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Culture

Navigating catastrophes: what to do when life (or event organizers) throw you a curveball

Following our recent visit to Austin, Texas, where we were exhibiting at a trade show, we had every intention of writing a positive, fun-filled and informative article. We had planned on re-living the event’s greatest moments, how our CEO delivered two very engaging presentations, and that we were going to (hopefully) come away with a bunch of great sales leads.

But this is real life, and sometimes things go wrong. It turned out that the event we had flown 3,139km for was actually a disaster. Without going into too much detail, there was a complete lack of event coordination, no signposting, no audio visual setup, and most disappointingly, very few attendees. However, given that we foster a mentality in our office that when stuff goes haywire, it’s an opportunity to learn from the experience, we figured staying true to this outlook was important. But, what to do when you’ve invested thousands of dollars into marketing materials, booth setup, flights and accommodations…? Well, you navigate the storm and pick up the pieces. Rather than dwelling on the negatives, this article shares some of what my colleague Celine and I learned, and some practical advice on how to master your own trade show experience.

First things first

Francesca: The very first step when considering sponsoring or exhibiting at trade events is to establish your objectives. Are you attending the event to boost your company’s image and credibility, to scope out the tradeshow floor, or to gather sales leads? Given that event attendance requires a generous budget, it is important that you and your team are on the same page from the get go. Align your objectives and how you are going to achieve them, both as individuals and as a team. How many leads are we looking to collect? How will you specifically measure your success? 

Staffing 

Francesca: Another important element to consider is which members of your team are you going to send, and why? We did something very different for this event and flew out staff members from 5 different departments: Business Development, HR, Marketing, Services and Senior Management. Why, you ask? In order to have a large pool of event trained staff members, to allow for equal opportunities and learning experiences across the company, and to give people from departments who traditionally have nothing to do with our product, the chance to talk about it and learn on the job. 

Celine: The last point Francesca makes is especially relevant to me. When I was in university, I had a side gig as a brand ambassador and loved talking and networking with people at events, but I had never considered attending an event for Jonar to promote our software. I work in HR and have very little interaction with our product. Though I am passionate about the vision behind it, our culture and our company, I am less knowledgeable about the technicalities of Paragon. However, it turned out that I didn’t need in-depth knowledge, as I had colleagues with me that I could refer questions to if need be. I found that – surprise! – people want to be spoken to as people. Don’t slip into sales pitch mode, but instead focus on nurturing real relationships. Genuine conversation wins over the hard sell.

Attitude

Celine: That leads to our next point. Positivity is key! Especially in the situation we found ourselves in: you’ve come a long way, have a beautiful booth… and are faced with zero foot traffic. But good vibes are important for multiple reasons – keeping up the morale of the team and of course to attract any potential prospects that might come by. Spread your team out across the booth, make eye contact with people, smile, offer free swag and be ready to engage. We saw far too many frowns and exhibitors glued to their laptops or phones. This does the opposite of inviting people in – you are a walking advertisement for your company and need to be proactively working for attention.

Booth design

Francesca: Designing a booth setup is no easy feat. We learned that designing the equipment is one thing, but making it work harmoniously and fill the booth space in a dynamic fashion is another. Be aware that booth spaces come in multiple dimensions (8×10, 10×10, 20×10) so you need equipment that works well in different spaces. We invested in dis-assemblable panels, a large, colourful back wall, and a branded table. 

We also realised that trade show floors are an ocean of blue. So, what to do when your primary brand colours are… blue and orange? You have to get smart with your furnishings. Bright colours and easily legible messaging! Which brings me to our next point.

Messaging

Francesca: At our first ever trade show, we found that though our messaging was humorous, not all attendees understood the acronym ERP. So, after many a raised and confused eyebrow, we chose to include messaging across our signage to explain, in simple terms, what our product does. We stuck with our slogan ‘ERP SUCKS’ though, as it’s a great conversation starter and prompts many a giggle. It’s down to you to make your content digestible, simple and not too buzz-wordy.

Celine: Another learning related to printed materials, is to consider not using any at all. Collect business cards to gather leads, and offer to send out promotional material in a PDF format to prospects by using a simple sign-up form on an iPad. Not only will you be reducing your carbon footprint and decreasing your overheads, but you’ll have less to lug with you to the show. If you do decide to use materials, order them in plenty of time. And do multiple print runs to ensure your brand colours match your print colours – we speak from experience!

Swag

Francesca: Swag is both a great conversation starter as well as company memento. We went for Canadian toques and found everyone reacted well to them – it’s not just meaningless swag that will end up being thrown in the garbage after the show. So many exhibitors (not exhibitionists, Celine) give away pens, notepads or key rings. Consider standing out with something memorable like sweets, socks or hats. 

Networking

Francesca: Though we were promised 3,000 attendees, the event probably had around 100 show up. Nevertheless, quality trumps quantity and regardless of number, ensure you have decent conversations with people. We managed to turn this experience on its head by networking with other exhibitors, creating opportunities for possible future partnerships, and even integrations.

Celine: Absolutely – communication is key. My attitude is that there’s never a lost opportunity and I am intrigued by people’s stories. We spoke to staff from cool tech companies such as Divvy and Electric, and learned about their HR practices, their company culture and what kind of events they attend. Maybe in the future, there’ll be an opportunity for co-marketing, or even a joint event.

Fun…?!

Celine: Last but not least, it’s also important to enjoy yourself. I see one of my main responsibilities at work as spreading joy among staff (as evidenced in my article about Tuesday morning staff activities). So, we made the most of our work day, and then were given the opportunity to go out and explore the city of Austin, which was a great team building activity, and connected members of our team who usually don’t work or spend much time together. 

In the same way that it is imperative to discuss objectives before you attend an event, it is similarly crucial to debrief post event. What did we learn? What went wrong? What could we have done better? 

Here are a few other quick tips we can share from our experience:

  • Make the event organizer your best friend – communication is key.
  • Follow up with your leads as soon as you can after the show.
  • Read reviews of the show! Get the lay of the land and make sure it’s the right fit for your business.
  • Review the attendees list – and don’t forget about the exhibitors!
  • If you have a speaking opportunity, choose a time slot later in the day. That way, if anything goes wrong with the AV setup, you shouldn’t be affected.
  • Download the ScanQR app for LinkedIn to easily connect with prospects.
  • Oh, and if you’re in Austin – jump on an Uber scooter, get down to any Texas BBQ restaurant, have Voodoo Donuts for dessert, and make sure to have breakfast tacos the next morning 😉
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