So You Want to Put on or Vend at a Conference or Trade Show
My first thought would be: What, are you: crazy??? I speak from 30, yes, 30 years experience in doing both. It looks like you are going to make a fortune putting a show on but there is a really good reason there are professional organizations that do absolutely nothing but put shows on. Unless you can get huge discounts on venues born out of multiple commitments for shows, have a huge advertising budget, one year of full time to devote to planning and execution and a huge staff, you aren’t making money and may be in the hospital for exhaustion. I found that out over 30 years ago when the dealership I took on selling biofeedback equipment for demanded as part of my contract I put on a conference once a year with at least two speakers. Mind you, this was George and my full time job. I needed a week’s vacation after it was over but I was too far in the hole to pay for Burger King. Also, the company provided me with access to speakers. You will not be that lucky and have to dig up your own. I’ll give you a little hint, not all authors can speak coherently. Let me give you a bigger one, no one will willing give you a mailing list and when and if someone does, it is probably so old less than 10% of the names are valid. Never offer return postage on bounced mail unless you want to support the postal service budget for a year.
I was just reading a line in a conference advertising for the vendors that said, “we have found this works best” and almost fell off the bed laughing. I can guarantee it should have said; “works best for us because we didn’t dare ask the vendors how they felt about it. They were already chasing us down the hall with sharp objects.”
If you really want to put on a show with vendors, get a full time job, find a dozen products with different prices, get yourself legal with a sales tax number and sales forms and then sign yourself up for one of these trade shows. Do get a manual credit card machine and approvals over the phone. You will find out real fast what everyone does wrong. You will also probably never vend again at a show and abandon the idea of putting one on.
To start with, every vendor has been there at least one hour before the doors opened, we don’t know who the person is who sets up in one hour, but we all want to watch them, and you have no idea how much we appreciate the doors opening at 8 AM, particularly since most vendors can’t afford the hotel you are in and are commuting. I’ll tell you right after I sharpen some sticks. We also really love being given an hour to tear down and then getting complaints if there is a piece of paper on floor because we think it is a wonderful idea to throw our merchandise into boxes and then try to get down an elevator with 30 boxes on a cart in an hour or less. You have no idea what that does to our spirit of cooperation. I’ll sharpen the sticks before the next show.
We all love having a color theme or a decorating theme for the show and would just like to say, if you want one buy the decorations yourself! I actually had one show where if anyone but me had adhered to the rules, setting up a 6 foot table would have cost at least 100.00 to meet the decorating requirements and believe me, I know the cheap craft stores.
Also on the list of loves is shutting the vending area during lectures. Well, it is lovely to have a break to tally sales, restock the table and gasp..go to the bathroom, vendors gave up on eating years ago, but that unfortunately creates a large number of customers who are running to the bathroom and trying to buy products during that break. Since getting electricity at a show is an exercise in futility or you may get one stingy outlet, you can’t have a cash register, credit card machine or any of the luxeries you have at your store. Everything has to be hand written because the state demands the customer have a receipt, figured on a calculator -am I getting older or are they getting waaaaay smaller - and the line of people getting antsy for the next lecture is getting longer along with some idiot, I mean person, announcing the room is closing in 5 minutes. Wow, talk about a mood elevator and relaxing atmosphere, that’s how to create one. No time for sharp sticks at that point.
I also have a special place, and it isn’t in my heart, for shows that want a portion of the proceeds. I am usually finishing up tallying proceeds for the government several days after a show and you want them when???? Oh yeah and don’t forget to pack up within an hour, too. Anyone want to start playing the ‘Mission Impossible” theme about now. Normally these are the same shows that will have a fit if they see you slipping a product into a box one second before closing time.
Keep in mind, that after several days of setting up and tearing down, dealing with public, packing and unpacking and packing again, keeping enough change available for the ones who will hand you a 50.00 bill for 98 cents for of product, dealing with the manual credit card machine and getting approvals over a cell phone with those tiny buttons, we still have to drive home and unpack. Notice dealing with the management is not in those sentences because we really don’t want to.
Let me give you some hints on putting on a successful show. Never rush people who are handling money. That is a guaranteed mistake and someone is going to be unhappy. We would all like to attend your wonderful lectures and see the show but we would rather have water, coffee, tea, bathroom breaks and some food. The most of the show we are going to see is the bathroom. Want to give us vendors something we really want? A comfortable chair would be at the top of the list. Try spending 10 hours on one of those folding chairs some day if you want to know pain. A foot rub would really be great. If you are holding shows outside, keep in mind the weather is perfect only a couple of days a year and they probably don’t fall in your venue. Wet, hot, cold, dirty vendors become a really surely lot so approach them with caution, sort of like you would approach a hungry bear while smeared with food.
Now I am going to give you biggest hint on putting on a show: ADVERTISE. Do not ever count on one free magazine or flier being passed out at stores to get people into your show. It will not happen. Do not advertise in buses as the people who ride buses probably can’t afford the ticket price and anyway, the buses don’t run a full schedule on the weekends so they can’t get there and back. Avoid places that charge huge amounts for parking. If someone is paying 15.00 for parking, and 50.00 to get in the door, they have spent most of their budget before they get to the vendors. Budget paid advertising in the big newspaper and the small entertainment ones. Do not count on free listings. You may not get them. I used to work for the biggest newspaper chain in this country. The people running the free listings have been demoted for being rotten…well you get the idea….. and they run this little domain like dictators. There are other organizations bringing them weekly gifts to get those listings. No, I am not kidding. Politics plays a big role and it plays a big one in where your ad winds up. A once a year event can go to the back because you aren’t going to be with the paper for a long time like the contract ads. You need to know what size ad guarantees good placement and it really has nothing to do with being the biggest. Study your venue.
Now on to the free papers that are lining bird cages and puppies are enjoying. Pay close attention because I worked at one of those in advertising. The circulation figures are normally the number they print so figure half that number is a hopeful estimate. Our lovely little paper boys threw so many papers they were supposed to be delivering, and were paid to deliver, in the canal that water management called us on it. People would empty the boxes for their puppies. Our competition would empty the boxes and throw them in the dumpster. That’s why I say to never trust those circulation estimates. Advertising requires you know who is really getting the media you are advertising in and you have to find that out by watching not trusting. In the advertising game, we will tell you what you want to hear. The simple trick is see who is advertising and know who they appeal to. Check multiple issues because you want to see who is dropping out fast after the 3 month special.
We all know you want happy attendees that will pay to come back next year. You may think you are going to get that with a nice color theme, super decorations, good speakers, mind blowing special effects and bending over backwards for them. The truth is, if you have a show hall full of unhappy vendors and grumpy speakers, you are not going to get vendors or attendance for your next show. The key to a successful show starts with the backbone, your vendors and speakers. If that blows your attendees away, you can be in a cow pasture. I think Woodstock proved that.