Going to a Trade Show

Summary: Writing daily from Tech-Ed 2004, Eric gives you tips and advice about exhibiting at trade shows, drawing from his experiences at this show, as well as past events.

Monday, 7:30 a.m.

I arrived in San Diego yesterday for Tech Ed 2004 where SourceGear will be an exhibitor. Like most events of this kind, Tech-Ed is both a "conference" and a "trade show". The conference portion consists of scores of Microsoft product managers telling the attendees how great Microsoft technologies are. The trade show portion consists of scores of companies telling the attendees how great their products are. The mixture of these two ingredients has attracted over 10,000 geeks like me who are now swarming around downtown San Diego wearing really dorky badges around our necks.

I'm still sitting in my hotel room at the US Grant. The exhibit hall opens at noon. We did most of the setup of our booth yesterday afternoon, so we're pretty much ready to go. I've got a few hours this morning so I need to spend some time working on this article. It's due Thursday.

I Like Trade Shows

Trade shows are my favorite of the basic "marcomm" (marketing communications) tools because they are so interactive. Advertising and PR are primarily one-way communication, from you to the customer, without much chance for information to flow the other way. In contrast, a trade show offers face time. Coming to the show this week will give us the opportunity to meet in person with prospective customers. They will tell us their opinion of our product. They'll ask for features we don't have. We'll have the increasingly rare opportunity to experience the people in our market segment as real people.

We also get face time with our competitors and partners. We get the chance to see a broad spectrum of companies in our space and observe what they are all doing.

We also get face time with some of our existing customers. Throughout this week, people who already use our products will be stopping by the booth to chat. Some will simply want to meet us in person. Some will tell us how happy they are with the product. Some will tell us how we have disappointed them in some way.

The entire package provides us a perspective that cannot be obtained in any other way. Other marcomm tools certainly have their place, but there is nothing like a trade show. In this column, I will talk about trade shows as a marketing tool for your small ISV. I will share several stories from my own experience, as well as some tips for how to get started in trade shows.

Choosing a Show

After you decide you want to try exhibiting at a trade show, your next decision is to figure out which one. Regardless of your particular market segment, there are almost certainly a variety of shows from which you can choose. SourceGear is a developer tools company in the Microsoft ecosystem, so we choose our shows accordingly. We basically always have a booth at Tech-Ed and at the Professional Developers Conference (PDC). Sometimes we do a booth at VSLive as well.

I recommend that you attend a trade show before you commit to being an exhibitor. Spend plenty of time walking around the show floor and observing carefully. Bring a digital camera and take lots of pictures. Critique the booths of other vendors. Pay attention to what they are doing and whether or not it seems to be working well for them.

Show Me the Money

Exhibiting at a trade show is both cheap and expensive.

It's cheap because it is a one-shot expense. Contrast this with advertising where the magazine's sales guy is going to try to convince you to buy an ad every month for an entire year. A trade show is a single event, with no lingering commitments to annoy you later.

But trade shows are still awfully expensive. If the idea of spending $10,000 on a trade show appearance sounds scary, then you may want to look elsewhere. At some shows you can probably spend less, but not by much.

Over the last few years, SourceGear usually spends between $25,000--30,000 (US) for each trade show appearance. This week, we wanted to simplify things a bit, so we chose to have a 10-ft.-by-10-ft. booth (10x10) instead of our usual 10x20. I think we'll end up spending between $15,000--20,000 dollars for this show.

But the opportunity to spend more is almost unlimited. The "gold" sponsors at this show probably spent several hundred thousand dollars this week.

I still remember one show where we probably spent a little too much. People at the company started getting crabby as the expenses kept rising. When it came time to make the travel arrangements, I asked if we needed a rental car in Los Angeles. One of my partners sarcastically asked why we didn't just wait till we got out there and buy one.

Registration and Booth Selection

Preparation for this event started several months ago. We registered as an exhibitor on January 26th. Payment for the booth space itself was due immediately. The cost was $6,995 for the booth itself, plus $300 rental fee for a table and two chairs. If the pricing of that furniture seems outrageous, get used to it. You can rent all kinds of stuff for your booth, including furniture, equipment, and more. The rule of thumb is that the weekly rental fee will be approximately the same as the price of buying the item new. It stings, but the principle here is the same as the reason you pay five bucks for a hot dog at a baseball game--it's their convention center, not yours.

After we have registered as an exhibitor, we know that we have reserved our booth space, but we do not know yet where it will be. Booth selection usually takes place several weeks after registration. This year, Tech-Ed allowed exhibitors to choose booths in approximately the order that we registered. SourceGear ended up in the third wave of booth selection, which opened at 11:00 a.m. Pacific Time on February 25th.

Considering the amount of money you're paying, it makes sense to try and get the best booth location you can. Usually you can see the map of the trade show floor in advance and identify two or three desirable locations. It's usually better to try and get a booth on the end of a row. Try to be in a high traffic location, such as near an entrance or other item of interest.

If the booth selection Web site opens at 11:00 a.m., you should be there at 10:55 a.m. with your finger poised over the mouse. Our booth selection opened right on time, and I grabbed our desired booth within seconds. We ended up with booth 1743, directly across from the Visual Studio kiosks in the Microsoft pavilion. Except for the giant pillar which somewhat impairs the visibility of our booth, this location is perfect for us.

After booth selection, you will receive an exhibitor's guide of some kind. This is usually a small book containing all kinds of information you need to be prepared for the show. The most important thing in that guide is the calendar of deadlines. This will tell you the last day for each thing you need to do. For example, if you want to purchase an advertisement in the conference guide, there will be a deadline for registering for this additional service.

Monday, 9:30 a.m.

The job description for people who deliver the San Diego weather report on television involves two simple responsibilities:

  1. Announce the fact that it is 68 degrees outside, trying very hard to give the impression that someday the temperature might actually vary.
  2. Tell the viewers whether it is cloudy or sunny.

Today is one of those days when it is 68 degrees and cloudy. In Illinois, we get three days a year where the weather is this nice, but since this is approximately the worst weather San Diego has to offer, the locals describe this as "bad weather". Nonetheless, the walk from my hotel to the convention center was unbelievably pleasant. I am now sitting in the SourceGear booth drinking coffee. I still need to finish a couple more details on the setup of our booth.

Physical Stuff in Your Booth

When I stop to think about it, the word "booth" is a strange term for the piece of floor space we have rented. It is a square, 10 feet long and 10 feet deep, with blue carpeting covering the floor. The back of the booth is a black curtain, approximately eight feet tall. Another much shorter curtain marks the boundary between our booth and the one next door. There is an electrical cord and an Ethernet cable.

Everything else is in the booth is your responsibility, and there is a wide range of choices available. If you want furniture, banners, signs, computers or televisions, you have to rent them or bring them with you. Most of the booths larger than 10x10 are filled with professional systems that integrate furniture and visuals. The PatchLink booth here is really outrageous. It has a stairway to a second floor that contains an observation deck of some kind.

Many of the 10x10 booths use a professional system as well, albeit on a smaller scale. Our booth has a folding backdrop with vertical panels that we printed with our company graphics. This system set us back around $10,000 or so, but we've been able to use it many times.

Some of the 10x10 booths are much simpler. Many companies simply rent furniture from the convention center and hang up printed banners and signs. We've done quite a few shows this way. This approach is cheap but the results can be very professional. I always recommend people start out this way for their first show. Keep it simple until you are really comfortable with how things are done at these events.

Shipping

If your booth is going to have computers or fancy backdrops, you will have more stuff than you can carry in your luggage, so you'll have to ship things to the show site in advance. For this show, we shipped three crates and two boxes, totaling about 500 pounds or so. I haven't seen the actual shipping costs yet, but we did get our stuff shipped out by the first shipping deadline. Waiting until the very last shipping deadline will cost you more.

The exhibitor guide will tell you whom to call to schedule the pickup of your stuff. A big truck will show up and take your boxes and crates away. From that moment until the moment you arrive on the trade show floor, you will worry about whether your stuff will be there complete, intact, and on time. This actually happened to us at the PDC last fall. Most of our boxes were missing in action when we arrived at the booth for setup. Don't plan to arrive at the show at the last minute. If your boxes got lost, you'll need extra time to track them down.

Tuesday, 12:50 p.m.

The worst thing you can do at a trade show is to be boring. I won't name names, but there are some booths here that are really easy to ignore. I always find this to be somewhat sad. Renting space here is not cheap. It's important to find a way to be interesting.

Companies do all kinds of things to draw attention to their booths, with varying results. In the sections below, I describe a few things which have worked for us and a few things that don't seem very effective.

Poking fun at ourselves

At Tech-Ed two years ago we made our first announcement of SourceGear Vault. Because we made this announcement over six months before shipping the product, we knew we would be criticized for hyping our "vaporware". So we decided that it would be easier if we made the joke ourselves. We bought a fog machine and spent the week standing in a booth filled with wispy vapor rolling around. Our booth was awfully hard to ignore, and we got the opportunity to tell lots of people about our upcoming product.

Poking fun at others

Self-deprecation is safer, but sometimes you can make use of a good-natured joke at someone else's expense.

At Tech-Ed last year, somebody at Microsoft introduced a marketing campaign that simply had to be the target of a parody. They selected several well-known gurus and declared them to be "Software Legends". The convention center was filled with life-sized cardboard cutouts of these legends, each of which directed people to visit the Web site at softwarelegends.com.

I tried to resist the temptation, but in the end, this target was just too easy. We created a parody Web site at notalegend.com and showed up at Gnomedex with a life-sized cardboard cut-out of me. This joke ended up being a huge hit. Even now, almost a year later, about a dozen people approached me this week to tell me how funny that was.

But do be careful about causing offense. Burning bridges is always a mistake. I have had the chance to speak with several of the software legends and the people who produced the campaign. I am delighted to report that no one was offended by our spoof.

"In a world ... "

The concept for the promotional campaign for Vault was to advertise the product as if it were a movie. The product packaging is a DVD-style case. We made movie posters with that distinctive typeface at the bottom. The magazine advertisement was a variant of the poster. But most importantly, we produced a brief movie trailer that we have shown on a plasma screen at several trade shows.

Although we often hear glowing praise for this campaign, not everything about it was as successful as we hoped. Some trade show attendees didn't want to stand still long enough to watch the trailer. Some people didn't accept our poster giveaway because it was too big to carry around.

But in general, this effort has brought outstanding results. The best part of the whole campaign was the voice-over for the trailer. As people stand in our booth and watch the video, they suddenly realize they have heard the voice before. The voice in our trailer is Hal Douglas, the same voice that is heard in many of the actual Hollywood movie trailers. He is also the guy who appears in the movie trailer for Comedian, which, incidentally, is truly hilarious.

The original budget for the Vault promotion and launch was $85,000, but we ended up spending about $89,200. The difference was Hal's fee for 20 minutes of work, and it was worth every penny. His voice eliminated all chance of our movie trailer being cheesy or amateurish. We've used it for several shows now, and the Vault movie trailer has been a great tool in making our booth interesting.

Freebies

People go to all kinds of measures to counteract the sheer boredom factor of their booth. The most common approach is to give stuff away. As I look around the show floor, I see the usual array of people who visit booths for the specific purpose of collection T-shirts, rubber balls, hats, and everything else they can find. We've done this in the past, but I have always had questions about the effectiveness of this approach. The obvious concern is that freebies do little more than attract people who are simply searching for freebies.

Yesterday, somebody walked slowly by our booth, carefully keeping his distance to ensure that we did not speak to him. As he walked by, he scanned our signs and materials and apparently decided quite clearly that he was not interested in our products. He maintained his speed and proceeded to the next booth.

And then he noticed the baseball cap sitting on our table. Baseball caps are a popular freebie this year, so he assumed we must be giving them away. He stopped, turned around, approached our table and asked us what he had to do in order to get a free cap. Ironically, that baseball cap wasn't even ours. It belonged to a customer who had simply placed it on the table as he was talking with us.

Prize Drawings

Another popular alternative to being interesting is to collect business cards for a prize drawing. I'll confess that this approach usually seems downright silly to me. For example, the booth next to ours is giving away an iPod. Drop your business card in a fishbowl. At the end of the week, one card will be drawn and the winner will get the prize. Later, all those business cards will probably get handed to some sales guy who will use them to pester people.

If this technique works for them, great, but I am honestly not fond of it. In this case, the iPod has absolutely nothing to do with their business. They have artificially increased the quantity of their booth traffic, but not the quality.

Tacky

In my opinion, the absolute worst way to generate artificial interest is the tactic that is commonly known as the "booth babe". The basic idea is to staff the booth with an extraordinarily attractive woman. In many cases, the woman is a little-known model or actress who was hired for the week and knows absolutely nothing about the company's products.

Thankfully, I don't see this classless tactic happening here at Tech-Ed this week, but I've seen it at various shows before. Please don't do it. I'm not saying you have to go out of your way to staff your booth with ugly people. I just think people like companies who recognize that their customers are smart. Staff your booth with the right people to talk about your products.

Wednesday, 9:30 p.m.

So far, the show is working out pretty well for us. The traffic in our booth has been okay, but not extraordinary. Tech-Ed usually isn't a truly high-traffic show for us. The crowd here is a mix of developers and information technology (IT) people, but our product only appeals to the developer side. This illustrates a point about trade show audiences that ends up being true more often than not: rare is the show that can deliver you several thousand people with absolutely all of them being potential customers.

Since SourceGear is a developer tools company, we only attend shows where a significant percentage of the attendees are software developers. We further constrain our choices to the shows which are Microsoft-centric, since that fits our product positioning.

However, I suspect that at least some of my readers are selling products intended for normal people. I don't know the landscape for other shows, but I do know that basically every significant market uses trade-show events. For example, I recently attended a woodworking trade show. In many ways, it was very similar to my own experiences, albeit with fewer laptops and more sawdust.

Using trade shows in your project scheduling

I really like to use trade shows as deadlines for project milestones. Sometimes we tie the actual product ship date to the date of the show. On other occasions we simply use the show date as an interim milestone. Either way, the opportunity to show a product to customers provides a nice incentive to get things completed and polished. This week, we decided to begin telling people about our upcoming bug-tracking product here at Tech-Ed.

I don't believe in project scheduling that is 100% date-constrained. However, a little date pressure can help drive things to closure. The trade-show date is completely immovable. Ludicrous as it may sound, I remember a couple of times where I wanted very badly to call Microsoft people and ask them to push an event back a week to give us more time.

Attaching this milestone to Tech-Ed forced us to make a decision about the official product name for our bug-tracking system. We've had an internal code name all along, but we really wanted to finalize the actual name before we showed it to customers. At the last possible moment, we decided Friday morning the name would be "Dragnet". We rushed our data sheets to the printers, picked them up later Friday afternoon, and I brought them to the show in my luggage.

Thursday, 8:00 a.m.

When I first got started writing for MSDN, I was unaccustomed to working under a deadline. For my first article, the due date arrived and I think my editors expected me to submit the article that morning. By now they understand that when I said I would submit my article today, I meant that it would sent by the end of the business day as defined in the Hawaiian time zone. So I've still got several hours left to get this wrapped up, but at this point, I think I will make it without having to ask for an extension (again).

This is the last day of the show. I am reminded once again why I like trade shows so much. Just as I mentioned last month, there is an old saying about pizza and sex: "When it's good, it's good, and when it's bad, it's still pretty good". I think the same thing can be said of trade shows. This week's event has frankly not been our most successful show. Booth traffic has been okay, but not great.

But the show has still been pretty good. We talked to lots of potential customers and told them about our products. Some of our current customers stopped by to say hello. We got to see a whole bunch of interesting people from blogspace, including Chris Kinsman, Julia Lerman, John Bristowe, and Korby Parnell. We had some great conversations with folks on the Visual Studio team. We took a walk and saw a seagull. We ate dinner at an unbelievably good Brazilian restaurant. We had a nice chat with one of our competitors.

My point here is this: There is a strong temptation to try to measure the success of a trade show appearance strictly in dollars from new sales leads generated at the show. If you really want to do it this way, I won't stop you, but I think you're missing the point. There are intangible benefits to appearing at a trade show that are very hard to quantify. If we talked ourselves out of future trade show appearances simply because we didn't generate enough sales to cover our direct costs, we would miss out on those intangibles.

Teardown

The show will officially close at 3:30 p.m. this afternoon. At 3:31 p.m., things will be crazy. People will start tearing down their booths immediately. The carpets will be rolled up and carried away. Table covers will be removed, revealing that the $300 rented table underneath is actually worth about twenty bucks.

Luckily, teardown is a lot easier than setup. All we have to do is take everything apart and cram it back into our shipping crates.

My favorite part of teardown is folding the backdrop. When fully extended, our backdrop is about ten feet wide and seven feet tall. This afternoon I will unhook three connectors and then give the whole structure a little nudge and watch as it quietly collapses to something about the size of a bed pillow. It's so cool.

The very last step is to put shipping labels on our crates and walk away. It always feels strange to just abandon them there on the floor, but somehow they always seem to make it back to our office.


Eric Sink is the non-legendary founder of SourceGear, a developer tools ISV located in Illinois. Despite his obvious disdain for Illinois weather, Eric still thinks the best part of every trade show is coming home to his wife and daughters. Eric's weblog is at http://software.ericsink.com/.


This article originally appeared on the MSDN website.