What makes a bad trade show experience?
There are lots of reasons a trade show could be underwhelming. Lackluster speakers. A disappointing venue. Low attendance.
The most pervasive problem? Lack of planning. With busy schedules and over-full workloads, it’s so easy for conference preparation to slip to the bottom of the to-do list. All of a sudden, the big event is three days away and you’re rushing to the dry cleaner to make sure you’ve got your business-casual-best ready for your trip.
But tradeshows are too important of an opportunity to let slip through your grasp. According to marketing giant HubSpot, 84% of executives say that events are critically important to their organization. And it’s no wonder. Where else are you mixing and mingling with prospects, clients, vendors, and peers, all in a two or three day span? Trade show performance can make all the difference in meeting your strategic goals for the year, and the only way to juice each show for all it’s worth is to invest a significant amount of time in tradeshow prep.
If that sounds overwhelming, don’t worry. There are actually several simple, practical tips that can drastically improve your trade show approach, and help you make the most of the 48 or 72 hours you have on the ground.
For simplicity’s sake, we’ll divide the planning process into three separate stages: pre-, during, and post-event. This post will cover part one, the steps you can take before the show begins to set yourself up for success from day one.
Define Your Goals
The most important part of your pre-event planning is defining your goals for the conference. Are you looking for a new technology solution to help improve performance at your property? Are you looking for creative ideas to boost resident retention? Is your priority to build relationships in your industry that can lead to future acquisitions? Most likely, your answer will include elements of each of these focus areas, but it’s important to take note and rank them for yourself before heading out. Wherever possible, quantify your goals so you have a predefined metric for success. Run your plan by your boss or team to make sure your priorities align with your organization’s goals. Trade shows are a major investment, so it’s important to agree on what success looks like. As a bonus, you’ll earn respect for taking your role at the conference seriously. After all, while it’s important to have fun, at the end of the day you’re at the show to represent your company and help meet its objectives. Nothing will prepare you more than defining those goals ahead of time.
Organize Your Time
Step 1: Book Your Sessions
As early as three months out, start checking the conference website for schedule updates. Depending on the conference, this information may be released piecemeal, or all at once. Next, give yourself a realistic limit, depending on the length of the conference and number of sessions each day. A good rule of thumb is you’ll be able to attend one morning, afternoon, and evening session. That leaves room for coffee and bathroom breaks, networking meetings, and catching up on email so you don’t fall behind back home.
Revisit the conference schedule and ask yourself: if I can only attend three sessions, which ones are most important? This is a great opportunity to think strategically. You can either attend the sessions you’re most interested in, or identify the talks the people you want to meet (prospective customers? An industry mentor?) are most likely to attend. Once you’ve selected your sessions, mark them in your calendar. You now have your anchors in place, around which you can plan the rest of your time at the show.
Step 2: Identify Who’s Who
Trade shows bring together all the major players in multifamily. Make the most of that proximity by booking meetings ahead of time. Even conference keynote speakers will often be willing to chat for 15 minutes if you make it easy for them to do so. If your conference has an app, download it early and stay active. Browse through the list of attendees for any job titles or companies that align with your goals.
If there isn’t an app, take matters into your own hands. Post on your social profiles starting a few months out from the event. You can try a roll call post: “Just saw the new schedule for [Conference]. Looks great! Who else will be there this year?” Also, keep an eye on the conference hashtag to track who else is joining the conversation.
Step 3: Make the Ask
Whether in the conference app, over social media, or via email, start conversations early, keeping things light and friendly. The goal here is to begin to build relationships before the show begins -- so that it feels natural to meet up once the conference begins. If there’s mutual interest in meeting up, be proactive to offer a time and date. Choose something that’s convenient for both of you, with an easy out if you need to wrap things up quickly. You might meet over breakfast before the first session, or grab fifteen minutes in between sessions. Know that the purpose of this meeting is to lay the groundwork for an ongoing relationship. Keep it warm, but brief, and reserve any longer meetings or in-depth conversations for after the show.
Don’t be afraid to send a private message on Twitter or LinkedIn to bigger names you’d like to invite for coffee. Again, keep it short and sweet. “Hi, [name]. I am looking forward to your presentation at [conference]. I’ve admired your work for a long time. Can I meet you for a few minutes after your session to ask a few questions about [X]”? Authenticity is key here. Be respectful of their time, have a genuine ask, and be gracious whether the answer is yes or no. Look at every interaction through the lens of building a long term relationship, and your network will flourish with contacts genuinely interested in helping you meet your goals.
Pack With A Plan
Have you ever been halfway through the first day of a trade show and realized your phone battery was already down to 17%? Or been on an airplane seated next to someone who sneezes throughout the entire flight? There are so many circumstances beyond your control that can negatively impact your conference experience -- but if you think smart and pack with a plan, you drastically increase your odds of a successful show. The easiest way to ensure you bring everything you need without bogging yourself down with a lot of extras? Create a packing list. Since you’ll be in and out of the conference city with very little downtime, only bring the bare essentials. Here are the three ABCs for making the most of your carry-on, in addition to :
- Advil. Or whatever your favorite equivalent is. For maximum preparedness, put together a small pack of just-in-case over the counter solutions for a variety of ailments. A few recommendations: pain reliever, band-aids, cough drops, powdered vitamin C packets, an antihistamine, and cold/flu relief for day and night.
- Backup chargers. These lifesavers are no bigger than a credit card and can be recharged each night to make sure you always have a power connection on the go. These have become popular swag giveaways, so you may be able to score one at the show -- but for the best success, buy one (or better yet, two!) and keep it on you at all times. They’re relatively inexpensive, and you never know when they could make the difference between staying connected or carrying a useless brick around in your pocket.
- Comfortable shoes. Bring two pairs so you have a backup should anything go wrong. Plus, it can be nice to change shoes for some relief in between walking the floor and attending evening events. Some multifamily shows are more formal than others. If it feels important to wear heels, consider investing in a pair from a brand that prioritizes support and comfort, like Clarks or Naturalizer.
Investing time in trade show prep may seem like more trouble than it’s worth -- until you enjoy the benefits of a well-planned, streamlined event experience. You’ll likely only attend a few conferences each year, so make the most of the opportunity by planning for success well in advance. You’ll thank yourself later.
We love meeting up with our multifamily family at trade shows throughout the year. We’ll be at TAA this April. Come say hi!