Trade Shows

A Trade-Show Attendee Tells All

When I hear a really good idea at a meeting, I draw a little light bulb in the margin of my notes.

Photo by quinn.anya

After attending the 10th annual Exhibition and Convention Executives Forum (ECEF) in Washington D.C. on June 1, my notebook was well illuminated.

But one idea in particular deserved a lightning bolt: ECEF producer Sam Lippman invited Amy Nichols, CEO of Dogtopia, to come and talk  about face-to-face marketing — namely trade shows — and the role it has played in the rapid growth of her business, an upscale pet-care company.

Nichols talked about her experience attending exhibitions and meetings at different stages of her company’s growth, from one she attended in 2002 just as she was founding Dogtopia, to a meeting she and her staff organized for the company’s franchise owners. (Nichols plans to outsource the planning for the 2012 meeting, because it was so grueling.)

The nine exhibitions Nichols described varied widely, ranging from a pet industry conference that has since folded to the invitation-only INC. 500/5000 conference for entrepreneurs.  One thing that stood out in her remarks was how important — and how often bungled — were the basics, including seating and meals. As an attendee, Nichols really wanted to have a place where she and others could talk, and she found that often there just wasn’t anywhere to sit down.  And it turns out that trade show attendees still remember a bad meal for years afterwards.

What about mobile meeting apps? What she would really like to see, Nichols said, are apps in which she could plug in her day’s schedule and then have access to information about what’s up next, and where she needs to go and how to get there.

It was really no surprise to learn that cost wasn’t the biggest factor that determined whether Nichols would attend an event: some of the events that she found most valuable were the most expensive. The factor that most drove her decision to attend events for the first time were personal recommendations from her network, she said.

There is no replacement for face-to-face meetings, and the opportunities for building relationships and encountering new ideas, she concluded. But Nichols urged those at the conference not to lavish all their care on exhibitors. “Why,” she asked, “aren’t we paying more attention to attendees?”

Barbara Palmer

Barbara Palmer is senior editor and director of digital content.