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A guide to trade show networking

September 1st, 2011 / By: / Marketing

Business events and trade shows offer one of the best opportunities to make yourself known within your profession or industry. The converse is equally important: trade shows offer a unique opportunity to get to know people in your industry—the professional contacts who can help you become more successful. If you go in with a plan to meet new vendors, new customers and new partners, and find the latest ideas and innovations face to face, you can go back to your business with a year’s worth of research done in just a few days—and fresh ideas and information about how to implement it.

The key: when you attend a convention or trade show, don’t be a passive observer. If you’re joining us for IFAI Expo Americas 2011 in Baltimore next month, this issue contains our annual show preview to give you an advance look at the seminars, events and exhibits being offered. But that’s just the beginning. Before, during and after the show, there are easily implemented strategies and techniques that can help you maximize your investment.

Before the show

Even though IFAI Expo Americas 2011 is coming up next month, there are still plenty of things you can do to prepare in advance, and it’s the right time to be thinking about how to maximize your experience in 2012, too.

Organize pre- and post-show events, such as pre-convention travelogues or post-convention wrap-up seminars, to make the most of new ideas while they’re fresh.

Circulate position papers. These don’t need to be elaborate exercises in composition. Try jotting down a few pages of your thoughts on the current state of your industry, legislative matters, or other issues of pressing concern that you’d like to discuss with industry peers.

Let colleagues know you’ll be there. Make calls or send emails to people you want to meet, before the press of show events makes them hard to find.

Volunteer: Start by attending division meetings, for example, where the program planning committee work begins—and doors could start opening. Helping with an industry show is a great way to meet the movers and shakers in that industry, as well as the people they know.

Submit an article or an interview for the trade show communications (print and electronic). Describe the steps you took toward a major accomplishment; share information about a new product or project; publicize a new selling technique. Be sure to include your name and information to help people contact you later.

Schedule lunch or dinner. An impromptu meal with a business colleague is great—if it happens. You’ll have better luck connecting with key people if you get it on both your calendars ahead of time.

Set up your own reception. Work with show planners to host your own informal gathering at the show. If the people you need to see will be there, why not give them another reason to meet with you?

Offer to speak. Not all educational seminars require in-depth research and hours of presentation. Participating in a panel discussion, for example, is a good way to build exposure.

Organize an outing. This will need to be arranged well in advance, but it could be well worth the effort. You may have some inside knowledge or contacts to develop your own personal tour or event before or after show hours.

One of the hidden benefits of a trade event is the opportunity to know, and become known. Build a personal networking plan for yourself and your team and stick to it when you get to the show. Everyone there is a part of your industry, and they could become a part of your business.

During the show

Stay sharp, all day, and throughout any evening events. Receptions and hospitality suites are a welcome opportunity to relax after a day at the show, but these are still business opportunities.

Wear your business identification. Most events will provide you with a convention button or badge, giving others the opportunity to address you by name. Having your own badges, buttons or apparel with your company name and logo reinforces the message.

Exchange business cards with everyone you meet, and leave cards and literature everywhere you can—lounges, booths, press areas, and seminar rooms in which you’re participating.

Use exhibit hall booths as meeting places. The first reason to stop at a booth is to find new products, but it’s also a natural way to meet your peers and talk about items of mutual interest. If you notice a booth that keeps attracting crowds, stick around and get involved.

Meet and greet the speakers when attending seminars. These are people who are knowledgeable and active in your industry, and willing to share their experience.

Sit strategically. If you arrive early at a seminar, sit squarely in the front of the room; some attendees might assume you’re associated with the speaker and will chat more readily; you’ll also be able to talk with the speaker. As an alternative, sit near the door and greet participants as they come in. People are often strangely diffident when attending seminars, but will respond quickly if you take the initiative and open a conversation.

Follow the leaders. Arrive early at events where they’ll be speaking. Stand near key entrances or registration tables and be ready to introduce yourself.

Have your “elevator speech” ready. When you introduce yourself, offer your name, business name and, if appropriate, a key product line. If you ask questions after a presentation (always a good idea), do the same.

Distribute samples. If you are exhibiting and have a small product or distinctive item that will help people remember you or your business—something easy to carry, tasteful and inexpensive—give them away liberally.

Listen to the competition. Listen carefully for hints on what your competitors are saying about the industry, their products, and their strategies. Don’t hesitate to join informal chats or “gossip” sessions; they’ll help you become a better competitor.

Share your information. If you’re an inveterate note-taker, offer to share your notes with others who may have missed an event or seminar. It may lead to a long-term professional relationship.

Meet the press. If the convention includes press conferences, attend! If you’re involved in the convention, offer to participate. If you run into reporters and editors at the show, be ready to share your ideas and opinions—your company may end up featured in an article in an international trade magazine.

After the show

Once you’ve met the experts, shared your own expertise, solved old problems, found new products, new vendors, new partners, and returned home with at least one blockbuster idea for your business, the networking continues. Follow up on the new contacts you made at the show. Send out press releases to local media and industry publications about your company’s successes. Write letters to the editor. Comment online. Update your website with a blog that offers helpful news and advice. Join a group of local business people who meet to discuss issues and creative solutions over breakfast (or wine) once a month.

And, before you forget, contact the show organizers and tell them what you’d like to see next year—and how you can help make it happen.

Galynn Nordstrom is senior editor of Specialty Fabrics Review.

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