Richard Pierce Thomas

Leadership and Small Business Consultant

I have had a love-hate relationship with trade shows over my career. The “love” began in 1986, during my last year of college in the plastics engineering program.

I traveled to Düsseldorf, Germany for the International Plastics & Rubber Exposition. As a young and impressionable engineer, I thought I had died and gone to engineering geek heaven—347,000 square feet of show space dedicated to manufacturing plastics with every imaginable type of equipment running.

As a first-time attendee, Düsseldorf whet my appetite for machinery shows, and over the next few years I spent a lot of time and resources attending the shows. 

After a dozen or so under my belt however, I lost interest. I was seeing the same thing repeatedly and not gaining much benefit. It wasn’t until years later that I learned the issue wasn’t the show itself—but rather how I was viewing it and preparing myself, or not to get the most out of attending. 

The “hate” phase began when I went to work for General Electric Plastics in the early ’90s. GE being a frequent exhibitor in trade shows, and me being the new kid on the team, I was consigned to booth duty at the successive shows. I soon learned to dread the assignments—whether it was from standing on my feet all day with a smile planted on my face, listening to the screechy promo recording playing in the booth on an endless loop, or watching the competitors across the aisle having all the fun while serving margaritas and playing roulette to attract exhibitor patrons—it all added up to pure drudgery. I did my best to get out of them, to no avail.

Fortunately, I left GE a couple of years later and needless to say, the trade show door didn’t hit me in the backside. Glad to be done with it, I hardly graced the door of another show until I started my business in 2005. Deciding to attend an industry conference, and given that it was my nickel footing the bill, I challenged myself to go prepared. 

Spending some time before I left and taking a cue from my strategic planning experience, I created a plan on how I would get the most value. Not fully sure it would work, I executed to the plan and to my amazement, it worked. I implemented a new service offering that yielded great return. Loving it!

You, too, can maximize on investment (ROI) by attending the next show through following a few simple steps. They are as follows:

  1. Be Clear About the Objective – Even if you aren’t certain why you are attending, pick one aspect of the business you would like to learn how to improve and write it down. Included in this is a budget; what is the cost to send you or your team to the show? Lastly, what is the ROI for the business that makes the trip worth the investment?
  2. Have a Plan – Whether it’s just you, two, or a few, review the show pamphlet and schedule who is going to see what, when and which seminars and breakouts. Make sure you do a daily debrief over dinner or beverages at the end of the day on what you’ve learned.
  3. Discover the Hosting City – I make a point of getting out into the city for an afternoon to see some part of it that I wouldn’t normally see around the conference center. I was in Boston a while back and toured some of the Revolutionary War sites in the outlying areas. It was fascinating and it provided a good break from the trade show hustle and bustle. 
  4. Write a Trip Report – Whether on the flight home or as soon as you can upon returning, summarize the trip by highlighting what you learned and what the future opportunities are for the business. This keeps you accountable to the fact that attending the shows need to demonstrate return to the business in some tangible way.

Give it a try for your next conference. A little prep goes a long way and I’m certain you will find it is worth the time and effort. After all, your business deserves it!

Rick P. Thomas is President of Activate Leadership, a leadership development consultancy in Washington state. He consults and speaks to organizations across the country, focusing on individual and organizational achievement.