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A ccording to Skip Cox, president of Exhibit Surveys Inc., there are more than 14,000 trade events in the United States and Canada alone. Which shows in this haystack offer the richest opportunities to meet your company's sales and marketing goals? Choose wisely and you're a hero. Choose wrong, and your sales effort wilts on the vine.

Some companies continue to base their choices on little more than word of mouth and a long history of exhibiting at a particular trade show. But if you want to make show selection less of a guessing game and more of an intelligent, informed choice that drives your company's return on investment, you'll need to do a bit more legwork.

Cox, the go-to man for advice on making the right decisions, suggests this five-step approach:
1. Research your company's marketing and sales objectives.
2. Seek feedback from current and prospective customers.
3. Create a master list of shows.
4. Analyze the lengthy list.
5. Create a short list of shows that meet your expectations.

Used by Cox's clients such as Hewlett-Packard Co. and FedEx Corp., this proven process allows you to make informed decisions based on your company's objectives - rather than whims, guesses, and the direction of the wind.

Step 1 Research Your Company's Marketing and Sales Objectives
The first step is to acquire a thorough understanding of your company's markets, products, and services, along with its marketing strategy, objectives, and goals. This provides a solid foundation against which to evaluate the thousands of trade shows and events available to exhibitors.

No matter the pressure to decide on the spot, Cox warns, "Take time to gather and understand the information you'll need to evaluate a fit, because if you're off base at this stage of the planning process, you'll be wrong on the steps to follow."
The most important part of this step is interviewing your marketing, product management, and sales personnel. Target these internal groups for input:
Marketing Managers. Ask the marketing department to define the profile of their ideal customer, the geographical areas covered, the type of buying or decision-making processes involved, and the strengths and weaknesses of the competition. "Get specific details from them as to how a particular show aligns with their objectives and whom they're trying to reach," Cox says.
Product/Vertical Industry Marketing Managers. Talk specifics with product or vertical-industry marketing managers, who should be able to provide you with the bulk of the information you'll need. Question them about specific marketing and show objectives, market trends, and products and applications. What shows do they perceive as most valuable, and why?
Sales Force. Get the skinny from the sales force. "They're the guys in the trenches who talk with prospects," Cox says. "They'll tell you what's hot; they'll tell you what's on their customers' minds." Then, you can determine how their needs best mesh with your company's objectives.
Step 2 Seek Feedback From Current and Prospective Customers
The next step is to find out what shows these buyers attend, what value they place on those shows, and, most important, their true interest in your category of products.

"Once we've identified prospects, we want to find an independent list of people that fit that profile," Cox proceeds. This list can come from your own in-house database and/or outside list database sources. Just be certain that your final list includes prospects as well as current customers.

If time and funds permit, send a formal survey to several hundred respondents per market from this database. At minimum, conduct informal interviews by phone with several dozen customers. "But don't limit your research to current clients or to showgoers alone," Cox cautions. "You want opinions from a cross-section of your potential audience."

Here's what you need to learn:
Their interest level in your products. Ask respondents what they know about your company and its products. Then, ask about their interest level in the specific products and services offered at the show. Simply put, the higher the level of interest in your product, the higher the likelihood that attendees will visit your exhibit. This will aid you in developing and refining objectives for the show and strategies for achieving them.
Their feelings about particular shows. Ask attendees what shows they attend, what shows they are aware of but do not attend, and why. What shows do they consider most important? Not only will you learn about shows you're considering, but you may learn of events with better payoff for your time and money.
Their feelings about trade shows in general. What role do shows play in the pantheon of marketing tools that influence them: direct mail, sales calls, ads in trade magazines, etc.?

If you have questions about the value of a specific show your company has traditionally attended, conduct a survey of past attendees to evaluate their awareness of your company and its products; the effectiveness of your exhibit; and the decision-making level of the prospects. You may discover that many who visited your booth were already loyal customers who simply wanted to chew the fat with their buddies in sales. If that's the case, you may want to reconsider the value of that particular show.

Step 3 Create a Master List of Shows
Creating a list of show opportunities is where most companies begin. Big mistake, says Cox. Without the background established in Steps 1 and 2, your chances of selecting the right shows are about as good as winning a fortune in Vegas. The mission of this step is to develop the Mother of All Lists - a compilation of all possible shows and events that might meet your company's marketing objectives. This list will serve as the basis for further investigation. There are many sources, both direct and indirect, to help in this compilation. Alas, no one directory will include all possibilities.

Start your search by accumulating whatever show directories you can get your hands on. Add to these the shows you've learned about through your colleagues and customers. Then search the Web for online show directories.

The direct mail you probably receive from show producers is another source of information, as are company or association Web sites and the Web sites of your competitors.

Step 4 Analyze the Lengthy List
Scrutinize each show on your master list and start voting the weaker contenders off the island.

"The most important step is to talk to the show's organizers," Cox says. "It's often the most difficult step, because in many cases they don't have the kind of data you need, or they are reluctant to share it with you. Furthermore, there are no standards for consistency in reporting event information to make direct comparisons easy. It's apples to oranges, Cox warns. To make matters worse, the majority of shows do not have independent audits to certify their information. However, whatever information show organizers are able to provide will help you conduct a litmus test for the show.

Begin by asking organizers for basic demographic information, such as:
Total attendance.
Net attendance. This weeds out spouses, students, and exhibitors. Ask if this figure is audited and verified by an outside agency - if not, take it with a grain of salt. Also ask to see figures for the past three or four years to determine if the show is growing or declining.
Number of exhibitors.
Total net (not gross) square footage of exhibit space used by all exhibitors combined, which you can use to calculate traffic density in Step 5.
Cost per square foot.
Hours and dates for speeches, banquets, and educational programs that typically draw prospects off the trade show floor.

You can also request audience profile information, which is collected from registration statistics or audience surveys. This profile of attendees - demographics by company type and size, geographical distribution, audience quality (buying influence and size of budget), and product interest is critical in defining and estimating your potential audience.

Take a look at the previous year's show directory. Cox uses this tool to assess the show's major product areas, the types of companies that draw attendees, and the size of exhibit needed to create maximum impact. Use this directory to check out your competitors, too. What products do they showcase, and how large are their booths?

Evaluate the conference program. Is it strong, or relevant, enough to draw the prospects of your dreams?

The show's promotional materials tell a story as well. Use them to determine
if the direction and focus of the show is in line with your company's objectives. Ask in which publications show ads appear; who is targeted for mailers; and what other types of publicity (such as exhibitor invitations) are used. The organizers' answers to these questions are a clue as to how serious they are about drawing quality attendees.

Finally, contact several past or current exhibitors and ask about their experiences with the show.

Now ask yourself, "Is the show attempting to attract attendees and exhibitors with interests in sync with my company's initiatives, direction, focus, and marketing objectives?"

If not, nix the show. If so, keep asking questions. Are there opportunities for vendors to participate in the program or become sponsors? What about availability of space and booth locations? If the waiting list is a mile long, you know the show is hot. You also know that it may take a year or two before you're admitted.

If you're considering a first-time show, investigate the success of other shows put on by the same organizer. You might test the waters on a new show by partnering with another company to cut the cost. Or consider sending an observer to judge if the show is a good fit.

Step 5 Create a Short List of Shows that Meet Your Expectations
Here's where the rubber meets the road. Analyze all the information you've collected in the first four steps and make decisions as to whether exhibiting at each show on your list is justified. Creating a spreadsheet makes comparison easier.

In making these critical decisions, your analysis should be based on the following:
Should your company exhibit? Does the size and quality of the audience meet your marketing objectives and justify exhibiting at the show?
If the answer is yes, then what level of investment is justified to reach the potential audience and compete effectively with other exhibitors?
What strategy and objectives should you entertain for each event?

Before answering the first question - should we exhibit? - ask yourself a very basic question: Does the size of your total potential market justify exhibiting at all to reach them? If it's relatively small, a show may not be the best vehicle. Or, if your market is very geographically dispersed and the show is regional, it may not draw a large enough potential audience to justify exhibiting. As decision-making aids, Exhibit Surveys has created two measurement tools:
Size of potential audience. This is the most important information you have for determining whether to exhibit. Start by comparing the prospect profile you've amassed from your internal sources with the attendance profile you've received from show organizers. Estimate the number of attendees who fit your company's profile. Also estimate the likelihood of their interest in your products by using the surveys you conducted earlier. Now use this formula to calculate your potential audience. Drop shows with low figures.

Net attendance
X % which is your target audience
X % interested in your products
= Size of potential audience

Traffic density. More and more shows are providing measures of their audience quality (such as buying influence or volume of planned purchases). Traffic density is a calculation that quantifies the level of activity on the show floor. With information supplied by show management, use the following formula:

Net attendance
X average hours viewing exhibits
X 10
÷ total net square feet of space
X total show hours
= Traffic density

Cox's measurement of individual exhibits over the last 40 years indicates that four is an ideal traffic density. If traffic density is considerably less, it is considered an inactive show.

If you've previously exhibited at a show, calculate its value using previous results. Examine the following:
Cost per qualified lead. Divide the total cost of the exhibition by the number of leads. For instance, if 125 qualified leads were collected and total show costs were $20,000, the cost per lead would be $160. (The industry average cost per face-to-face visitor reached was $195 in 2004.)
Cost per impression. Add the total number of people who visited the booth and divide that figure into the cost of the show.
Cost per revenue dollar. Divide the cost of the show by the amount of sales made at the show to determine the cost per revenue dollar. But remember: Low results may be because of a weak exhibit rather than a weak show.

Reap the Benefits
As Cox promises, the process can be 'time consuming and very laborious.' But using these five steps to astute show selection can position you to reap the rewards. Gone are the days of Russian roulette, replaced by a choreographed, strategic approach to decision making.

By targeting the shows that best match your corporate objectives, you'll add value to your program and eliminate the guesswork previously associated with the high-value investment of exhibiting at a particular show.

You're now prepared to spend your company's time and money wisely. And--bonus--you'll come away looking like a hero. All that's left is to practice your victory dance.

Skip Cox joined Exhibit Surveys Inc., a marketing- research organization that specializes in the measurement of exhibits, in 1971 and has served as president since 1994. Cox is an author and a frequent speaker at annual meetings and expos worldwide on the research findings of his company.
Looking for a show?
See our full list below.
Should your company attend a show? Use this simple formula to find out.

The mission of Step 3 is to develop the Mother of All Lists - a compilation of all possible shows and events that might meet your company's marketing objectives. Alas, no one directory will include all possibilities. Use the following resources to accumulate whatever show directories you can get your hands on. Since this will serve as the basis for further investigation, it is imperative that you make your list and check it twice.

American Tradeshow Directory A password-protected Web site and CD-ROM database containing detailed show information, producers, planners, exhibitors, facilities, hotels, convention and visitors bureaus, and restaurants.
($685, 800-546-3976, www.tradeshowbiz.com)

Tradeshow Week Data Book A directory of trade shows and consumer expos featuring nearly 5,000 shows. It includes extensive information from net square footage to show dates and contact information.
($439, 800-375-4212, www.tradeshowweek.com)

Trade Shows Worldwide A comprehensive listing of trade shows worldwide by date and location; includes contact information for show organizer, transportation firms, industry suppliers, and consultants.
($435, 800-877-4253, www.gale.com)

Exhibitors 'round the World A list of international trade shows, with particular emphasis on shows located in Asia/Pacific. ($50/month, 877-861-1188, www.exhibitions-world.com)

International Trade Show Directory A directory of international trade shows listed by country, business, and chronological order, published every January and July.
(Euro 180; 49 69 7595 1995; www.expodatabase.com)

Trade Show News Network An online service listing trade shows by name, type, location, date, number of attendees, number of exhibitors, and organizer's contact information.
(Domestic & international $999; U.S. only $549, 617-916-5646, www.tsnn.com)

Analyze the information you collected in the first four steps and make decisions as to whether exhibiting at each show on your list is justified. As decision-making aids, Exhibit Surveys Inc. has created two formulas to help you measure the size of your potential audience and traffic density at any given show.

Size of Potential Audience
Use this formula to calculate your potential audience for a particular show. The larger your potential audience, the more likely the show will be a success.

To calculate the size of your potential audience, multiply the net attendance by the percentage that make up your target audience. (Both figures should be provided by show organizers.) For example, if a show has a net attendance of 15,000 and 10 percent have the buying influence or budget you're looking for, you have a total target of 1,500 attendees. Then, multiply the total target by the percentage of your current and prospective customers that are interested in the product you plan to exhibit (determined in Step 2) to get your estimated potential audience.

_________ net attendance
X _________ % target
= _________ X _________ % interested*
= _________ Size of Potential Audience

Traffic Density
Traffic density is a calculation that quantifies the level of activity on the show floor. Skip Cox's measurement over the last 40 years indicates that four is an ideal traffic density. If traffic is considerably less, it is considered an inactive show.

To calculate traffic density, multiply the net attendance by the average number of hours attendees spend viewing exhibits. (Both figures should be provided by show organizers.) Multiply that figure by 10, and divide by the total number of net square feet of exhibiting space. Finally, to find your total traffic density, multiply that number by the total number of show hours.

_________ net attendance
X _________ average hours spent viewing exhibits**
= _________ X 10
= _________ ÷ _________ total net square feet of exhibit space
= _________ X _________ total number of show hours
= _________ Traffic Density

*If you were unable to conduct a customer/prospect survey in step 2, use 50 percent for a main-line product and 15 to 30 percent for only one to two products. **If show organizers don't have statistics on average hours spent viewing exhibits, use the national average of eight hours.

Carla Waldemar, senior staff writer
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