Talkin' Smack About Trade Shows

If you're in PR or Marketing face the depressing news that, at some point in your life, you're going to have to deal with a trade show. A veteran of way too many, Peter Shankman has exposed a few secrets:

1) Prep! prep!, prep! But not only by the book ...

If you are managing your company's appearance at the show, then you and only you do it from beginning to end. The reason I say this is because the trade show people know how hellish it is, and will try to help. They usually send along a manual the size of a Volkswagen, with everything you could possibly need, from phone numbers of the convention staff and hotel caterers to pre-printed shipping labels so you don't lose your stuff on arrival.

Use this book. Make sure you get it. Don't let it go to the client or to a subordinate. Don't let it out of your sight or you'll never see it again. Make sure it has your name on it, offer a reward if it's returned. It actually does have some valuable information in there.

(Confused about the terms in the manual? Here's a glossary)

2) Do your homework before booking your hotel ... A story: PR girl I knew once booked a block of rooms at a local Sheraton because on the map it seemed to be only three blocks from the convention center. She scheduled a meeting room there, had all the meetings lined up with all the press, and was psyched that it was so easy.

Well, the hotel WAS three blocks away. Unfortunately, three other hotels were closer, and those three blocks happened to be directly through a major freeway (you guessed it) with no pedestrian access. One reporter showed up for her meetings - because he happened to be staying in the same hotel.

Be very careful where you book offsite. It's a great idea, makes your job much more relaxing and is less stressful on all involved - but call first. MapQuest is not a reliable source. Ask the concierge. I'm also a fan of calling up a local taxi service and asking to speak to the dispatcher who's not on duty. (They usually have two.) They'll know how long it'll REALLY take you - not how long the hotel or brochures say. "A few blocks" from the hotel could be a mile or more, and in hotel-rush hour traffic, you're nixing an extra hour of sleep that you'll surely miss when you wake up after a party for an 8am meeting.

3) How overnight shipping works ...

Overnight shipping is an interesting beast. You see, 99 out of 100 times, your stuff will arrive overnight. That's usually the easy part. The hard part, however, is figuring out where it arrived. The convention centers and hotels are VERY picky about how your stuff is addressed. If it's off by so much as one letter, you're not getting your packages, at least not without one drawn-out fight.

In fact, I was just at a trade show last week, where I saw a company with absolutely no marketing materials whatsoever. Why? Because they got lost in transit. Always send a batch to your hotel, using a different shipping company, and keep an extra backup supply in your office. If everything gets lost, you can have another shipment sent to you. Finally, keep copies of everything you send on a USB Flash drive. Worst comes to worst, you jump to Kinko's, pay through the nose, and have them reprinted.

4) Speaking of paying through the nose ...

You know you're at a trade show when a water costs $5.50, and the catering service charges you $85 for a plate of cold-cuts. Unfortunately, there's not much you can do about this: trade shows and convention centers are notoriously expensive for everything you could possibly need as an exhibitor from sandwiches to electricity. Need high-speed access for the week? $1,500 isn't uncommon. How about $75 for ONE outlet of electricity? Or, my personal favorite - $465 for a conference table for the meeting room. Sorry to say, it's going to happen. Only piece of advice I can give you: put it all on American Express, so at least you get some points for it.

Oh, and don't try to move anything heavy yourself at the convention centers These are union halls, baby. I've actually seen people plug sound systems in at their booth, only to have a union person come over, unplug it, and then replug in the whole system. Scary.

5) Setting up your appointments ...

(Or, take a left, then your third right ) We already talked about placement near the convention center if going offsite. But what if you're inside the center? GET A MAP of the convention center for the specific show the second you arrive (which should be at least 2 nights before the show starts). Here's what the Comdex map looked like. (.pdf)

Figure out the best way to your booth/meeting room from any entrance. Plot it out, and send it as a follow-up to all your reporters, or whomever you've set meetings with. There's no worse headache than the client not having his meeting with BusinessWeek because the reporter couldn't find you in hall C-2.

Sending out clear directions is not only appreciated by the reporter, but it also makes for a nice "Just confirming our meeting on Tuesday" email, and let's you confirm under the guise of "helping." (which you are, so it's cool.)

6) I'm gonna party all night long ...

OK, we all know that trade shows have one major requirement that no one talks about - going out each night. Whether it's dinner with the client or the reporters, or hitting the Alanis concert sponsored by some company you don't care about, you're going to go out, you're going to have fun, drink to much, go to sleep too late, and get up way too early.

That said, try to remember that you can lessen the amount that your body will be pissed off at you by following a few simple guidelines

  • double your vitamins
  • drink LOTS of water
  • College rules apply: You'll probably be hitting more than one party/dinner/bar per night, so remember the "beer then liquor" rule: beer then liquor, never sicker, liquor then beer, in the clear. Although to tell you the truth, it can't hurt to temper each drink with an in-between glass of water or Diet Coke. It'll help you in the morning, believe me.
  • pop two Excedrin before you go out drinking (Not after, when your liver is already working too hard to get rid of the alcohol.)
  • If you can get some extra sleep, do it, even if it means giving up that last party.
  • carry Chapstick. These convention centers are dry as hell, and you're not going to impress any reporters with chapped and bloody lips. Some hand cream and sanitizer wouldn't hurt, either.

    If you're not used to partying like a rock star, and then you do for five days, that combined with recycled airline air, too much greasy food, not enough water, and 40,000 other people, WILL give you a cold at best, Strep at mid-best. Trust me. Now when I go to the doctor for Strep, he asks whether I just came back from a trans-Atlantic flight or a show.

    7) Your goodie bag ...

    You should have a goodie bag made up for every show and it should include the following:

  • a roll of Duct tape. Just take my word on this, ok?
  • a a full bottle of Excedrin
  • at least 8 "AA" batteries
  • an extra laptop battery
  • a six-outlet "octopus" plug (you know, it lets you six appliances into one outlet.) Beats having to rent one from the show for $40
  • pre-addressed FedEx labels. You can take your stuff to a FedEx office near the convention center, and not have to pay the exorbitant show shipping. Most hotels will do this for you for a few bucks, too.
  • a pocket-knife or "Leatherman." You might have to ship it to your hotel room if you're flying, but trust me, it'll come in handy more than once.
  • did I mention the Excedrin?
  • a phone # list with everyone's numbers, INCLUDING MOBILES, plus any pagers, etc. Also, booth #'s, hotel room #'s, hotel phone #'s, etc.
  • finally, a USB flash drive. They're cheap as hell now, go and get one from Bestbuy.com or something. That little device has saved me numerous times already.

    8) Comfortable clothes and shoes ...

    Here's a tip: a trade show is not a place to break in new shoes or nice starchy underpants. Just for kicks, I wore a pedometer at the last show I worked. Over 22 miles in 3 days - just in walking the show floor, getting to the convention center, etc. Scary, huh? Comfortable shoes, comfortable clothes. You can be professional in both, you know.

    9) Swag ...

    (Swag, swag, baby )What's a trade show without cool stuff to bring home? But be picky! YOU DON'T NEED FOUR HUNDRED PENS, despite them all being there. You'll either throw them out, leave them at the hotel, or they'll explode in your bag. I'm a fan of t-shirts, (you can never have too much workout clothing) or things that are actually useful I still use backpacks from Internet World '98 and '99 as beach bags in the summer. Why not? But be careful about what you grab.

    Remember, you've got to get this stuff home. (remember those pre-printed address labels?)

    (and here's some advice on swag strategies for your own booth)

    10) Treat yourself ...

    Finally, treat yourself to one thing during the show. Maybe it's a facial before a day full of meetings, or a nice sedan for the ride home from the airport as opposed to a cab, but make sure you do one thing for yourself - not for a client or a reporter, but one thing for yourself. It'll make it a lot easier.

    Remember! It's only hell for a few days, then it's over.

    11) OK, one more bonus tip ...

    Do a recap when it's all done. Not only for media appointments - make mention of everything you might have noticed: the booth, marketing collateral, competitor's tactics, the booth babes, you name it. Whatever you noticed that you think could be improved, or was received well. Clients love getting feedback like that. It shows that you care about more than the last media placement.

    (There are some good sales follow-up hints in this guide to planning attendance at trade shows)

    OK. I'm done now. Really. I'm actually close to this flight landing anyway. From, you guessed it, a trade show. CTIA 04, to be exact. And damn, are my lips chapped.

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