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Making the Most of Financial Services Trade Shows

The first trade show was the 1851 World’s Fair in London which showcased the achievements of the British Empire in order to generate international business for British companies. This idea first crossed the pond in the form of agricultural fairs that brought buyers and farmers together at harvest time. The success of these fairs soon inspired tradesmen and artisans to conduct similar forums to bring together potential buyers. In this way, the American trade show industry was born.

Today, every industry has trade shows in which outside exhibitors play an important role. Within the financial services industry, conventions—sponsored by organizations such as ABA, ACLI, BSA, FSI, FPA, ICI, LIMRA, MDRT, NAPFA, NAVA and SIFMA—provide exhibitors and attendees with the opportunity to make new contacts, strengthen relationships and learn about new products, services, suppliers, technologies and techniques.

The Phases of Effective Trade Show Participation

For an exhibitor, a trade show can represent either an effective means to simultaneously accomplish a number of different marketing objectives, or a significant waste of time and money. The difference lies in careful planning and judicious resource management. Successful trade show participation means much more than simply showing up. To leverage the unique potential that each trade show offers, an exhibitor should launch an intensive marketing campaign that encompasses three distinct phases: pre-show preparation, at-show performance and post-show follow-up.

Pre-Show Planning. The first step for any exhibitor is to find the shows that will have the greatest appeal for their target markets. Smart companies establish criteria for evaluating a show’s potential and, before committing resources, often attend selected shows as observers in order to gauge the audience and take notes on how to attract attention. The exhibitor should then establish specific objectives for each show—e.g., sales, new leads, product introduction, corporate visibility, public relations, and/or product research—based on the audience, the time available and the show’s dynamics. All show-related activities should then focus on accomplishing these objectives.

Exhibitors need to be creative if their message is to stand out in a sea of companies simultaneously reaching out to show attendees. A dynamic and creative theme can generate excitement and tie all elements of the event into a memorable experience for participants. To be effective, however, the theme must be reinforced through the booth design, tag lines, promotions, give-aways, communications and all other show elements.

Pre-show marketing can ensure success even before the show begins. Advertisements in the sponsoring association’s publication or personal invitations to selected attendees can be very effective if the offer is compelling. People like to be singled out to receive something—e.g., a gift, a free demonstration—that may not be available to the general public.

At-Show Activities. Three components determine an exhibitor’s at-show effectiveness: the booth, the people staffing the booth and the presentation of the firm’s products and/or services.

The sole purpose of the booth is to attract attention and encourage attendees to come in. This begins with the sign over the booth, which should broadcast, NOT the company’s name (as most do), but rather a simple direct message that will attract interest. Words like “new” or “latest” are especially intriguing to attendees eager to learn about industry innovations. The booth itself should be open and non-intimidating, and traffic should be managed through the placement of walls, tables and counters.

Even good salespeople need advance training to effectively manage the unique sales situation found at trade shows. Here, prospects are approaching salespeople (not the other way around) and the number of contacts, the contact time available and the discussion of corporate offerings are quite different from any other sales situation. Unfortunately, most new exhibitors learn by watching other exhibitors. As a result, conformity usually rules, suppressing the creativity and innovation that can create real success.

Passing out product and corporate literature at the show is one of the most common exhibitor mistakes. This only contributes to the trash left outside the exhibition area or in hotel rooms. Exhibitors should instead

  • provide an engaging presentation of products and/or services and display available literature
  • then ask attendees to surrender their business cards so that they can deliver selected literature to their offices.

Post-Show Activities. Effective follow-up procedures are essential if exhibitors are to meet their show objectives. A recent survey showed that, on average, companies actively pursue less than half of the leads obtained at trade shows. Before committing more resources to trade shows, companies should measure results against objectives and develop a management report that demonstrates the strategic value of exhibiting.

Resource Management

An effective trade show strategy allocates available resources among the three campaign phases. The truth, however, is that many exhibitors lavish resources on the wrong things. Think of trade shows as having two dimensions—the tangible and the intangible. Tangibles include such factors as exhibition space, exhibit design and construction, shipping and show services. Intangibles include pre- and post-show activities, theme selection, training of booth staff and lead fulfillment. While intangible elements will provide the greatest return on trade show investments, the tangible details invariably receive the lion’s share of both resources and corporate attention.

The Bottom Line

Effectively executed trade show marketing provides so many benefits that it can become a meaningful part of almost every marketing mix. The key to being effective is careful planning that will enable a company to take its own distinct course rather than following the exhibitor crowd.