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Trade Show Bob
Three Steps to Trade Show Success
now your audience; know yourself; know your goal. These nuggets of advice may sounds trite. They've been said for years. But these things often make the difference between success and failure on the trade show floor – regardless of the size of your exhibit or budget.

Case in point: The BBQ Show
A few years back, while working in the food ingredients industry, my colleague and I were summoned to the office of the vice president of business development. In summary, the meeting went something like this:
  • We just bought a little business for pennies on the dollar.
  • They make and bottle sauces and salad dressings.
  • They're running at 20-percent capacity. If we get it up to 80 percent, we can flip the business for a profit.
  • They're in northern Wisconsin.
So far, so good, right? --- Then came the bombshell ...
  • We got you a booth at the National BBQ Association show in Houston, TX.
  • Go down there and get new orders to run BBQ sauce in our little factory.
  • Your show budget is $500.
Wow, $500. Gee, thanks.
Then the real problem hit us like a herd of stampeding cattle: How the heck are we going to sell Wisconsin BBQ sauce to experts in the art of BBQ'ing from Texas?

Know your audience:
Those Texans are a proud and stubborn bunch, especially when it comes to subjects like family, football, and especially BBQ.

As it turns out (we researched this through the National BBQ Association), they take their BBQ really seriously – I mean really seriously. They have spent years perfecting their recipes and cooking techniques. They also fight fiercely to defend their BBQ style against each other, and against other regional threats from Memphis, St. Louis, Kansas City, Carolina, and elsewhere. They also invest heavily in their BBQ "rigs," complex smokers and devices pulled by pickup trucks to locations throughout the state, where they set up shop and BBQ for the whole County.

As if that weren't enough, most of these guys "own" a secret BBQ sauce recipe, handed down from their ancestors, and confirmed by their loyal following to be the "best anywhere."

No way were we going to convince Bubba and his gang that a little company from Wisconsin could do better than him and his grandpa.

Know yourself:
At this point, we decided to go visit the little factory and see it for ourselves, to see if we could glean any ideas to help us penetrate the "brisket barrier" that loomed before us.

We arrived in Green Bay to find a small, antiquated factory with decades-old equipment, held together by duct tape and string.

Wow. This is not getting easier.

So we chatted with the plant supervisor and asked him, "What kind of orders do you usually get here?" He responded, "we can't turn on the machines unless we run at least 75 gallons – it's just not profitable. And we don't usually get orders over 500 gallons – a competing plant down the road can do those much cheaper than us."

At least now we knew what we had to work with, an audience that would never buy our product, and a factory that could be out-produced by Oompa-Loompas.

Know your goal:
As we pondered whether to forge on or take the $500 and flee to Brazil (no extradition), we remembered a very important detail – our goal.

What the company really wanted was a busy factory, one running at 80-percent capacity, so they could "sell it for a profit." They wanted to sell the factory, not necessarily the sauce formulas that the factory would produce.

This key revelation led to our strategy. We decided to promote contracted manufacturing time to the BBQ Show visitors. Our company didn't care whether we made our sauce or somebody else's sauce. They wanted to be busily making anything they could.

The Final Solution:
We printed a booth banner that read, "From 75 to 500 gallons, take your recipe to market with us."

In one fell swoop we satisfied all three keys to success:

1. The audience: The key driver was the pride and fierce protection they exhibited for their recipes. We simply said to them, "Hey Bubba, how'd you like to sell more of your great sauce on this new internet thing?" Let's sign a confidentiality agreement, and we'll make it for you.
2. Our story: We could only handle orders between 75 and 500 gallons. By stating that up front, visitors self-qualified themselves, and our competitor was even referring the "small" orders to us because they didn't meet that company's minimum order.
3. Our goal: It's not always obvious what the company wants. Sometimes you have to read between the lines to know the real mission you're on.

The learning takeaways from this little are story are many:
  • Find out your internal "sweet spot" for satisfying your prospects' needs. The better and more tightly you can describe it, the louder it will resonate with your target audience.
  • It's much easier to defend well marked boundaries. This led our direct competitor to refer business to us.
  • Figure out the key driving behaviors motivating your target audience. In our case, they were very strongly driven by pride and secrecy. Our success was due to our ability to capitalize on those key behaviors and traits.
  • Sometimes you must go at a problem sideways, which is only possible if you learn what your stakeholders really want.

Our results from attending the BBQ show: 70 leads, which turned into 50 projects in the next six months, which led to the profitable sale of the sauce business in less than a year. And we didn't even spend all of the $500.
Bob Milam, independent industry consultant, is a former EXHIBITOR Editorial Advisory Board member and a past All-Star Award winner, and a current EXHIBITOR Conference faculty member. tradeshowbob@gmail.com
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