You Forgot that Attendees are People

Tony Compton, Managing Director

Some of you are heading to a large #tradeshow in San Francisco. Or Chicago. Maybe Vegas. Some of you have already done your time at your big industry event this Fall. (That’s alright, there’ll be other shows.) And for a few frequent-fliers, it’s a different show every week.

Some of you work for a company that is sponsoring, exhibiting, and sending a sizable team to your next event. It’s all part of a major #sales and #marketing investment that some feel compelled to make, yet they won’t be able to even begin to measure the results of the expenditures the day they return to the office. Some of you will just attend your next event, possibly at little or no cost.

Your company may be one of those cluttering my LinkedIn home page feed with message after message inviting me your event, to see your booth, to watch your demo, and come to your party, so that you can market and sell me your products and services.

In the crush of these never-ending messages, open invites, and posts, I must be missing something. Has a company sent an invitation around an upcoming event to hear what attendees are facing? To listen, learn, and truly understand what’s keeping them up at night? To take a moment and relate, and to demonstrate that their staff knows the business of the attendeestheir industry challenges, and their problems?

My imagination sees your defensive posturing as you read this post. And I’m sure you really do believe that you listen to your customers and prospects. I have no doubt that sometimes you do. But in the crush of the “hey look at us” messages leading up to an event, I wish companies would extend themselves at make room for time to talk to attendees. Not at a party. Not at a hospitality suite. Not a fancy dinner. Not at a session or in a demo hall. I get the need (desire) to do all of those, but find room to just sit and talk to listen and learn.

I’ve learned to two lessons, one over the course of 30 years, the second in the course of the last two months. Both are applicable to your next trade show appearance. And mine.

I called downtown Chicago home for over 20 years. Before that, I went to college in the city. And for the longest time I used to say if I had an information booth on a street corner and charged one dollar to answer a local question, I could make a fortune. That’s because I continually get stopped and asked for directions, and help. For advice on where to eat. Which bus to catch. The nearest subway station. But I soon realized that it would be counterproductive to have an information booth. People weren’t coming up to me and asking me questions because I had a booth with a giant question mark on the front. It was because my appearance led them to believe that I was knowledgable, credible, friendly, local, and able to help. It didn’t matter if I wore a suit and tie and carried a briefcase, or wore shorts and a t-shirt with a backward baseball hat carrying groceries. People asked for help, and I was glad to provide it. No booth, logo’d shirt, or #conference badge required to provide the value, solution, relief, and happiness I provided. Downtown Chicago was my #exhibit hall, and my fellow pedestrians were attendees. Which brings me to my next story.

One Friday evening this summer, I was driving northbound on Interstate 75 in northern Florida when a thunderstorm struck. Those who have travelled along the Gulf Coast in U.S. will know the smell of the humid air, and the sight of the towering clouds, fat lightening bolts, and torrential rain.

This was Mother Nature’s trade show, and her rain made it feel as if I was driving through a car wash. My fellow motorists and I were impromptu #attendees of this natural event: all on the same path, facing the same problems, looking for answers and reassurance that everything will safely work out.

The immediate option for safety was to pull into a rest area between Gainesville and Lake City, Florida. As I did, a steady stream of cars and trucks began to flow into the rest area behind me. After parking, my next decision was to make a run for a covered area at the center of the oasis. Though the dash took only fifteen seconds, the result was a drenching. I took a shower with my clothes on.

Now picture the scene. I sprinted to a location that resembles a car port. An open-air overhang, behind a State of Florida information booth. Individual bathroom entrances flanked the sides, roughly 20 feet apart. I stood underneath, dripping wet. Then the most interesting thing started to happen, and I didn’t have to say a word to start any conversation. Fellow drivers saw me, and started talking to me. Mostly one-by-one. They knew I was a fellow motorist caught in the storm. But instead of going to visit the man in the Information Booth, I became the source of information, and a courteous ear. One woman quizzed me about stopping because she had to convince her boyfriend to pull over for safety reasons. A truck driver with a thick southern accent gave me the low down on an accident on the Interstate that had shut down traffic. Still another snowbird wearing his best golf shirt and shorts engaged in conversation. All the while the man in the information booth went undisturbed. I spoke with people from many walks of life because we were sharing a common experience. Like in downtown Chicago, I looked as if I understood what others were facing, would listen, and help, if needed. But this time, I was one of them. We were all in it together.

No booth required.

No pressed logo’d collared shirt required.

No demo required.

No money required.

None of this would have happened to me either in Chicago or Florida if I was disengaged, continuously yapping on my cell phone. Or if I remained in my (booth) car. Or if I didn’t bother to listen, learn, and help. Or take the initiative when I saw somebody unfold a 50-year old paper map while wanderingly my neighborhood. Or smile when a fellow motorist came in out of the rain.

What does this mean for your next trade show?

Here are some hints:

Be Approachable

You’re not attending a show to impress people with the image of you conducting big business on your phone. You’re there to add value to the attendee experience and your business relationships. Put the phone down and be approachable. Close the laptop, too.

Listen to the Attendees

Create scenarios in order to listen and learn from attendees away from the crush of the event activities where you can see each other and hear each other talk.

There is no dress code for this.

In the sea of collared company shirts, business casual sport coats, and pressed khakis, be different. Stand out, professionally. People talked to me while I was soaking wet, dressed for business, the gym, and everything in between.

I bet the State of Florida spent a ton of money on building their information booth, and staffing it. Chances are your company is doing something similar at a trade show this Fall. But if you’re going to the show, make sure you remember your audience is the attendees. And they’re people. After all, the event is for and about them, not you.

Make sure each and every one gets the time and attention they deserve.

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