Small Business

How to Vet a Trade Show


Exhibiting at a trade show isn't cheap. To get the most out of one, take the time to research the promoter behind it and talk with previous attendees

Q. As the owner of a home-based Web business in the arts-and-crafts industry, I attend costly craft conventions nationwide. One promoter has engaged in unethical business practices and bullying of small firms. Is there any recourse for companies like us that are not corporate giants?

—K.P. Los Angeles

A: Obviously, neither you nor any exhibitor should attend shows with suspect practices. Trade show promoters need you—and your fellow exhibitors, large and small—far more than you need them. So be choosy about which shows you exhibit at, and which promoters you work with. Going with established promoters is the safest bet. Although their shows may be more costly, they're likely to generate a better crowd and a more professional atmosphere.

Susan Friedmann, a speaker who specializes in consulting for trade show exhibitors, says there are myriad craft shows around the country run by solid promoters. "Don't support anyone who is even remotely suspect. There are loads of reputable people out there," she says.

If you're attending industry-only trade shows, look for promoters affiliated with the International Association of Exhibits and Events. If the trade shows you target are open to the general public, look for promoters who are members of the National Association of Consumer Shows. If the promoter in question is a member of either of these groups, Friedmann says, by all means report his or her conduct to the group. Industry associations do not want to be associated with unethical practices and they may have disciplinary procedures they can pursue.

If the conduct you're referencing involves criminal violations, file a report with the police department in the city where the trade shows were held. If the behavior was unethical but not criminal, complain to the local Convention and Visitors' Bureau, Chamber of Commerce, and Better Business Bureau. Don't forget the landlord: "Whoever's renting space to these people should also want to know what's happening at their shows," Friedmann notes.

Additional remedies include writing a letter of protest to the promoter and copying it to the other exhibitors at the shows in question and writing a letter to the editor of the local newspaper or business journal, she suggests.

"Choose the right shows that will bring in the kind of audience you're interested in reaching. The show organizer should give you specific numbers and demographics of attendees at past shows," she says. "Look through the numbers carefully to determine just who they are including in their attendee count. A reputable show organizer will have several years of history on demographics and quality of buyers, especially if it's an industry show."

Be wary of show promoters who are big on hype and razzle-dazzle. "Read between the lines and look at the history of the show. Call up previous exhibitors and ask about their experiences—what worked and what didn't and whether they'd attend again. If there's no history, walk the show rather than exhibiting in the first year," she says.

Even for large companies, trade show exhibiting is expensive. For small firms, it can be your largest marketing expense of the year. Think of a trade show as an investment and make certain you're only putting your money into a one that's going to pay off handsomely for your company.

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

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