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Down Time: How to Make the Most of Slow Time on the Show Floor
The last day of a trade show is predictably slower than its opening hours, but don't throw in the towel. When booth traffic slumps, think beyond attendee interactions, and employ these tips and tactics to squeeze out every last ounce of success. By Linda Armstrong
Most trade shows have busy days and slow days – and sometimes really slow days. So what do you do when slow traffic turns into little to no traffic and your staff is standing around twiddling their thumbs, wasting big chunks of your investment, and missing serious, once-a-year, opportunities?

The answer is simple: Change your show objectives from visitor interaction – e.g., prospecting, selling, demonstrating, evangelizing – to something else. To clarify what that something else might mean, we asked 10 industry experts to share their own experiences. Here is a selection of their best alternative slow-day strategies, covering everything from networking with peers and training staff to gathering competitive intelligence from the show floor.

Network and Schmooze
Most companies exhibit at trade shows to put their salespeople face to face with customers and prospects. But when you have more staffers in your booth than attendees, it's time to consider a different kind of interaction.

"When I have extra time at the show, I seek out my fellow exhibit managers, competing and noncompeting alike, and ask them about their show experiences," says Jerry Samuels, CTSM, senior manager of conventions at Bayer HealthCare, a subsidiary of Bayer AG. "I like to know if they were busy while our booth was empty, for example, and if so, what they did that we didn't. We discuss their staffing strategies and the other shows they attend, as well as good vendors they've used, and the not-so-stellar ones to avoid."

Deanna Krause, CTSM, trade show and event consultant and founder of DK Consult, discusses show management with her peers. "Particularly if I've struggled with management or its preferred service providers, I use the last day to ask other exhibitors if they're having similar issues," she says. "If so, we brainstorm solutions. And a few times some of us have even approached show management as a group to give a more unified and powerful voice to our concerns. This last-day tactic has helped me forge peer relationships that have evolved into joint marketing endeavors."

Instead of talking about show management, Noelle Luchino Feist, director of experiential marketing and events for Mindbody Inc., speaks with management reps. "When the show floor slows, I often seek out one of the reps to talk about next year's sponsorship options, how open the firm is to out-of-the-box ideas, or even their own pain points about the show," she says. This may seem like a waste of an hour to some people, but the minimal effort greases the wheels for future sponsorships and presentation opportunities for Feist. After all, if you can connect with one of the reps, you're no longer a faceless (and easily ignored) name in his or her email inbox.

Susan Shuttleworth, an international exhibit-marketing consultant based in McKinney, TX, takes this schmooze-centric strategy one step further. "We do more than 200 trade shows in our industry every year, so I run into the same show-management personnel time and time again," she says. "And some have gone out of their way to help me. To reward and encourage that behavior, I bring them a leftover giveaway or maybe a Starbucks gift card on the last day as a small token of my appreciation."

Another group that could use a little schmoozing is the media, according to Feist. By the end of the show, most press events have concluded, and media reps are less harried. "So I meet with press members and simply talk about what they're looking for in the next few months," she says. People push information at media reps left and right. If you simply ask them what they could use from you, you'll likely increase press coverage and spend less time pushing off-target info.

This kind of chitchat can also go a long way toward maintaining relationships with your company's business partners – or finding new firms with which to team up. If your company has partners at the show, says Judy Volker, marketing director at Iatric Systems Inc., send over one of your sales reps to see how things are going and thank them for their partnership. "The last day of the show is the perfect time to expand your company's business resources," she says.

Reward Staff, Adjust Attitudes
Last-day effectiveness is also driven by staffers' attitudes. If they're dreading their booth shift, they're probably not going to be on their game. So an effective use of your time, which may lead to improved performance throughout the entire event, is to incorporate a few rewards.

"If we end up with more booth staffers than we need, I give the top performers some free time off," Shuttleworth says. "If staffers know this reward is a possibility, they all vie to outperform each other so they can hightail it out of there early."

Another option that might boost staff performance is to ask any remaining senior executives to carve out time during the final show hours to talk with booth staffers. Krause says that some staffers love to rub elbows with execs, while management gains valuable industry insight from the folks that have the most direct contact with the target market.

Some of our experts also suggest that you change staffers' mindsets by "rescheduling" the last day. "When people know they have a flight to catch right after the show closes, they start getting antsy hours before it's time to leave, and as a result, their effectiveness plummets," Krause says. "Some exhibitors schedule staff to stay an extra night after the show and fly out early the next morning. They then hold a dinner on the last night, and hand out staff-performance awards. Granted, they incur one more night of hotel expenses, but if people depart early the next day, they can be back in the office by noon. Plus, doing so increases last-day booth effectiveness tenfold because staffers are vying for the performance awards."

Similarly, Angi Schoolcraft, event marketing specialist at Chevron Lubricants, incentivizes effective last-day staffers by allowing them to take home a couple of tchotchkes for their kids. "If you don't stay to the end, or your efforts fall flat before the show ends, no tchotchkes for you!" she says. She also ensures that staffers can obtain the same (often cheaper) show-related room rates immediately after the show. "If they can get a relatively cheap room rate, staffers sometimes fly in their families for a quick getaway after the show," she says. "By getting the hotel to extend the rate for them, I ensure that I've got someone in the booth to the very end, who 'owes me one' and is more likely to perform as such."

Gather Intelligence
Yet another end-of-show activity is gathering intelligence. And since almost everyone has a bit of free time, the intelligence sources and types of info available are seemingly endless.

"One of the best last-day tasks is a competitive-intelligence mission," says Patricia Coleman, director of exhibit sales at Hargrove Inc. "Send staffers out onto the show floor one at a time and ask them to bring back information about your competitors. For this, you can create a formal competitive-intelligence form that asks each person to provide written insights into everything from product claims and pricing to booth layout and demo activities. Or, you can just ask staffers to report back to you with three to five things that they thought might improve your program or that seemed to hit home with attendees."

Feist advises that you or your staffers also collect details about venues in the show city. "Based on your exhibit program's current and future needs, analyze the suitability of everything from nearby hotels and meeting spaces to restaurants and nightclubs," she says. "More likely than not these inspections will only cost you cab fare, and they'll save you the expense of a separate site-inspection trip later."

If you don't want staffers disappearing to parts unknown, attendees are another source of valuable intel. Feist asks her salespeople to schedule meetings with a handful of clients on the last day to simply gather information about everything from what they liked about your booth to what they thought of competitors' products and exhibits. "By asking for their opinions, you're setting them apart as VIPs," she says. "Plus, you'll likely gain valuable insight from the ever-important attendee perspective."

Another treasure chest of info can be found in the exhibits around you. Betsy Earle, CTSM, founder of Event Driven Solutions LLC, scours the floor for new exhibiting technology. "I like to see – and photograph – what other exhibitors are using, how they're using it, and what potential high points and pitfalls they're experiencing with it," she says. Similarly, Shuttleworth peruses the show floor in search of good and not-so-good exhibit-design ideas. "I photograph both 'ah-ha' and 'oops' moments to show my designer what I want and don't want in our next exhibit," she says.

Volker also kills time window shopping the show floor, but she doesn't do it alone. "If my company's executives are still on site, I walk the floor with them to look at competitors' exhibits," she says. "For me, this is a benchmarking activity. I point out what other exhibitors are doing right, or maybe what technology they have that we don't. By helping management better understand what's out there as it compares to our presence, they can better address my requests going forward."

And finally, don't forget to query your staff. Shuttleworth suggests you ask about the following: cheapest/fastest transportation route from the hotel to the convention center, best restaurant for client dinners, thoughts on competitors' off-site events, upcoming announcements for (or issues with) competitors' products, nearby public conversation areas quiet enough for client discussions, show-floor technology that would work well in your booth, etc. "We go so far as to ask people if they found a grocery store nearby, how they'd rate the hotel business center, or even if they discovered a outdoor walking paths that helped them burn off steam before and after show hours," Shuttleworth says. "All of this info helps me better plan for the next year's show and maybe even save some money in the process."

Attract Remaining Traffic
Ben Olson, vice president of marketing at MG Design Associates Inc., believes that, despite decreased traffic on the final day, there are still amazing sales opportunities available if you're ready for them. He says that his company has scored amazing opportunities from people that didn't set foot in the booth until the very last hour of the show. Some of the most viable leads are caught up in classes or other industry events throughout much of the show, and they save their shopping to the end. So even if traffic is super-model thin, Olson says, it's still critical to throw a wide net and attract as many attendees as possible to your space.
Some sources, then, recommend holding a big-draw event during final show hours. Their come-one, come-all examples include everything from celebrity appearances and book signings to in-booth parties with some sort of "Save the Last Dance for Me" theme. Along these lines, Krause likes to hold any raffle announcements until the tail end of the last day.

"Consider announcing your raffle winner as late in the show as possible, and perhaps requiring that people be present to win," Krause says. "Or if you're concerned that you'll somehow lose lead-generation with that requirement, try a two-part raffle. For example, by registering throughout the show, everyone would be eligible for a trip to Hawaii. But if the winner is present in the booth when the drawing is held on the last day, he or she gets an upgraded room and even some additional spending money."

Also consider offering unique activities, special services, or audience-centric giveaways the final day. "You want something, anything, to set your booth apart from the rest of the exhibitors," Coleman says. "So if you offer a gift that's particularly attractive to people who are likely tired and just about to hit the not-so-friendly skies, they'll likely stop by your space." She suggests you switch to travel-related giveaways and promotions on the last day, e.g., a selection of popular magazines for in-flight reading, facial misters, mini travel bags, healthy snacks, or even sleeping masks.

Similarly, Shuttleworth tries to help weary attendees relax. "We have provided everything from foot and neck massages to shoe shines and soothing beverages on the last day," she says. "These tactics create a short but memorable experience right before attendees leave the show."

Another way to attract show-floor stragglers is to offer pricing perks, in-depth product training, or VIP treatment for last-day sales meetings, Krause says. "For example, extend a special price break to anyone that meets with a salesperson during the last few hours of the show. Also consider hosting in-depth demo sessions for existing customers, or even invite a handful of customers for a longer training session complete with hospitality."

All of our sources warned against packing up anything prior to the show's official close, particularly because it sends a "closed for business" signal to potential leads still walking the show floor. But according to Lisa Gentilin, CMP, president of Fancy Shindigs Inc., and Betsy Earle, CTSM, founder of Event Driven Solutions LLC, there are several housekeeping tasks you can complete, perhaps in a storage room or meeting space.
➤  Check leads for completeness and readability, and query salespeople for any missing, unreadable, or vague information.
➤  Task salespeople with crafting handwritten notes to top prospects, and mail them prior to departure.
➤  Prepare and schedule post-show social-media tactics.
➤  Audit show invoices, as getting suppliers to credit you for errors after the show is significantly more challenging than addressing them on site.
➤  Prep move-out paperwork and labels, and confirm outbound shipping.
➤  Create a list of any elements that need to be repaired or updated.
Test and Train
With lighter traffic and freed-up staff time, you can test everything from your messaging and giveaways to your booth layout and target audience. "What if you completely changed your goals and delivery on the last day of the show?" Krause says. "Maybe you had a lead-based goal for the first three days, but for the last day, you focused only on awareness, and you changed your tactics accordingly. Or what if you targeted a totally different audience segment? For example, you could target high-level executives in the construction industry on the first few days, but on the last day you could go after the machinery operators who influence those top-level decision makers. You could even try to attract local customers and prospects via special promotions or free tickets to the show floor. The idea is to switch gears and see what works and what doesn't."

Feist suggests that you also play around with exhibit configurations. "If you've always wondered how your traffic would flow if you moved this piece here and that piece there, switch things around and test it out," she says. Or remove some furniture to see if traffic flows better. That way, if booth traffic is dismal, you won't have empty seats broadcasting the fact that the booth is empty – and suggesting to other attendees that there's no reason to enter your space.

Samuels likes to experiment with new staffing approaches. He suggests that you talk to your staffers about what works and what doesn't throughout the show. Then formulate new conversation openers or conversion tactics, and give them a trial run on the show's last day.

If you've got greenhorn staffers and particularly complex staffing duties, consider flying in the tenderfoots only for the last day of the show, Feist says. "New staffers can shadow veterans for crucial on-the-job training," she says. This teaching tactic also works well with underperforming booth staffers. During the last day, pair up staffers under the guise of making it more fun for everyone, and have them tag-team attendees. "You'd be surprised what rookies will pick up from the pros by simply observing their interactions," she adds.

And finally, consider training your own body double. "What happens if you have an emergency and can't make it to a key show?" Feist asks. Somebody needs to be able to steer the ship, and the perfect time to show someone the ropes is at the tail end of the show. "Have your body double shadow your every move, fill out paperwork, lead the morning staff huddle, and pack up exhibitry for transport. If you're ever AWOL, your trainee will have a better semblance of what needs to be done."

So as you can see, low booth traffic doesn't have to equate to exhibit ineffectiveness. By simply employing some of these strategies, you can make the most of every minute on the show floor. And more likely than not, you'll come away with information, insights, and relationships that you'd have missed if your booth were jam packed through to the final buzzer. E

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