arlier this year I attended a trio of international events: The International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas; EuroShop in Dusseldorf, Germany; and Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain. While I've covered a number of global events over the years, attending three shows in three different countries within the span of six weeks afforded me the perfect opportunity to compare and contrast American exhibitors with their European counterparts.
Generally speaking, European exhibitors do two things differently. First, they don't man the perimeter of their booth spaces, trolling for passersby. In my experience, they're more inclined to hang back, allow visitors to leisurely explore their booths, and make themselves available for conversation if and when attendees wish to ask questions. Second, European exhibitors tend to engage visitors on a more personal level before getting down to business. No, they're not asking to see selfies of you and your friends, but they are infinitely more interested in who you are, where you came from, how your day is, and why you're at the show. But what is absent from the standard European exhibit experience, almost uniformly, is the question "Can I scan your badge?"
American exhibitors, on the other hand, are famous for starting conversations with that impersonal question. It's a curious distinction, and one that I believe can be traced to a fundamental difference of opinion regarding the value of trade shows.
It seems that Europeans understand that the value of trade shows is not solely in obtaining a database of faceless email addresses. Nor is it all about collecting and ranking leads. They appear to grasp the fact that trade shows represent a significant branding opportunity, and that business relationships are built on trust (which is almost impossible to foster without meaningful conversation).
Relationships and handshakes are viewed as more ephemeral outcomes in the United States. We like measurement and metrics, and if we can't measure it, it doesn't exist. But the flaw in most American exhibitors' approach is that they become so myopically focused on badge scans and lead counts that they inadvertently de-incentivize staffers from having substantive conversations with anyone other than current clients. Why spend 10 minutes with one booth visitor, when you could have scanned dozens of badges in that amount of time?
There are obvious shortcomings to each strategy. And while both are respectable ways of doing business, I propose that a fusion of the two would better serve exhibiting companies on both sides of the pond. Americans could learn a thing or two about holding back and allowing visitors to enter their spaces without being tackled to the ground by booth babes wielding lead-retrieval devices. Similarly, they could forge stronger, more personal, and more memorable connections by taking a page from the European handbook. Europeans, on the other hand, could stand to be a bit more aggressive. My anecdotal observations imply their Staff Interaction Rate must be laughably low by American standards. And the conversations they do have, however substantive, are only a means to an end. Without a badge scan or the exchange of business cards, they do little to ground the relationship. It's like having an amazing conversation with someone on an airplane, but never getting his or her number.
Thanks to increasing globalization, the world keeps getting smaller, and the boundaries of nations no longer mean what they once did. It can be tricky, daunting, and culturally challenging to engage with booth visitors from myriad nations at a trade show. But whether that show takes place on American or European soil, I believe the best approach is somewhere in the middle.