The Role of Trade Shows in Professional Services Marketing
For many years, we have exhibited at local and regional trade shows. We believed that doing so was an essential element of marketing our professional water supply and wastewater discharge consulting services. At the trade shows where we exhibited, we also presented new “products”, raffled door prizes (usually Orioles ticketsbut also restaurant gift cards), gave talks, authored presentations and otherwise
supported the sponsoring organizations, financially and otherwise.
Trade shows are de rigueur for product vendors of major consumer items such as home improvements, cars, boats and large electronics like televisions. Trade shows exist in a wide variety of specialized industries as well. A very good friend finds certain trade shows to be critically important business activities in which to partake. He sells specialty towels and related products to commercial clientele, and enjoys great success doing so at his industry’s trade shows.
If we also sold a tangible product, the role of the trade show in allowing a prospective customer to see, touch and handle the product, is obvious. At the venerable but now defunct Baltimore Industrial Show, the exhibit next to ours was for Red Wing Shoes. Customers prospectively in the market for industrial safety shoes for employees could see, touch, feel, and compare relative weights and other features of the steel-toed safety offerings of that vendor. Similarly, vendors of environmental equipment brings samples and specimens to trade shows for a multi-sensory customer experience.
For professional services providers such as us, trade show exhibits consist of attractive displays of printed brochures and flyers, photographs (and perhaps videos) exemplifying project work or its outcome, and posted listings of the gamut of services provided, clients served, etc. In other words, marketers of intellectual property such as professional expertise, sell a service that cannot be touched and held. The hope and expectation is that on-floor interactions with prospective customers can lead to proposal requests and subsequent contracts, after the show.
Do Trade Shows Hold Promise For Favorable Returns on Investment?
Many larger and some smaller environmental and engineering consulting firms exhibit at trade shows as a matter of standard practice. Some still do, but others (and perhaps a growing number) have discontinued the practice or do so less reguarly than in the past. Some develop new business at the shows, but many report that they exhibit merely in order to demonstrate to their past and potential clientele that they indeed, are “still in business.”
At many firms, the annual decision to exhibit at a given trade show was made by senior management years if not decades ago and the practice continues more based on inertia than on a hard analysis of whether the investment is justified by the return. Their effort and energy in both planning and following up on the trade show experience also probably runs the gamut between non-existent and extensive. Some, but possibly few, undertake a hard and quantitative look at the return-on-investment calculus of trade show exhibitions. As long ago as 2010, the New York Times’ business blog examined this issue.
This blog details the experiences and thought processes that have led to a determination to suspend trade show exhibition activities for 2013 in favor of other forms of professional services marketing. This decision was supported not by a curtailment in our marketing budget or in the time available for professional services marketing. Rather, it was based on our sense of the evolution of the function and benefit of trade shows exhibition halls as a venue for the successful and efficient marketing of professional services. Of course, unknown is whether this decision is correct, as it is driven by experiences perhaps uniquely ours.
Trade Show Experiences – Our Past Approach and Success
Now President of ALWI, I attended my first trade show in the early 1990s while in prior employment. The Baltimore Industrial Show was an annual event that occurred in the “Cow Palace” at Timonium Fairgrounds and drew a large and diverse cadre of exhibitors and attendees. Anyone who sold anything to an industrial clientele was present. Many booths were quite lavish, door prizes were expensive, professional models (derivisely and pejoratively called “booth babesbooth babes” ) were hired by many of the larger exhibitors and our simple display of brochures and business cards, and our bowl of Hershey kisses, seemed badly outclassed. We got little foot traffic and few leads, perhaps as a consequence of our lack of glitz.
The following year (1992 and six years before the inception of our firm), exhibiting at the Baltimore Industrial Show for my then-employer fell to me. Concerned that our somewhat staid and dowdy exhibit paled compared to the glitz of other exhibitors (even the shoe salesman), I felt we needed a subliminal gimmick to draw foot traffic into our “selling space.” Recalling the aroma of popcorn that permeated our portion of the floor the previous year (emanating from a machinery vendor with a popcorn machine in his booth nearby), I realized that food sells but we did not want to deal with the mess, the equipment or the liability. Because the machinery vendor might return with his popcorn machine (and thus we could not do popcorn without seeming like a copycat), at the suggestion of management we came to rely on a hidden crock pot filled with Maryland Crab Soup. The aroma of seafood wafted into the air. “What smell? But, while you are here, we provide environmental consulting services…” Suffice it to say, for perhaps the wrong reasons and we wound up with several major new clients, but the experience felt “cheesy” and was not repeated.
A few years after the inception of Advanced Land and Water in 1998, thoughts again turned to exhibiting at trade shows as a means to expand our client and referral universe. The trade shows at which we came to exhibit typically were attended by utility managers and public officials charged with planning and budgeting water supply and wastewater discharge improvement projects. The trade shows occurred in Maryland as well as in contiguous states. Obviously other trade shows also exist for environmental and engineering firms; we had focused on these based on our location and core competencies.
Our trade show experiences were quite positive in the early years, particularly at the exhibitions within our home state of Maryland. The nature of our work is locationally specific, based on natural conditions (hydrogeology, soils, etc.) as well as our unsurpassed regulatory familiarity Both at the Maryland shows and the ones in the contiguous states of Pennsylvania, Virginia, Delaware and West Virginia, ALWI personnel assigned to the booth successfully connected (and in some cases, reconnected) with other exhibitors and with attendees. We collected business cards, gave out cards and brochures, and did all we could to make sure that no booth visitor left without a blue squishy-ball, shaped like a water drop, and adorned with our company logo. Over the course of about a decade, we gave away tens of thousands of water-drop squishy balls.
Through research, friendly advice and mainly our own trial-and-error experience, we gradually learned to make the most of trade show exhibition opportunities. We invested in a new display and (for awhile) higher quality giveaway items (note pads, coffee mugs, retractable pens, etc.). We undertook mailing and email campaigns to notify likely and potential attendees (based on business cards and response forms collected in past years) of our planned presence and the benefits of visiting our booth. Right from the beginning we diligently collected business cards and otherwise engaged booth visitors, we “walked the floor” to visit with other exhibitors and attendees, we participated in continuing education, banquets, fund-raisers and other events occurring at the show. and we followed up on leads generated afterward, both collectively (via thank you letter or e-mail) and individually (to schedule appointments) if a tangible lead we evident. While it always is possible to do more in preparation and follow-up, generally we feel that we made the most of the business opportunities that afforded themselves at the trade shows.
Quickly it became evident that the two best performing of these, for us, were Maryland Rural Water Association and Maryland Municipal League. For years, we “wrote” new business as a direct and measureable consequence of attendance and participation at these two trade shows. For professional consulting services providers such as our firm, purchase agreements typically are not struck at the shows (we differ from product vendors in this way), but discussions occur and relationships develop that lead to propoasal requests and their subsequent authorizations. A typical trade show might cost us perhaps $2,500 to attend (not counting the time investment), but within 100 days of the show, we may have written between 10 and 50 times that sum in the dollar value of newly requested proposals.
Now, of course not all proposals become authorized contracts. But even at our (guesstimated) long-range average “hit rate” of one-in-three proposals becoming contracts within 100 days of issuance, the calculus was easy that Maryland trade shows paid for themselves several times over. Out-of-state trade shows performed less well, as the potential clients seemed more reluctant who engage a consultant traveling from a greater distance. That distance too often translates to added fees, if not in reality but certainly in the minds of the clientele. As a consequence, at out-of-state shows we developed fewer tangible leads and generally greater benefit arose from teaming discussions with fellow exhibitors than from direct interaction with attendees.
Trade Show Experiences and Challenges
Usually the associations sponsoring trade shows are respectful and appreciative of vendor efforts. Good trade shows promote the circulation of attendees through the exhibit hall, for food, for prizes and other events. Sadly, within our exhibition experience there have been some memorable exceptions, and we have not returned to a show wherein the exhibit halls were not prominently featured by the organization and wherein attendees were not actively encouraged to visit exhibits.
The Gong Show – One memorable out-of-state trade show is the year we exhibited at the Virginia Municipal League (VML) in Norfolk. Punchy after a five-hour drive, imagine the frustration we felt whenever the VML staff would walk through the exhibit hall loudly ringing a bell to pronounce the start of the next session of classes or presentations. Annoyed that the bell very effectively flushed the clientele out of the room, I asked why they would do such a disruptive thing as to undermine potential business for those of us who had paid to exhibit. It was explained to me that certain keynote speakers had been guaranteed occupied seats in the audience, and the way to achieve that guarantee was to scavenge potential buyers from the exhibit hall floor. I dutifully filled out my exhibitor comment form, lambasting that policy, and we have not exhibited at VML since.
The Follies – Some trade show organizations to to great lengths to entertain attendees. Country and Western night, bingo games, live music, stand-up comedians (some of whom walk the exhibit hall floor), costume-themed banquets and other “events” sometimes are planned. It is usual that these special events detract from the sales atmosphere otherwise desirable in the exhibit hall, or that the scheduling of such events either cuts into exhibit hall hours and/or drains attendees from the exhibit hall. All too common was the phenomenon that attendees would more focus on the scavenger hunt or the talent show than on the vendors’ exhibits.
Trick or Treat – Part of the expectation of trade show attendees is that exhibitors will give away items large and small, occasionally in great number. Pens, pencils, frisbees, post-it pads and mouse pads are de riguer. While giveaway materials (in the industry they are called swag) usually do not cost exhibitors much on a unit basis, attendees helping themselves to freebies in amounts disproportionate to their interest in our services cannot help but become annoying. We have exhibited at trade shows where vendors came to chide the practice of some attendees wiping a table clean when an exhibitor’s back was turned. Shortly after such a conversation, when one fellow vendor was frustrated over having been cleaned out of over 500 note-pads, en elderly gentleman approached our table and our exchange went like this: “What nice pens. Would you mind if I took one for each of my grandchildren?” “Of course not. That is what the pens are for. Be my guest.” The silver-haired booth visitor then proceeded to count out 32 of them and swept them all into his bag. Sorry, but trade shows are not supposed to be about trick-or-treat, particularly when the next day the same elderly attendee returned to endeavor to pull the same malarrkey on a co-worker. Such are some of the hidden costs, and not-so-hidden annoyances, of being an exhibitor.
Recent Changes in the Exhibitor Experience
While the foregoing occurrences were occasionally frustrating, they would not have dissuaded future trade show exhibiting decisions. The following observed changes in the overall trade show climate did play a part in that decision, however:
- Decision-Makers No Longer Attend – In the past, attendees at MRWA and MML (and at the other trade shows at which we exhibited) typically were a mix of county and municipal elected officials, department heads and employees. The department heads were our focus, as they make decisions on the retention of professional services providers such as us. Elected officials are there for meetings, their general education and, well, politics. Employees attend for the concentrated opportunity to attend continuing education classes required to maintain their licensure and certification. We have noted an unmistakable trend away from attendance by department heads and other shot-callers, and at least somewhat, the elected officials. It seems possible that the stigma of a taxpayer-paid vacation is keeping some officials away from the trade shows.
- Overall Attendance Seems Down – Clients, including municipal managers, mayors and other managers, generally have advised that the recession has caused considerably greater austerity in terms of organizational budgets for discretionary endeavors such as trade show attendance. One of the common choices that cost-cutting agencies make is to send fewer attendees to trade shows. Often enough, mayors, managers and other key decision-making officials no longer attend because traveling to a resort destination for a trade show carries with it the stigma of governmental largesse. The attendee mix has become heavily weighted toward staff-level employees who attend principally or merely for continuing education classes offered at the shows. Such trade show attendees are less inclined to visit the booth of a professional services provider, and often are not knowledgeable of organizational needs beyond their own day-to-day responsibilities. Municipal mayors and managers even have remarked that the easing of the recession has not and will not promote their return to the trade show circuit, because the stigma of attendance being a paid boondoggle at taxpayer expense remains.
- Our Market Penetration Was Not Increasing – After awhile, the incidence of making new client contacts at trade shows decreased. We saw the same individuals, and learned of the same issues and challenges, year after year. In the early years of exhibiting, the opportunities were rich with newly made and remade personal and professional contacts. There were many fresh leads with whom to follow-up, schedule meetings and write professional services proposals. The marketing efficiency of trade show attendance was unmistakable; all the fish were in one barrel. Now the prospects know us, our relations with them have matured and trade shows have become less key to establishing and maintaining those relationships.
Last year we occupied a prominent location on the MRWA exhibit hall floor and presented two continuing education classes. Few visitors stopped by our booth, and those that did only sought to enter our drawing for Orioles tickets. Very few attended our classes, and no new leads or prospects were developed as a consequence of an overall investment (including time) of several thousand dollars. Driving home from the show late at night, in the rain while listening to the Rangers’ Josh Hamilton pummel the Orioles’ pitching for four home runs in one game, I could relate to the pitchers. We were losing too, and for reasons that had become (at least in hindsight) predictable. The Orioles salvaged their season and ended it successfully. We were determined to salvage ours, if not in 2012 then certainly in the future.
The Change in 2013
Throughout the past decade of our trade show exhibition experiences, the advent of the use of the internet has reprioritized our marketing focus and the expenditure of our marketing budget. Initially we sought the names and telephone numbers of booth visitors and raffle enterers. When we determined the desire to send them mailings after a show or before one in the following year, we sought their mailing addresses and titles. With the advent of contact management and relationship maintenance via the internet, email addresses became the most cherished of all contact metadata.
Sponsoring organizations were and remain slow to respond to this change in the penetration of the internet in the customer-exhibitor experience. Show attendees were furnished slips of paper, pre-printed only with their names and phone numbers, to use when entering raffles. This meant exhibitors did not receive titles, addresses or later, the all-important email addresses. Attendees represented that they carried no business cards, and thus, the opportunity for garnering more useful follow-up data was lost unless the attendee took the time to manually complete tear-off response cards while visiting our booth. We tried, but for an attendee to take the time to provide all of the desired information, legibly and by hand, was an uncommon experience.
As the years went by and our desire for complete contact information became progressively more poignant, some sponsoring organizations ultimately circulated attendee databases to exhibitors via emailed spreadsheet. More often than not, even those spreadsheets did not include all-important information on the attendees title and email address. Despite this, by hook or by crook and over time, we amassed a Microsoft Outlook database of a few thousand attendees, dutifully cross-referenced to the location and date(s) of contacts, post-show follow-up experiences and such.
With the advent of e-mail newsletter marketing services such as Constant Contact, we found it exceedingly convenient to use the service to query the currency of the database and to inform our growing list of former booth visitors of our planned exhibitions, growing diversity of services and project successes. For an investment of less than $50 per month, we could provide thousands of former booth visitors professionally-prepared, timely and accurate information about our firm and its successes, about industry trends affecting their work, about regulatory changes and the like. The Constant Contact service provides us timely and accurate information on who opens the email, clicks onto a hyperlinked page or otherwise indicates a level of interest warranting direct follow-up.
LinkedIn also provides reasonably timely information on job changes (promotions, new positions, etc.) for those individuals to whom one or more of our people is cross-linked. In short, more market intelligence arises from inexpensive and judicious use of even these simple internet resources than can arise from even the most successful of trade show exhibition experiences. The opportunity to attend a trade show (i.e., to walk the floor for a day) remains, but this can be accomplished for a fraction of the expense of exhibiting.
The money saved from not exhibiting already was used for revamping our web site, for more professional-appearing emailed newsletters and most importantly, was passed onto our clients in the form of a lower overhead expense factored into our billing rates. Time will tell if this was the correct decision for us. However, for 2013, it seems obvious as the only choice to make.