Planner's Workshop: Pre-Event: The True Cost of Attending an Industry Show

I could just have easily titled this article: "How to Blow $4,000 in 30 Seconds." Recently, I had the pleasure of presenting a training session at an association's annual meeting and trade show. One of the exercises we did was to estimate the average cost of attending the event.

We did a cost breakdown for a national event that extended over four days. What was included and what did it cost? In round numbers:

$1,000 --The cost of the event (seminars, reception, food—the conference package)
$900 -- Convention hotel with taxes and tips ($300/night x 3)
$800 -- Airfare and local transportation
$300 -- Miscellaneous
$1,000 -- One week's salary for the attendee

Now, this number won't hold for every meeting, and you can adjust it for your currency, salary, airfare, etc. For international shows, it will be much higher; for local shows, much lower, but this is the average we determined for a group with a common profile.

What wasn't included? Entertaining clients, salaries for staff who take over the attendee's job while away, extra business services, and the fun stuff not on the expense account.

The attendee's company spent $4,000. Why? For the attendee to learn, be more productive, and eventually both make and save money for the company. So, after the seminars and the networking, there's the trade show—and that's where the problem lies.

Imagine this scenario: Somebody knocks on your company's front door. The visitor says, "Hi, I just spent $4,000 to fly across the country to visit your company. I'd like to know more about how you can help me. I may be a prime candidate to be one of your clients."
Consider these responses:

"Hi, would you like a brochure?"
"Are you in a position of authority to make a decision?"
"That's a really good question, but I don't think we do that."
"Is the money in the current budget?"
"Sorry, let me put my shoes on—boy, do my feet hurt."
"What's your time frame?"
"They only put one chair in this space—hope you don't mind if I sit."

Would this happen in a real-life situation? Of course not.

If a potential client flew across the country—without notice—you would pay attention. Yet, every day at every trade show there are people who spend $4,000 and much more to visit booths, and get blown off by your exhibit staff.

It's somebody's responsibility to take trade shows seriously. As the meeting planner for the host organization, it is your responsibility to help your exhibitors take full advantage of the event you have designed to meet their marketing requirements.

Here are five suggestions you can impart to your exhibitors to help them improve the performance of their staffs.

Define the skills needed in the booth before staffing it. Assess the duties and all of the time required, not just the show hours. Consider it a short-term assignment, post it, and ask for volunteers. A highly technical show may require more engineers than salespeople. What other skills are critical—languages, empathy, listening? What level of management is required to work with attendees? Note to Americans—have a decision-maker in the booth at all times, as foreign visitors expect to do business right then.

Interview applicants for the job of attending the event. At a trade show the staff represents the entire company. Is each staff member the best person to represent your firm? If they don't have all the skills, are they willing to be trained in time for the show?

Look for listening skills. Trade shows are all about very brief conversations. It's not a pitch. It's not time to show off. The most critical skills are to listen closely and to know the product—or who is the referral point at the show or the company.

Ask for feedback. Ask for a review by the people who stopped by your booth. This can come from a manager or an outside auditing source. You want to know how your staff assisted people, did they have a good experience, and will they do business with you because of the staff?

Recognize a job well done. Trade shows are hard work. They are both physically and mentally demanding. Encourage your exhibitors to offer an incentive for staff working the show.

In the end, if your exhibitors fail to pick the right staff, fail to train them properly, and fail to motivate them, it's your attendees who will suffer.

Originally published Jan. 01, 2007

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