The Trade Show Picture Worth 1,000 Words – of Waste

Tony Compton, Managing Director
GettingPresence

I’m not crazy about the new LinkedIn. The new User Interface is S-L-O-W. Some of the publishing and networking stats that I valued in the past have completely disappeared. And the mobile experience of trying to access LinkedIn’s website leaves a lot to be desired. I admit I had higher expectations from LinkedIn after it was acquired by Microsoft last year for $26 billion (USD). I also know that I’m not alone in expressing my displeasure with the new LinkedIn.

But one thing that hasn’t changed is the endless stream of trade show pictures that clog my LinkedIn feed. Pictures of smiling staff, proudly standing shoulder-to-shoulder inside their company’s respective trade show booths. Across industries, from shows spanning the globe, these pictures look the same. Can’t say that I necessarily blame anybody in these photos. Heck, I’ve even been some of them. But one recent “smiling staff in a booth” trade show picture got me to look at it – and all the rest of these event photographs – in a fiscally responsible way.

Instead of wearing my marketing/creative/event/happy to be at the show of the year hat, I put on my CEO/VC/Investor/Owner hat. It made all the difference in the world.

The trade show picture that made me stop was simple enough: six people smiling for the camera in a nearly completed 10’ x 10’ trade show booth situated somewhere deep inside a cavernous convention hall. Proud employees eagerly awaiting the start of a convention. All happy to be there. And judging from the size of the convention hall, I got the feeling it was one of those multi-day events where the exhibit hall is open from 10:00 – 5:00pm everyday for three, maybe four days.

But it’s what I also saw in the picture that made me stop, stare, do the math, and hope that the company’s CEO didn’t see this picture. Or their investors. Or competitors. It was evidence that could be used against the person who made the decision to exhibit at the event, and spend the money and resources the way they were spent. Yes, when a person has been around the trade show and marketing block a few times, this type of information can be gathered just from looking at one photograph.

In addition to the pleasantries above, here’s what I also saw in the picture:

1. Stacks of paper brochures in neat piles on the booth table. 

Survey says that over 80% of this paper collateral junk at trade shows is bound for garbage cans and area landfills. Yet there they still are in this day and age. In booth after trade show booth. Literature rack after lit rack. Two, four, and eight page four color brochures that cost money to write, produce, layout, edit, revise, print, store, ship, distribute, and return to storage after the show. More and more printed collateral that goes from company, to staff, to show floor attendees, to hotel room waste baskets as travelers lighten the load for the trip home. Printed material is largely useless, costs thousands to have on hand, and expires quickly. Too many marketers, salespeople, and executives love the tangibility of printed material at trade shows because you have to have something… The reality is that there are better ways to move your target audience to electronic forms of communication and save the money on stuff that’ll never get read in the first place.

2. The terrible booth location.

I mentioned that cavernous convention hall, and it’ll have been a miracle if anybody found the postage stamp-size booth. They were lost in the wilderness. I’m sure some knew where they were, but most attendees probably found their way to their location by accident wandering the exhibit hall on Day Two or Day Three of the event. After they’ve seen the big players, and those with far more advantageous positions on the show floor. Helpful tip: if you can’t get a good location on the exhibit hall floor, don’t exhibit. You can still attend the show, and your money will be better spent on other marketing activities which don’t place you in the back of the room for a week. (And no, just because you don’t exhibit, the market won’t think you’re out of business.)

3. I couldn’t tell you the exhibiting company name – even if I wanted to.

That’s because the exhibitor’s name was invisible in the picture, even in a nearly completed booth. It’s possible that a magical sign or expertly branded backdrop had yet to be erected – but I doubt it. Consider, do you notice the backdrops now employed at almost every press conference you see? Notice the way the branding is done on those backdrops? Simple, bold, clear, not crowded with illegible text? Yet trade show attendees are treated to signage which says nothing, or far too much. Get your signage act together, and remember that all attendees carry cameras and the ability to live stream from your location, ready or not.

4. The Expense: Personnel and Budget.

The picture I’m thinking about for this post had six people in it. Some booth pictures have 10, 20, or more people standing around posing for the camera. Then I start doing the math any CEO, owner, or investor would do in their heads. Time for each out of the office. Time spent in a booth. Time away from customers. Travel and entertainment. Booth space rental. The cost to put something in the booth space – whether it’s in the back of the hall or not. The cost of paper, pens, giveaways, shirts, etc. The list goes on and on.

You may say that’s the cost of doing business at a trade show. I would say nope – not anymore. I’d have a small, elite, multi-functional group of employees on hand. Only a small, very select handful of company employees would be at any given trade show and that’s it. Event costs have been ballooning out of control for years, and somebody has to answer for it in the weeks after an event. Especially if there’s no return on investment.

5. What I thought about.

Who constructed the booth? Who will tear it down and ship it back? I would never want employees crawling around on the floor and chasing boxes. They have better things to do with their time.

How many more employees were in town for this event? Were there more than six people attending, what were their business reasons for being in the booth, and how much did they expense as part of this endeavor? Was the booth used as luggage storage – yet again?

…and who took the picture?

From the minimum buy-in of $5,000, $10,000 and up for booth space rental at industry shows and conventions, to the five, six-, and seven-figure costs of putting something in the booth space – the trade show math has been adding up for years for CEOs, owners, and investors. They’re catching on. The trade show industry has quickly gained a reputation for growing long in the tooth and is in desperate need of innovation, if not reinvention.

It may be perfectly acceptable for some to treat a wasted outing at a trade show as an annual standard operating procedure, but those days are quickly coming to end. It’s evidenced by the steady stream of pictures of smiling people at trade show booths spending a company’s money and not thinking twice of the business benefits.

And if I’m thinking about what I see and don’t see in your exhibit hall photos, you’d better believe your boss is also thinking about it. Don’t be surprised if somebody, somewhere, in one of your executive conference rooms asks: “How much did that show cost?” “And what did we get out of it?”

And don’t assume you’ll be there to answer, or defend yourself.

Now smile, and say cheese!

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