Last reviewed 13 December 2019

Exhibitions, trade shows and conferences that are relevant to your business can be an invaluable source of information and contacts. The most effective way to use them can vary, however. Carelessness can lead to a large waste of time and money.

When researching a market, exhibition websites and catalogues can be a great source of free information. Many events choose to share information about exhibitors and visitors on their websites, often retaining the information online for many years. Before considering whether to visit an exhibition, let alone whether to actually participate as an exhibitor, it can be useful to make use of the information that’s freely available.

One of the key things an exhibition can give you is information about past and future exhibitors. Whether they are competitors, potential customers or involved in complementary products or services, just knowing that they are involved can be invaluable information. In devising a strategy for a market, we need accurate and reliable information, and identifying the key players and products can sometimes be challenging.

For many countries, there are commercial websites promoting exhibitions and other business-to-business events, and these can be a useful place to start. On finding an event which looks relevant to our products and/or target markets, it’s sensible to seek information on who is taking part, or who took part last time. It’s so easy these days to find information about such companies, most obviously from their own website. But it’s important to think laterally. In some cases, our most useful targets might not be businesses who are already producing or selling products like ours, what we should be looking for is “near misses.” Depending on our proposed strategy for a market, our objective might be to find a potential representative such as a distributor or agent. The ideal profile is usually somebody who already sells to our target market, but doesn’t have products such as ours. Typically, such a company is in a very strong position to benefit from selling our products, and potentially to get a good return from existing customers for relatively little effort. This of course means that finding these pearls can be a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack. Except that we don’t even know what the needle looks like!

Making contacts

If we see a contact that looks like it might be of interest, there’s rarely any reason to delay making contact. Most distributors and agents will welcome an enquiry from a potential supplier, after all, that’s how they make a living. Find the best contact within the target company, and talk to them. Give them time to consider your products. Mention that you are thinking of visiting the event you identified and find out if it would be a good time to meet them. It might no be right for them, since after all most people who are paying money to exhibit are looking to meet customers rather than suppliers.

In researching the event, we hope to kill two birds with one stone. We can find out information about key contacts while making an informed decision about whether the event is worth doing at all. If we do the research properly, for any event we do decide to participate in, we are likely to have a good list of potential contacts, which will help us to have a firm plan and clear objectives.

Taking part in an overseas exhibition is always a big investment. The key to making the investment pay off is planning. Research can give us understanding, and that can help us to keep our objectives realistic. Our expectations should help us to determine how much we are prepared to invest in both money and staff resource, but bear in mind that doing an exhibition badly can do more harm than good.

Plan resources carefully and in detail. Being in another country brings complications, from different electrical plugs to problems in communication and transport. As far as possible, keep plans simple, at least for the first event. Bear in mind local needs and preferences. Prepare literature in local languages. Even if you and your colleagues don’t speak the local language, having a professionally translated document about your products can be of enormous benefit. If you want to use technology on your stand, such as video presentations or demonstrations, ensure you understand the technical standards and requirements. Talk to the organisers and plan everything in detail. It’s often much safer to rent local equipment than to bring our own, even if it’s relatively expensive to do so.

Consider hiring a professional interpreter

Consider hiring a professional interpreter if you think it might help. Exhibition organisers can often recommend a local agency, or a local university or college may have contact with appropriately qualified people. A good interpreter can be invaluable, not only in making conversation possible but also in providing local information and practical assistance.

Plan to arrive with plenty of time for preparation, and to deal with anything that’s gone wrong. Before the event, brief everyone who is taking part on the objectives and responsibilities. Ideally, if you have hired an interpreter, include them in this briefing and also make time to explain and demonstrate your products to them and ensure they understand what you are seeking to achieve.

A successful exhibition is achieved by a happy and enthusiastic team, so consider their welfare and comfort. Book a comfortable hotel and plan how you’ll make the daily journey to the event. For very large events, bear in mind the pressures on transport systems. Roads may be busy, trains and buses overcrowded and taxis in heavy demand. Allow for delays in your plans and aim to be in place at an exhibition with everything prepared well in advance of the start. Plan for each member of the team to have sufficient breaks. Keep the presence on the stand sensible. Too many people can be just as bad as too few.

After each day, hold a debrief and assess what’s going well and what isn’t. Consider how to change things for the following day and plan for any immediate follow-up.

At the end of the event, plan for prompt follow-up. Keep careful notes on each meeting, ensure you have accurate contact information and a clear record of the follow-up actions. Keep a handle on contacts you hoped to make but didn’t, or “unfinished business” such as interrupted meetings. Too many exporters treat exhibitions as an end in themselves, but they are really just the beginning.