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Rob Schwing

How to get the most out of trade shows

July 14, 2014

Dear Grill Guy,

What are your thoughts on trade shows? My store specializes in home and hearth sales and each year I attend the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Expo. Are there other trade shows you recommend?

Great question. Dealers approach this business development opportunity in one of two ways – either they don’t see the value and avoid them like the plague or they head back to the same show year after year. Trade shows are well worth the travel and expense if you have a plan. They’re also great idea generators so I am a firm believer in mixing it up and attending a variety of shows: a pool dealer can pick up on new trends in outdoor furnishings by attending the casual furniture show; a hardware dealer can find inspiration at the HPB Expo on new ways to clean grill or see new lines of replacement parts, such as grates and fireplace doors.

There are four primary trade shows on my radar: HPB Expo, The International Casual Furniture & Accessories Market, the International Poo/Spa/Patio Expo, and the National Hardware Show. There are other regional shows, but these are the big national ones. So here’s how to get the most out of them.

This is no vacation

This biggest mistake I see dealers make is not taking trade shows seriously and turning a business opportunity into a vacation. It’s easy when shows are hosted in Las Vegas, Chicago and Orlando. Don’t dial it in for half a day and then go meet the spouse and kids to tour Universal Studios.

To get more bang for your buck, you need to walk in with a plan. These shows have websites that allow you to preview the exhibitors. Make a list of who is carrying products or services that may align with your business. Think of it like grocery shopping. When you just browse, you end up with a cart full of stuff you don’t need and didn’t come for in the first place. When you have your list, you can check off the items without distraction. I always walk in with a specific strategy such as, “I’m going to find two items or one new product line I can add to my store.”

Pre-planning means you walk away from the trade show having accomplished what you set out to do. The other benefit? Once you check everything off your list, then you can meet your family (guilt free!) to tour Universal.

Choose two must-see booths

Most every show has a new product area. It’s usually a corded-off space sponsored by the show so no one is in the booth trying to sell you product. Start every show by walking this booth. It gives you a taste of what’s hot in new trends and where the industry is headed. Also hit the products award booth to see winning designs in product and packaging that may spark creative ideas.

The HPB Expo has an effective new product area. This past year, my team was intrigued by an LED and fog display. A fireplace used light and water vapor so that, as the fog rose, the LED changed orange hues and form as close as three feet away, resembling real fire. Saber has huge lanterns that we use in our display booth but since we’re prohibited from lighting a fire inside an exhibit hall, they frequently go unused. We looked at that display and said, “We need flames in our booth.”

A careful walk-through of a show will have you scribbling ideas on how to arrange in-store displays or how to remarket something you already carry in a new and innovative way.

Sign up for seminars

People frequently ignore the formal and informal education and training programs. Everything from installer certificates and technical coursework to speakers giving talks on social media are offered. I’m always impressed by the quality of speakers at these venues. And if you have something to say, registering as a speaker is a fantastic way to raise your visibility and establish industry credentials.

So to answer your question, I’m a strong proponent of attending trade shows. Mix it up, stay focused and take advantage of what’s before you. You’ll return home with a new bagful of tricks and ideas.

Keep Grilling,

Rob