Small Business

The How and Why of Trade Shows


I'm starting a boutique for babies and children. I would like to find out when and where there are trade shows I could attend to meet vendors and view products. I'm willing to travel anywhere in the U.S. How do I find the best trade shows? -- R.T., San Gabriel, Calif.

Finding a trade show is the easy part. Several Web sites list them by category and include searchable databases for would-be attendees. Start with the Trade Show Network News, which includes a searchable database that allows one to plug in the industry, month, and location of interest, and then returns a list of relevant events. It also includes tips for attendees, exhibitors, suppliers, and producers.

Your industry has several important professional associations that you should join, or at least be aware of, whose publications and Web sites promote and cover important trade shows and annual industry events. The California Mart, located in downtown Los Angeles, is one of the country's leading apparel centers and hosts many events throughout the year.

The Apparel News, is a trade publication focused on the West Coast fashion industry that includes information on regional and national trade shows. Apparel Search , is an extensive clothing and fashion industry portal that also has great information on national and international trade shows, merchandise marts, and fashion weeks. It, too, can be searched by category, country, and show name. A leading trade-show industry publication, TradeshowWeek, includes comprehensive show calendars, directories, and research on various shows.

"DO YOUR HOMEWORK." The bigger questions you face are: Which shows should you attend, and what should you expect to gain by attending? As a startup entrepreneur, you need to watch expenses and devote as much time as possible to getting your boutique running profitably. Trade shows typically take several days away from your company and involve costly travel, accommodations, and sometimes attendance fees. The last thing you need is to spend a substantial sum traveling to a trade show only to wind up coming home without real information, vendors, or contacts that can further your success.

"You need to understand why you're going and what you want to get out of it," says Lake Placid (N.Y.)-based consultant Susan Friedmann, also known as the Tradeshow Coach. "Do your homework: Know everything about this trade show, understand who's going to be there, and figure out if this show really will help you with your target audience." For your first foray, it makes sense to choose a smaller, regional show where you can get your feet wet without making a huge investment of time or money, she says.

Once you register for a trade show, you'll receive pre-show mailings from exhibitors hoping to lure you to their booths and sell you their products. Use these mailings and a map of the exhibit floor to make a specific plan for which booths you want to visit and what you hope to gain from each, or else you'll find yourself wandering aimlessly, says Margit Weisgal, a long-time trade show consultant whose Sextant Communications is located in Baltimore.

BUILD A NETWORK. "Attendees who know what they're doing arrive with an agenda in hand -- or at least blocked out in their minds. The list of things to accomplish at the show [should be] comprised of buying needs that will take place over the next 12 months and learning for needs that will arise in the next two years," Weisgal says.

Most trade shows offer seminars -- often dealing with new technology -- that could be very informative for you as a startup entrepreneur, so check them out and plan to attend a couple that sound relevant, Weisgal advises. Networking with vendors, suppliers, and other boutique owners will also be an important part of attending your first trade show.

And don't leave the show without an action plan for following up leads once you return to work, Weisgal adds. Although trade-show attendance can be costly and time-consuming, the business relationships you establish at these events can lead to marvelous contacts for your company in the future.

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Karen E. Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers entrepreneurship and small-business issues.

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