions are particularly litigious, others less so. There are sectors where a contract is everything and those where it isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.

Then there are the uncodified procedures that we’ve all adhered to over the years that are expected of us as long as we wear a uniform or company badge. These include behavioural practices, but also what can be understood from the CEO’s speeches and company literature. After periods of time at a single firm, people develop a sense for what the owners or management deem to be more important and less significant. We’ve all been there where we think, ‘Yes, that’ll go down well,’ and, ‘No, that wouldn’t sit right with my boss’.

There are always rebellious exceptions but, really, the vast majority is prepared to go to work every day with these written and unwritten rules in mind. Many identify that it’s prudent to go above and beyond these codes and put in the extra hours or think outside the box in order to achieve progression. However, the most successful people I’ve worked with (the top 5%) are the ones that do all of this but recognise that contracts aren’t designed to be restrictive, provided that overarching professional, moral and ethical codes are respected.

There’s more to employment than a contract.

There’s more to employment than a contract.

I’m not intent on hauling into question any type of contract, sector or geography. I’ve worked with companies in many countries and observed the benefits of employment terms, or lack of them, at conglomerates and micro businesses. In every case, it’s always been about the individual’s acceptance of all marketplaces as a fraternity within which to thrive. There might be leaders, a bottom end and other components of those sectors, but there are too many shared challenges and opportunities for anyone to claim independence from them.

Therein lies the misinterpretation of most contracts, especially those that reference competition: an industry’s peers can’t learn from each other and grow together. Actually, they can do both.

Shackles and hooks

No smart HR department should ever have drawn up a document to shackle the company’s best people. They might have tried to defend the firm against misdemeanour or to establish ground rules for new employees, but it must always be recognised that the elite people in any sector are striving towards a higher call. They are brand ambassadors but they recognise that to truly advance a company and their careers they have to drive the whole market or product sector forward.

You can’t do that without accepting that all the boats sink if someone pulls the plug, and sometimes we have to communicate with our fellow brand captains. Think of it as a safety flag on a racing circuit: I might try to overtake you but I’m damn sure we’ll cruise around together when there’s debris on the track that could burst both of our tyres.

I’m talking about fraternity not fraternising. There’s a difference. I’ve heard too many stories about industry sectors that handbrake themselves because they won’t explore avenues of mutual opportunity or join forces to battle a threat. I’ve spent hours talking to my competitors over the years, yet I’ve never given away a single piece of information that could be used against me, nor have I taken on board anything that could directly harm that person or their employer. But we’re all slightly better off than if we’d have barged shoulders. Remember that we all know about the big, important stuff anyway. Who ever said, “I wish I knew oil and gas was booming again”?

Business isn’t warfare and contracts shouldn’t suggest that it is

Business isn’t warfare and contracts shouldn’t suggest that it is

Contracts tend to be very specific about what people can’t do and airy-fairy when it comes to what they can. That’s the purpose of the document, I guess, but without supporting it with a wider framework, there’s a danger people feel suffocated. ‘Don’t drink’ doesn’t mean don’t network, for example. ‘Don’t accept gifts’ doesn’t mean don’t accept kind gestures. Nobody changed the landscape of an industry from his or her hotel room or laptop screen. To cite the terms of a contract for not being at a trade show cocktail party is taking the paperwork too literally. Do you really think that’s what the HR department meant?

A rising tide

In a technological space like the load cell business, all manufacturers are responsible for ensuring that we don’t fall behind our customers’ expectations of where we should be on the evolution curve. If the offshore market wants our products to reach a certain point, we all lose if we ferociously compete in a mythical game of winner stays on, only to find that we all lost and one of the most lucrative industries on the planet went elsewhere to measure its loads. There’s no use in being the best speedboat company in the town where the river is running dry. What could have been done, collectively and sooner, to stop the leak? Could the boat manufacturers have worked together to help the community fund a reservoir? Few contracts seem to consider this stuff.

The word ‘competition’ immediately conjures up references of winners and losers. Someone will lift a trophy and the other slump to their knees in ignominious defeat. It’s a misleading analogy because the difference between business and, say, sport is that there is no final whistle. To make it a goal to give a competitor such a torrid time that they cease to exist will more likely equate to taking an eye off the ball in play and striking out (or hitting the rocks) yourself. No good comes from focusing too much on competition and the tribal mentality can thereby generate negativity.

Monitoring a competitor with too much suspicion might result in taking your eye off the ball.

Monitoring a competitor with too much suspicion might result in taking your eye off the ball.

It also leaves a sour taste in the mouths of customers. If two shopkeepers were fighting over my custom, I’d rather purchase my groceries elsewhere. I’ve been pitched to before by a supplier whose entire patter was based on what was wrong with the other choices I had in the marketplace. This strategy is offensive to the buyer because the implication is that they’re not astute enough to assess a market on their own. That’s a crazy assumption in the internet age when research material is so readily available at our fingertips. Importantly, when a salesperson sees the market as a fraternity, they’re less likely to throw mud. Practically, when someone can’t reference another’s shortcomings they’ll more readily sharpen a pitch to focus on their strengths or, better still, how their product can help the audience.

Knowing which peers to work with—and without—is an important sixth sense to develop early in one’s career. At any fraternity party there is always someone who spikes the drinks and waits for a certain level of inebriation to set in before manipulating a situation. Similarly, there are the people who want the relationship to be too one-sided. They’re the type that are polite and friendly when they walk onto a competitor’s exhibit at a trade fair but usher the same person away when they reciprocate at an event a few weeks later. Where a contract does mention liaison with the competition, these are the scenarios where company law should be applied.

On that note, I sign off.

Mr. Loadlink

Warning signs might be in the small print.

Warning signs might be in the small print.