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The Art of Recon: How to Collect Competitive Intelligence on the Trade Show Floor
What is competitive-intelligence gathering as it relates to trade shows, and how can exhibitors best collect and implement this data? Five experts weigh in with been-there, scouted-that advice.
By Linda Armstrong
Almost every successful sports team scouts the competition, as it helps coaches and players better understand what they're up against so they can capitalize on their own strengths and attempt to neutralize opponents' assets. Considering that trade show floors are, in effect, playing fields filled with competitors vying for sales, leads, and attendees' attention, it stands to reason that smart exhibitors should be scouting the competition here as well. In fact, many industry veterans assert that if you're not gathering competitive intelligence and establishing a strategic game plan to combat challengers, you're an industry lightweight at best.

So to help you better understand the value of competitive intelligence and how it might serve your program, EXHIBITOR spoke with five exhibiting experts who scout their competition. Featuring their advice, the following primer can help you grasp some possible deliverables, select the right methods to collect them, and determine how to use the resulting data.

Why should you eyeball your fellow exhibitors? First and foremost, sources report that gathering competitive intel provides you with critical context. "If you don't develop a personal understanding of what other exhibitors are doing and what attendees are experiencing elsewhere on the show floor, then you're marketing blind, unable to see how you may be out- or under-performing the competition," says Melissa Lord, customer event and trade show lead at Syngenta, a producer of agrochemicals and seeds.

The list of insights available via intel gathering is practically endless. It includes data on competitors' exhibit sizes and locations, graphic mediums and messages, use and integration of technology, staffing strategies, product positioning and differentiators, off-floor activations, sponsorships, speaking engagements, promotional lures, public-relations and social-media strategies, off-site hospitality, and presentation, demo, and traffic-building tactics. By simply understanding what your adversaries (or even just other exhibitors who don't compete in your market but who do wrestle with you for attendee mindshare) are doing in regard to these elements, you can better position your program and score crucial points with attendees and internal stakeholders alike.

Along these same lines, it's vital to investigate what direct competitors are saying about your product, how they're promoting their wares, and what key differentiators they're using to elevate their products or services over your offerings. "To develop more effective messaging and hold better sales-driven conversations between staff and attendees, you need to know what your competitors are saying about you," says Dana Tilghman, CTSM, CMP, senior trade show and events planner at Minitab LLC. "So read their graphics, listen to their presentations, sit in on demos, and take note of the way staffers pitch their products in relation to yours." Then consider whether your product story competes with what you've learned. If so, play up your strengths. If not, adapt accordingly. "And remember," Tilghman adds, "many attendees arrive at your booth having already heard competitors' spiels. That means your staffers need to know exactly what was said and what differentiators were touted elsewhere so their conversations can address these claims and put your offerings in the best light."

As you gather info on your rivals, don't forget to make direct comparisons to what you're doing within your own exhibit-marketing program. Sources suggest that you apply whatever intel-gathering method you choose to your own program as well to benchmark its efforts and performance. "When done well, this type of comparison draws clear circles around your strengths and highlights the barriers you've built against your success," Lord says. "In my program, this fact-finding process has helped me develop a laser focus to improve our customer experience."

If you don't develop an understanding of what other exhibitors are doing at the show, then you're marketing blind.
A wonderful side effect of competitive intel is that it can act as evidence to support proposed changes to your exhibit-marketing efforts. "Let's say you're hoping to build a new booth, switch out messaging, modernize some elements, add a traffic builder, or update your technology offerings," says Holly Sherrill, president and CEO of trade show consulting firm Marketech360. "Detailed reports about the competition, perhaps with photographs and anecdotes indicating how your program is falling short, can act as ammo to support your improvement efforts with internal stakeholders." In other words, sometimes a little intel can free up big-time bucks.

And, of course, any time you or your staff hit the show floor on a fact-finding mission – as opposed to zooming past booths on your way to your own exhibit – you are intentionally or maybe inadvertently soaking up new ideas that may be applicable to your stand. "By taking an analytical approach to the show, you'll likely spot new technology, traffic builders, giveaways, sponsorships, speaking topics, trends, design materials, and more that could give your booth a leg up on the competition," Sherrill says.

Given the myriad benefits of intel gathering, the next logical question is: How do you implement it? Thankfully, sources offered a multitude of options, ranging from a simple form completed by exhibit managers or staffers to an all-out investigation performed by a third party. "Usually this type of exploration involves more than merely taking a stroll around the exhibit hall," says Erik Glitman, CEO of Fletcher/CSI Inc., a global strategy-consulting firm. "However, at the very least, you can work some reconnaissance into the framework of normal booth activities."

But before you jump into action, Glitman proposes that both you and your internal stakeholders weigh in regarding the type and volume of information you want to gather. "Perhaps the single most important component of a competitive-intel effort is to identify what information you most need to collect at the show and how it will be utilized," he says. "So query stakeholders throughout your company to get their wish list of deliverables. Then, if necessary, prioritize and narrow the list down to a quantity that can be managed by you, your staff, or a third party without taking too much time or attention away from normal trade show activities."

At the same time, decide whether you want to make a big splash with an all-out competitive-intel assault at one or two big shows a year, or if you'd rather use a smaller-scale approach but apply it to most events on your calendar. The first option will likely deliver more detailed info on a variety of topics, but the latter could give you insight on a handful of aspects tracked over time, thereby providing historical perspective. Regardless of which approach you choose, the following four methods will help you obtain the insights you seek.

➤ Questionnaires/Forms – One of the easiest ways to collect competitive info is to create a written or electronic questionnaire and send your exhibit staff out onto the show floor and into the conference environs to complete it. While the questionnaire should focus on the deliverables you established, it could seek out everything from the age and condition of competing exhibits to live presentation content, timing, and differentiating claims.

You could also tweak this questionnaire to focus on all competing exhibitors, a select few adversaries, or the entire show floor. "Or, consider a divide and conquer approach," Tilghman says. "This way you could assign some staff to analyze a specific exhibiting aspect – perhaps graphic messaging. Meanwhile, others could be responsible for assessing demos, and another group could tackle all off-floor evaluations."

Either way you go, sources caution that staff training is crucial and recommend that you not only explain what you hope to gain via the evaluations but also educate staffers on how to effectively complete their questionnaires and discuss the amount of time you expect them to spend on their missions. Some sources even suggest adding some kind of incentive – perhaps a bit of free time at the show, a massage at the spa, or a group dinner at a nice restaurant – to reward the troops for a job well done.

➤ Third-Party Recon – If you need a bit more anonymity to collect covert intel or you just can't spare a minute of your booth staffers' time, hiring a third party is a viable and effective option. Both Glitman's and Sherrill's firms offer these types of services, as do other data-analysis and staffing companies along with some exhibit houses and marketing agencies. Granted, a less intensive competitive analysis using only your staffers' time and internal resources can deliver a plethora of data, and such methodology might be all you need to meet your set deliverables. However, Glitman highlights several advantages of using a third-party intel gatherer.
Perhaps the most important element of a competitive-intelligence effort is to identify what information you most need to collect.
"Any legitimate firm that offers this service is likely a pro at competitive-intelligence collection," he says. "Typically these staffers perform this function at dozens of shows a year, and they cover a wide range of industries and events, which affords them valuable context as well as plenty of best practices they can pass on to help you improve effectiveness." In addition, the third party's only function at the show is to collect data, which frees up your staff to focus on their assigned roles. Finally, third-party staffers won't have your company's name on their badges, allowing them to attend presentations, demos, off-floor sessions, and more, and to fully engage with your rivals' staffers, all without raising too many eyebrows. "As such, they often secure a deeper level of intel than would be afforded to any of your exhibit staffers who tried the same maneuvers," Glitman says.

This type of third-party recon can easily be customized to your deliverables. For example, you can ask your firm to scout a handful of competitors, focus deeply on two or three, or even secret shop your own booth and compare your attendee experience to that of your exhibiting adversaries.

According to Sherrill, this type of customized analysis often includes gathering photos and videos, talking with staff, participating in activities, etc. The info is usually compiled into a comprehensive report broken out into various categories and companies.

Suitable for upper management and stakeholders, the report includes not only findings regarding established criteria but also recommendations based on the analysis and the agency's past experiences.

➤ Customer/Attendee Feedback – Another option is to probe booth visitors to learn how your exhibit experience compares to that of the competition. "Many people that visit your booth have likely also set foot in your competitors' stands," Glitman says. "So both casual and structured conversations between attendees and staff can help suss out what attendees liked or disliked about what they saw and heard elsewhere and how these other experiences relate to yours." For example, you could tack on a couple of short competitive-intel queries to your lead-qualifying questions (e.g., "How do our product displays stack up to those of XYZ Co.?" or "What first drew you into our competitors' stands, and how did staffers there approach you?"). Or you could use a booth or presentation exit survey to ask pointed reconnaissance queries.

In addition to probing a wide range of attendees, sources recommend creating a customer council for this purpose. This committee could take several forms. For example, you could work with internal salespeople to select multiple key customers and prospects attending a specific show. After inviting them to participate in your "special VIP advisory board" (a name that in itself might fluff some egos and foster relationships), you might treat them to an off-site dinner toward the end of the show and ask them for competitive insight. Or you could select a handful of random leads from your booth, offer them a small stipend or discount on your product for their time, and host a post-show conference call to glean the same type of information. "Any type of one-on-one customer interview is an effective tool to collect competitive intel," Tilghman says. "Plus, if you can make these customers feel like rock stars in the process, you're killing two birds with one stone."

Secret Service
Competitive-intelligence gathering is an incredibly valuable tactic to add to your exhibiting arsenal, and carrying out recon requires little more than some time and strategic analysis. To help you prepare your own print or electronic competitive-intelligence questionnaire, exhibit-marketing experts E. Jane Lorimer, managing director of Lorimer Consulting Group, and Bob Francisco, former president of Admore Exhibits, offered up this lengthy list of criteria. To download an editable document and customize the list to suit your shows, competitive needs, and deliverables, click here.

Pre Show
To answer these queries, speak with show management, review each event's list of exhibitors, scour competitors' websites and social-media posts, and probe blogs and posts from industry influencers.
 •  Which key competitors are exhibiting, how big are their spaces, and where are they located?
 •  What are competitors doing in terms of pre-show marketing campaigns, at-show presentations, social-media strategies, off-site events, speaking engagements, etc.?
 •  Are there any new companies with competing products at the show?
 •  Are existing competitors debuting any new products at the show?
 •  Is there any pre-show hype about a particular booth, big drawing, product launch, etc.?

At Show
During the show, answer these questions by visiting exhibitors' booths and examining the conference to note sponsorships, speaking engagements, and off-floor activities. Depending on your goals, your efforts could focus on one or two key competitors, a handful of rivals, or exhibitors who compete for attendee mindshare but are not necessarily within your market.

Exhibit and Graphics
 •  Where are competitors' booths located – at the front of the hall, on main aisles, buried at the back, near a natural lure such as the concession area, etc.?
 •  What is the age and condition of each exhibit?
 •  What size exhibit space is being used and roughly how much does it cost? (According to the Experiential Designers & Producers Association's 2017 Economic Survey, custom exhibit costs average between $137 and $161.17 per square foot.)
 •  Does the exhibit design complement the company and its message?
 •  What's your first impression of each booth? Can you tell what company it belongs to and what it's selling?
 •  What is each booth saying about the brand? Is it lively, trusted, conventional, cutting edge, etc.?
 •  What is each exhibit's theme, and is it appropriate?
 •  What are one or two words that best describe each exhibit design?
 •  What is the overall layout of each booth – open, closed, peninsula, inline, etc.?
 •  Is the booth empty or crowded with attendees?
 •  Where are attendees clustered in the space, and what are they doing?
 •  Where are graphics located – overhead, on exhibit walls, on stationary kiosks?
 •  What images, text, and messages are offered?
 •  What percentages of the graphics are relayed via electronic versus print mediums?
 •  What main elements does each exhibit design contain, such as storage, a double deck, hospitality area, theater, seating, reception desk, conference rooms, etc.?
 •  What can you remember about the exhibit and its messages one hour after you leave the booth?
 •  Overall, what are the company's main strengths and weaknesses when it comes to the exhibit and its messages?

 •  Which products are highlighted?
 •  Are there new products or new product bundles?
 •  How are the products displayed and presented?
 •  What are the main product messages, and what mediums are being used to relay them?
 •  Are there any direct or indirect comparisons to your products or those of your competitors?
 •  Are any special pricing options available?
 •  Are there any surprises or recent changes with regard to product differentiators or positioning?

 •  What type of product demos, if any, are offered, and what format do they take?
 •  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 message, or are they gratuitous?
 •  Are presentations offered continually, on a timed schedule, or at attendees' requests?
 •  Are one-on-one presentations offered? If so, who is presenting them, what type of presentation medium is used, and how often are they given?
 •  What messages are included in the presentations, and do they mention your company or products?
 •  Who is offering the presentations – hired talent, executives, product specialists, engineers?
 •  How long is each presentation, and is the audience engaged throughout?
 •  Are the presentations interactive?
 •  How large a role does technology play?
 •  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 are the demographics of the staff in terms of executives, crowd gathers, salespeople, engineers, etc.?
 •  Do staffers greet attendees, 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, and what qualifying process is involved?
 •  What kind of promises, if any, do staffers make to departing attendees?

 •  What kinds of giveaways are being used, and are they appropriate?
 •  How are giveaways being distributed, and to whom?
 •  Are there any traffic-building activities such as games, drawings, or entertainment?
 •  Are staffers distributing literature? If so, is the literature well done, and what messages does it relay?
 •  Are staffers distributing any electronic information via Quick Response (QR) code scans, email, USBs, etc.? If so, which format do attendees seem to prefer?

Attendee Experience
 •  From which direction do most 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?
 •  Are attendees eager or reluctant to provide their contact information to staffers?
 •  What is the overall mood of attendees? Are they excited, subdued, serious, inquisitive, puzzled?
 •  How much time do they spend engaged with a staffer or a presentation/demo?
 •  Do they explore at their leisure, or are they immediately intercepted by staff?
 •  Do most attendees appear have prescheduled meetings?
 •  What kinds of questions are attendees asking?
 •  Are any of your customers in competitors' booths? If so, what are they looking at and talking about?
 •  How long do they spend in the exhibit?
 •  What do they take with them when they leave the space?
 •  Where to do they go next?

 •  Which companies have placed ads in the show daily?
 •  Do competitors have press kits in the press room, and if so, what information is provided?
 •  Are competitors holding press conferences? If so, are they in the booth, in the convention center, and/or off site?
 •  Are there any other VIP or guerilla-marketing techniques targeting the press?
 •  How are reporters greeted in the booth? Do they meet with staffers or executives, and do they take anything away with them?
 •  Did competitors score any newsworthy awards, perhaps for new products, exhibit design, white papers, etc.?

Ancillary Activities
 •  Which companies are hosting hospitality events, and 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?

Post Show
Intelligence gathering isn't a once-and-done activity. It should continue after the show as well. Visit competitors' websites and talk with your customers, prospects, suppliers, and show management to answer these post-show questions.
 •  What kind of follow-up do leads receive?
 •  What type of post-show follow-up appears on the company website?
 •  Have competitors signed up for the same booth-space location and/or size next year?
 •  Did competitors secure any post-show media coverage?
 •  Is there any kind of ongoing buzz on competitors' social-media sites?
 •  Are influencers still talking about your rivals' products, exhibits, or tactics?
➤ Pre-Show and Off-Floor Analyses – Along with at-show recon, exhibitors can gain a ton of info via pre-show research. Sources recommend you talk to show management and inquire about the activities of neighboring exhibitors to determine if competitors have planned any killer presentations or major product announcements during the show. Granted, ethical reps won't spill the beans about competitive secrets, but some info they're privy to is likely fit for public consumption – and it could give you a leg up on the competition.

To gain further insight, check out your rivals' websites and social-media channels, and investigate blogs and posts from key industry influencers. Before you hit the show floor, these sources can tip you off to big announcements, differentiators, product positioning, traffic builders, presentations, and more.

"And don't forget that off-floor environments can be competitive-intelligence gold mines," Tilghman says. "Whenever possible, look at all ancillary activities, speaking sessions, hospitality events, etc." For example, are executives from rival firms speaking at sessions? If so, what are they saying about their own products – and yours? What type of sponsorships are your challengers using, and do they appear to be successful? Should you be doing something similar or trying to counter their efforts? Are your customers attending your adversaries' evening events, and is this interaction a threat to your existing relationships or in direct competition with your own hospitality offerings? If so, how might you neutralize this attack? The idea is to look beyond the show floor to identify your opponents' tactics and devise ways to defuse those that are particularly effective.

So let's say you've established several deliverables and you've performed the necessary recon to collect a plethora of data about key industry contenders and/or other exhibitors targeting the same attendee mindshare. You've got handwritten notes, electronic documents, photos, videos, and more. But what do you do with the data you've gathered?

There are generally two schools of thought here. You can create a report for yourself and internal stakeholders and then act on any counterefforts or improvements the next time a show rolls around, or you can immediately apply the information for on-the-fly, on-the-floor fixes.

Should you take the report-now, act-later approach, sources propose that you create a comprehensive document that compiles the gathered info into an organized and easy-to-digest format. If a third-party firm performed your intel, it will likely complete this step for you. But if you and your staff carried out the reconnaissance, you'll need to create some kind of written documentation. To get this ball rolling, Tilghman recommends holding a quick meeting of the minds.

"After the show, gather all of the intelligence you've obtained and host a debrief with exhibit staff," she says. "They may have valuable perceptions or anecdotal evidence that didn't necessarily fit into one of the collection methods you provided, so seek out their input and add it to your report."

Before you hit the show floor, check out your rivals' websites and social-media channels to gain further insight.
Next, loop in any additional marketing resources, e.g., your exhibit house, marketing agency, booth staff, etc., to discuss the report and develop strategies to underscore your strengths and combat competitors' strong suits. Finally, either implement the proposed improvements or merge your initial report with these recommended enhancements and present the new document to management to secure budget approval or next-step buy-in.

Another route for post-show reporting is to create some kind of spreadsheet or document for ongoing updates. "If you plan to collect intel at numerous shows or even over multiple years, generate a document that keeps all info in one central place and allows you to track competitors' tactics over time," Sherrill says.

If you'd like a more immediate impact from your scouting efforts, Glitman recommends completing your recon early in the show, reviewing your findings with booth staff shortly after you've gathered them, and brainstorming with your team to identify instant ways to combat competitors' efforts. For instance, if your intel reveals that competitors' product differentiators and messaging are controversial or derogatory to your brand, or if you simply see clear areas for improvement, staffers can switch things up then and there. "Armed with this knowledge, staff can immediately reframe their pitches to include new and improved messages about your own differentiators that neutralize competitors' tactics," Glitman says.

In addition, competitive intel about traffic builders, presentation timing, and more can be used to aid your at-show efforts. If you know your rivals down the aisle are luring traffic via huge presentations given on the hour, you could tweak the timing so your demos start immediately after theirs end, thereby funneling departing traffic in your direction rather than deeper into other exhibitors' spaces. "The idea is to apply what you've learned immediately, as opposed to waiting until the next show to implement changes," Glitman says.

Clearly, then, gathering competitive intel can be a critical tool to not only increase your program's effectiveness but also counteract your competitors' strengths. And while in-depth, third-party analysis represents a sizeable yet effective investment, you can also devise your own intel-gathering process to determine where you lead and lag within your industry. Even with a minimal investment of time and money, you can take big strides to keep your friends close and your enemies even closer. E

Play Nice
When gathering competitive intelligence, Victor Torregroza, events production and program manager for global events marketing at Intel Corp., advocates for a polite and transparent approach. He offers the following advice to ensure your efforts are effective yet utterly professional.

Don't sneak around. Rather than trying to creep around competitors' booths and score top-secret intel, be open and professional with your intentions. That's not to say you have to walk up and introduce yourself to everyone. But wear your badge and be honest about who you are when interacting with staff. Competitors are likely scouting your booth too, so by maintaining a sort of give-and-take professionalism, you can exchange info in a gracious as opposed to adversarial manner.

Take photos (with permission). Anything on public display is fair game for photography. However, if the exhibitor has taken measures to prevent the masses from whipping out their smartphones for a shot, ask for permission before you try to sneak a photo. Certainly, you can eyeball anything on display and take copious notes to jog your memory. Just be polite when trying to document your findings.

Steer clear of rush hour. If you want to speak to a competitor's staffer or sit through a presentation or demo, don't visit the booth during peak traffic hours. Rather, wait until the show floor has calmed down a bit out of respect for the exhibitor and attendees alike. And don't load up on tchotchkes, as they're intended for customers and prospects, not the competition.
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