No Time for Recon?
To be truly effective, intelligence gathering should be included in almost every show’s to-do list. If you and your staffers don’t have an hour or two to spare at a particular show, however, you can still prepare your staffers for the onslaught of comparison shoppers in your own booth. “I’ve been doing marine trade shows for nine years, and the first thing I do after setup is visit major competitors’ booths and collect their brochures,” says Christine Chinchen, yacht charter coordinator at America’s Best Charters in Anacortes, WA. In a matter of minutes, Chinchen uses competitive intelligence to prepare staffers with information they wouldn’t otherwise possess. “I quickly read through the brochures and highlight any new offerings and key benefit statements. Then the booth staff and I brainstorm answers to attendees’ comparison-related questions such as: ‘How does your product compare to the competition’s new offerings? What does your product have that theirs doesn’t?’”

hat are your competing exhibitors up to? Do their hourly presentations lure attendees away from your space? Do their product demos offer side-by-side comparisons, with your product labeled the loser? Do their giveaways make your tchotchkes look like chopped liver? If you can’t answer these questions, you’re not only exposing your program to competitors’ sneak attacks — which can steal your marketing thunder, not to mention your ROI — you’re overlooking a huge opportunity for improvement, according to Bob Francisco, president of Admore Exhibits in Worcester, MA.

“In a world of increasing costs and decreasing resources, smart exhibit managers don’t just concentrate on their exhibits, they focus on their competitors’ exhibits,” Francisco says. Tunnel vision focused on your exhibit program blocks out critical data regarding the larger market — information that can not only help you identify the weaknesses in your program but that can also help you expose competitors’ weaknesses and use them to your advantage. Plus, a competitive-intelligence report is a powerful tool you can use to demonstrate your program’s value to your internal stakeholders and management.

After all, your exhibit doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Trade shows offer attendees the ultimate comparison-shopping experience. Under a single roof and in a single day, attendees can compare your products and messages to countless others. By the time many attendees visit your booth, they’re not only aware of what the Joneses are up to, they’ve already compared your products — along with your exhibit design, graphics, literature, benefits statements, hospitality event, and direct mailer — to the Joneses, the Smiths, the Andersons, and the Millers, and they may be about to take up residence with one of them if you don’t intercede with something spectacular to change their minds.

While the trade show floor’s dog-eat-dog environment may sound daunting, it’s also the perfect place for competitive-intelligence gathering. By analyzing competitors’ exhibits, listening to their presentations, and reading their graphics and literature, you can quickly learn which product benefits they’re touting, how your products compare, and how they’re positioning themselves against you. With just an hour or two of recon, you can gather enough information to not only understand your own program’s strengths and weaknesses, but to capitalize on your competitors’ strengths and weaknesses and use them to your advantage.

Surveillance Techniques

To make the most of this valuable opportunity, Francisco suggests implementing a method of ongoing intelligence gathering — rather than a once-a-year, all-holds-barred reconnaissance mission. He suggests analyzing as many competitors as time will allow at each show, keying in on a minimum of three to five major competitors.

The best way to gather competitive intelligence is to visit competitors’ exhibits and complete a competitive-analysis form for each. While posing as a potential prospect is certainly unethical, a trade show is public domain, thus, collecting competitive intelligence is legal according to antitrust and SEC regulations. There’s nothing wrong with watching presentations or demos, obtaining product literature, and generally inspecting competitors’ exhibit design, graphics, layout, messages, etc. In most cases, however, photography isn’t permitted without the exhibitor’s permission. When in doubt, contact the SEC to verify the definition of “public domain” as it pertains to your show and its exhibitors.

The type of information you gather on the competitive-analysis form varies greatly depending on your goals. For example, if you’re looking for a new booth design or you need to revamp your exhibit presentation, you’ll obviously focus on these aspects during your recon. However, a full-scale analysis — covering everything from products and budgets to advertising and press kits — is your best bet. Not only will it show you what competitors are doing and not doing and how your program stacks up, it’ll provide you with plenty of new ideas to adapt and apply to your own program. Use the list of pre-, at-, and post-show questions starting on page 51 to develop a custom competitive-analysis form to suit your company’s specific needs, or visit to create your own template by selecting the questions that apply to your intelligence-gathering goals.

Once you have a competitive-analysis form, the process is simple. Visit competitors’ exhibits, Web sites, and events, and analyze everything you see using your form as a guide. Of course, you can tweak this process to suit your needs and resources and to focus on particular areas for improvement in your exhibit. For example, while many exhibitors are independent agents — in other words, they complete all intelligence gathering themselves, Marilyn Kroner assigned the task to her booth staffers.

Currently the president of marketing-communications consulting firm Kroner Communications in Boulder, CO, Kroner previously served as the marketing-communications manager in the DLTtape Technology Division of Quantum Corp., where she assigned each staffer a recon mission to complete during off-duty hours at the show. “I developed a recon sheet and required everyone in the booth, including myself and my boss, to complete the sheet for five to 10 booths at the show,” Kroner says. Using a simple Excel spreadsheet, staffers rated each booth’s appearance on a scale of 1 to 10, analyzed primary messaging, noted the products displayed, and provided comments about how the competing exhibits stacked up to Quantum’s.

After the show, Kroner included each staffer’s competitive analysis in her post-show report and distributed it to key executives and internal stakeholders. If booth staffers failed to complete their reconnaissance, their blank forms bearing their names were still forwarded to management — a nifty move that immediately increased the quantity and quality of staffers’ reports and kept them on their toes going forward.

If you’re strapped for time and resources, industry suppliers, such as Kimberly Kee, president of Kee Consulting Inc. of Castle Rock, CO, offer secret-shopping services to gather competitive intelligence. “For each client, I usually evaluate up to three competing exhibits per show,” Kee says. “My evaluation includes a multi-point analysis of particular features of the exhibit, including photos if possible. Plus I ask the client’s staffers to complete a post-show online survey that asks for general comments as well as in-depth information about key competitors. I combine my analysis with the staff surveys and present my client with a single competitive-analysis package.”

Show-floor recon, however, isn’t your only source of information. “We offer technical seminars at industry conferences, and we visit competitors’ Web sites prior to the show to see if they’re also offering technical training, and if so, what it is, when it’s being offered, and if it conflicts with our presentation times,” says Karen Davis, CTSM, customer-service manager at Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories Inc. “If our seminars overlap, we try to determine how many people attended competitors’ sessions vs. ours to determine how many customers were lured away from our presentation and why.”

Implementing the Intel

After completing your recon, compile the information gathered as well as any insights you’ve gained about your program into a report and send it to executives, internal stakeholders — such as product development and advertising executives — and suppliers, such as your exhibit house, advertising agency, etc. The report allows you to not only share the wealth of information with others who can use it to your company’s advantage, but allows you to rack up a few brownie points with management and increase the perceived value of your program.

As an added bonus, Francisco suggests subjecting your own program to your competitive-analysis form. Do a self-analysis of your program using your custom form, but also ask a few key clients to complete it as well. Turning the microscope on yourself can help you identify problem areas that need fixing as well as strengths that should be maintained and bolstered.

“The ultimate goal of intelligence gathering is to end up with a list of ways to improve your trade show participation — be that a list of immediate fixes to counteract competitors’ claims or new ideas to implement next year,” Francisco says. Understanding competitors’ strengths and weaknesses is one of your best program-improvement tools to make sure discerning attendees keep your company’s products on their shopping lists. e

Linda Armstrong, senior writer;

Need to Know?

Create your own custom competitive-analysis form by selecting from the following questions, provided by Bob Francisco, president of Admore Exhibits in Worcester, MA, and E. Jane Lorimer, managing director of Lorimer Consulting Group in Denver. Choose the pre-, at-, and post-show questions that best match your intelligence-gathering goals, and add any industry-specific questions that will help you obtain the information you need to evaluate and improve your program.

For each question, identify what competitors are doing and whether it is effective; then analyze how your booth compares to the competition in terms of this specific element.


For the answers to these questions, talk to show management or check competitors’ Web sites or product literature. Also inquire with non-competing exhibitors, trusted clients, and your exhibit house and other industry suppliers who might be handling competitors’ exhibits as well as your own.

Which key competitors are exhibiting, how big are their spaces, and where are they located?

Are there any new companies with competing products at the show?

Is there any pre-show hype about a new booth, big drawing, product launch, etc.?

What kind of pre-show marketing are competitors doing?

Which companies placed ads in major trade publications?

Have any of your competitors recently received media attention?


Examine the entire conference for signs of sponsorships, ask management about ancillary events, and visit competing exhibitors’ booths to answer these questions — always considering the effectiveness of each element and how your program stacks up to the competition.

Exhibit and Graphics

Where is the booth located — at the front, on a main aisle, or buried at the back of the hall?

What’s your first impression of the booth? Can you tell what company the booth belongs to and what the company is selling?

What is the booth saying about the brand? Is it lively, trusted, conventional, cutting edge, etc.?

What is the exhibit theme, and is it appropriate? Does it carry through all elements of the campaign, from mailers to graphics to giveaways?

What is the age and condition of the exhibit property?

Does the exhibit design complement the company and its message?

What are one or two words that best describe the exhibit design?

What is the overall layout of the booth — open, closed, peninsula, inline, island, etc.?

Where are attendees clustered in the space, and what are they doing?

Where are graphics located — overhead, on exhibit walls, as stationary kiosks, on banner stands?

What images, text, and messages do the graphics offer?

What main elements does the exhibit design contain, such as a double deck, hospitality area, theater, reception desk, conference rooms, etc.?


Which products are highlighted in the exhibit?

Are there new products or new product bundles?

How are the products displayed and presented?

What are the product messages being communicated?

What mediums are being used to send the product messages?

Are there any direct or indirect comparisons to your products or those of your competitors?

Are any special pricing options available to attendees?

Is product pricing on target or out of line?

Note: According to Security Exchange Commission (SEC) regulations, employees of competing, publicly-traded companies cannot discuss pricing with fellow competitors.


What are the demographics of the staff in terms of executives, booth babes, crowd gatherers, salespeople, engineers, etc.?

Do staffers greet attendees when they enter the booth, or do attendees approach a central reception desk of some sort?

What kind of opening questions do staffers use?

How long does each initial staffer/attendee conversation last and what happens as a result?

How are staffers collecting leads?

What lead-qualification process, if any, is being used?

What kind of promises, if any, do staffers make to departing attendees?


What kind of product demos, if any, are offered in booth?

Are there any live presentations aside from product demos?

What kind of multimedia presentations, if any, are offered?

Do the presentations clarify or augment a specific message, or are they gratuitous?

Are presentations offered continually, throughout the show, on a timed schedule, or at attendees’ request?

Are one-on-one presentations offered? If so, what type of presentation medium is used, and how often are they offered?

What messages are offered in the presentations, and do they include messages about your company and its products?

Who is offering the presentations — hired talent, executives, product specialists, engineers?

How long is each presentation, and is the audience engaged throughout it?

Are the presentations interactive?

Are attendees seated or standing for the presentations?

Where are presentations offered in relationship to products and the rest of the exhibit?

Are the presentations well attended?


What kind of giveaways are being used, and are they appropriate?

How are giveaways being distributed, and to whom?

Are there traffic-building activities such as games or entertainment?

Are staffers distributing literature? If so, is the literature well done, and what messages does it relay?

Are staffers distributing any non-paper forms of information, such as CDs, DVDs, or memory sticks? If so, which format do attendees prefer?

Is there a live Internet connection in the booth? If so, how are staffers or attendees using it?

Attendees’ Perspective

From which direction do attendees approach the exhibit, and where do they enter it?

What do attendees look at when they approach the space? What draws them in?

Which part of the exhibit do they migrate to first?

Do attendees bring direct mailers with them to the booth?

Are attendees eager or reluctant to provide their contact information to booth staffers?

What is the overall mood of attendees? Are they excited, subdued, serious, inquisitive, puzzled?

How much time do attendees spend engaged with a staffer or a presentation in the booth?

Do attendees have prescheduled meetings with booth staff?

What kinds of questions are attendees asking staffers?

Are any of your customers in competitors’ booths? If so, what are they looking at and talking about?

How much time do attendees spend in the exhibit?

What do they take with them when they leave the space?

Where do attendees go next?


Are competitors holding press conferences? If so, are they being held in the booth, in the convention center, and/or off site?

Are competitors using VIP- or guerrilla-marketing techniques targeting the press?

Do competitors have press kits in the press room, and if so, what information is provided?

Which companies have placed ads in the show daily?

How are reporters greeted in the booth? Do they meet with staffers

or executives, and do they take anything away with them?

Other Activities

Which companies host hospitality events? Are they well attended?

Are companies recruiting at the show? If so, for what positions?

Are competing executives speaking at the show? If so, are their sessions well attended?

What types of sponsorships are competitors using, how many people are they reaching, and how much do they cost?


What can you remember about the exhibit and its messages one hour after you leave the booth?

Is the booth well attended?

What are the company’s main strengths and weaknesses?

What size exhibit space is being used by your competitor, and how much does it cost?

How much does the exhibit cost? (The average cost for an island exhibit is $139 per square foot and $124 per square foot for inline exhibits, according to the Exhibit Designers & Producers Association’s 2006 Economic Survey.)

Are there any competitors at the show that aren’t exhibiting? If so, what are they doing instead?

How does your overall presence at the show compare to your competitor’s presence?

If an attendee directly compared your program to theirs, whose would come out on top?


The marketing war never ends, which means competitive-intelligence gathering must continue even after the show is over. Visit competitors’ Web sites and talk with your customers, random attendees from the show’s registration list, suppliers, and show management to get the answers to these post-show questions.

What kind of follow-up do leads receive, such as a thank-you e-mail, literature package, etc.?

What kind of post-show follow-up appears on the company Web site?

Have competitors signed up for the same booth space next year? If not, where is their new location, or are they still exhibiting?

Have competitors issued press releases regarding their success at the show?

Have competitors generated media mentions as a result of the show?

Develop a custom competitive-analysis form to suit your needs. Pick and choose from our list of provided questions, and add your own to create your customized form. Click here.
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