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By Karen E. Klein
FEBRUARY 24, 2000

Is Youth an Obstacle in the Trade-Show Trade?

How to convey gravitas and get the stalwarts of your industry to come to your events


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Q:  I'm a young entrepreneur who is planning to organize an exhibition in Australia. What would be the best way to approach exhibitors and investors? I find that looking young is sometimes a disadvantage, and I don't have a track record planning events, so how do I persuade anyone to become a sponsor or exhibitor?
--T.T.L., Melbourne

A:  In the U.S., where venture capitalists routinely shovel money at college students selling the latest dot-com innovation, looking young is more an advantage than a disadvantage. In the Internet world, youth is equated with high enthusiasm and technological savvy, not to mention the ability to work around the clock without such distractions as family or mortgage. That said, when it comes to persuading a host of colleagues and competitors to invest the time and money to exhibit at a trade show, youth -- or lack of experience -- may work against you if you're in a fairly traditional, well-established industry.

Before you become too preoccupied with your youth, you need to first make sure that your exhibition concept is different from, or a significant improvement on, those of others in your industry. Your idea must appeal to a broad enough segment to attract a reasonable percentage of the companies in the industry: Even the attendance of 1,500 or 2,000 is perfectly acceptable, especially in a small industry or limited geographic area, says Steve Schuldenfrei, executive director of the Society of Independent Show Organizers, based in Wellesley, Mass. "If you can provide a marketplace for a particular industry or niche that is currently underserved, you'll generate exhibitor interest," says Michael Hughes, manager of research services for exhibition-industry magazine Tradeshow Week. "You have to make sure that your event will add value to both exhibitors and attendees. In many countries, the exhibition marketplace is crowded, but there is still room to launch specialized events focused on growing industry segments."

How to win over the ageists? Do exhaustive research -- on your industry and exhibitions. Make sure your presentation to potential exhibitors and sponsors demonstrates expertise in your niche and conveys that you have a commercially viable concept. Bring along market data to back up your claims. Dress conservatively. Show a confident but respectful attitude. And make contacts with influential people in your industry. Remember, you'll meet few attendees in person until the show takes place -- so they won't know your age. If you worry that your voice will give you away on the phone when selling booth space -- which will account for 80% of your show income -- hire an older salesperson. Forging partnerships with individuals and groups who know exhibition management is another way to overcome your lack of experience.

RESEARCH ON THE CHEAP. Establish relationships with industry associations, trade magazines, and established exhibition management companies. That will help persuade others to join you. "Professionals will take you seriously if you can educate them, add value, or provide a new marketing opportunity, no matter what your age. Energy and enthusiasm are required to run exhibitions, and this should also work in your favor. If your concept is sound, your presentation is professional, and your partners are respected industry leaders, your age should become a nonissue," says Hughes. And be prepared to market aggressively. For the first few years that you hold this exhibition, you'll likely spend about 80% of your budget on promotion and marketing. One common practice in the exhibition industry is to trade booth space or sponsorship opportunities for mailing lists and promotions with associations and trade magazines, Hughes says.

There's an inexpensive way to test your concept, Schuldenfrei says. "Before you even book a venue or set the dates, get a potential exhibitor prospect list together. Say you've got 1,000 companies on the list -- pick out 100 or 200 randomly, and send them a letter on your management company's letterhead telling them they are getting the first chance to be on the 'priority list' for booth space at your important new show. Include a tear-off postcard that they can send back in order to get more information and the opportunity to book a booth. Depending on what response you get, you decide whether or not you're actually going to put on the show," he says. "It's a way of doing market research on the cheap. And if you get back 50 or 100 responses, then you can go to the conference hall or the hotel and show them that you have a list of exhibitors waiting to sign up, which will give you the credibility to get a booking. If you don't get much response, you'll discover that there isn't a market for this show before you're out lots of time and money."

There is a wealth of exhibition information on the Web. Here is a list of helpful starting places:

One last word on the youth "problem." If you can't seem to overcome it, go to work for an exhibition management company for a few years, then try going out on your own. Just be careful about signing noncompete contracts that preclude you from running your own management company when you leave.

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