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Can trade shows work in a digital age?

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The cost of setting up shop at a trade show isn’t cheap. Industry estimates peg it at upward of $150 per square foot. As for the attendees, employers still aren’t embracing business travel as they once were. So, on both sides, there’s more pressure to generate value. That’s why focusing on engagement, Goren adds, is so critical.

At the NAHB International Home Builders’ Show earlier this year in Orlando, Goren noticed attendees were glued to their phones rather than snagging the promotional items and branded totes. As such, he said, exhibitors should focus on crafting an interactive experience not unlike what Apple does with its stores and carefully scripted staff. Forget the branded tote bags, Goren said, because the idea is to make one’s booth a destination with comfortable seating, tailored talks and perhaps even a drink or two.

“Apple comprehends engagement really well,” Goren said. “An Apple retail experience is not because of the magic of Apple and its products — it’s the way they guide you into a purchase. Trade shows should do the exact same thing.”

Given the cost of exhibiting at a show, brands should carefully weigh a few factors. For one, they should visit one year as an attendee rather than an exhibitor, according to Lisa Zone, managing director at Cleveland-based communications firm Dix & Eaton. Questions to ask include whether it’s the type of show where business is being done and, of course, whether your brand’s absence might cause some prospective customers to scratch their heads. At the end of the day, though, it’s about creating value.

The biggest mistake exhibitors make, Zone said, is not doing enough preparation. That prep includes outreach to prospective clients and the media leading up to the show. And then, making sure booth workers undergo proper training.

“Everybody working the booth needs to be singing from same songbook and make sure the customers coming to the booth have a good experience,” she said. “When somebody comes home back to their office, they need to have something — some educational training or information that can help the company — to tell their boss rather than how they wined and dined and not a lot of business got done.”

For Daniel Weiss’ small software firm, Adatasol Custom Database Solutions in Beachwood, trade shows — especially niche ones — have been a “gigantic value” for his company’s growth. A few years ago, for instance, Weiss’ firm bought the rights to a piece of software that handles all aspects of tour management and booking. Being able to market it directly to the buyers of such services at the Student & Youth Travel Association conference in Albuquerque late last month was critical to executing Adatasol’s growth strategy.

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