Trade Shows Again, Kind of

Following Vegas, in the last issue for the season of TransWorld Snowboarding Business, I wrote about trade shows and the issues we have with them. To make a long article short, I basically said, “We’re screwed!”

Lot of people agreed with that, which was hardly a surprise. But I was bothered all spring and into early summer because that didn’t seem like a very productive approach to the problem.
 
Since I wrote that, I’ve been to the Snowboard Industry Conference in Alaska, The Surf Industry Conference in Cabo, and the National Ski Areas Association Conference in New Orleans. Tough job I’ve got. I’d go to the Skateboard Industry Conference if they’d just have one. Well, at least if they had it somewhere nice.
 
The surfers are worried about skateboarding taking their soft goods market. The skateboarders are worried about Chinese skateboards. The winter resorts are worried about retention of people who try snow sliding. The snowboard industry is worried about turning into the ski industry (too late?) Everybody is worried about sales in the aftermath of a (minor) recession.
 
Everybody’s worried.
 
Now’s my chance to say to the snowboard industry what I’ve already said, either in a speech or in print, to the surf, skate, and resort industries. Don’t worry; I will manage to bring it back to the trade show issue. Basically, I’m going to suggest that somebody make not going to one or more trade shows a benchmark of their marketing program and a way to differentiate their brand within the industry. More on that latter.
 
The Speech
 
Here’s what I’ve said to everybody who would listen.
 
Business is a risk. It’s a risk whether you sit on your butt and do nothing or go out and try some new things. If you do nothing new, you may get clobbered anyway.   We all know the list of brands that were around and now aren’t. Try some new things and some of them probably won’t work. But some of them will work, you’ll learn something when you fail, people will notice and you’ll be in control of your own fate instead of waiting to react to what others do.
 
In the final analysis, doing nothing and trying some new things may be equally risky- it’s just that new things tend to make us uncomfortable and therefore seem riskier.
 
I’d argue that new things aren’t riskier- as long as they are based on a careful analysis of your market and customers and are consistent with clearly specified goals. In fact, with that kind of planning as a basis for your actions, I’d expect them not to even be perceived as riskier, but as just the right thing to do.
 
Okay, end of speech. Now I’ve got to tie that rambling soliloquy (but at least a strategic rambling) back to trade shows
 
Why We Go To Vegas
 
Obviously, to see friends, drink beer and party. Uhhhh, maybe I better start again, though it’s interesting that that’s the first thing that came into my mind. I think I’m supposed to be finding new consulting clients there or something.
 
But if you sell snowboard products, you’re in Vegas to sell those products, see what the competition is doing, spot trends and meet with reps and distributors. And it’s possible you might see friends, drink beer and party a little too.
 
Those are all valid reasons to be there as an exhibitor.
 
At an even more fundamental level, however, we’re there because everybody else is! There’s concern that competitors will take business if we aren’t exhibiting right next to them. There’s worry about the inevitable rumors that will start about why we aren’t there- obviously, we must be out of business or damn close to it.
 
So we do what everybody expects us to do and what we’ve always done. We book our space at Vegas and other shows and spend a lot of money getting and being there.   It’s not exactly doing nothing, but it’s reactive as hell and it’s certainly not perceived as being risky.
 
Except, of course, that business is a risk whether, as I noted above, you do nothing or you do something. Doing what everybody else does seems closer to doing nothing than doing something.
 
Maybe that was okay when times were better, and trade shows not quite so pervasive. Now, growth and profits are hard to come by, but we keep doing the same thing in the same way, selling the same products that are an awful lot the same as the other guy’s products. Now that’s a risk.
 
New Trade Show Strategy
 
This isn’t a strategy for the industry. It’s possibly a strategy for one or two brands. I’ve already informally suggested it to a couple of people. I’ll be interested to see if anybody actually tries it.
 
Start by asking yourself where you actually write your orders. Do the reps write orders at shop visits? From regional shows? From separate presentations you do for major accounts or buying groups? At the major shows like Vegas and ISPO? Next, ask if where you write the order is where you actually made the sale. Or was the sale made due to an existing relationship or because of the success of your sales and marketing programs over the past year?
 
What’s the real relationship between making the sale and writing the order? If you weren’t at show X, and had let everybody know months and months in advance that you weren’t going to be there, how much business do you really think it would cost you? I’ve had brands tell me they didn’t actually sell anything at the show and that “All their business was done before they got there.” I wonder if they meant it.
 
As a next step, figure out just how much it costs you to go to trade shows. The hard costs are easy. We’ve all got this huge number under “trade show expense” on our income statement. But that’s not the whole number. You’ve also got to think about the management and employee time involved. What could all those people be doing if they didn’t spend all that time preparing for and being at a trade show?
 
Now, remember that business you thought you’d lose if you didn’t go to show X? How does your profit on that compare to the cost of going to the show? But of course we’ve got to be more specific than that.
 
Talk to a bunch of accounts- especially, where you can identify them- those you think have to see you at the show. Could they see you at a different show? Ask them right now- months and months before the show- if they would buy from you if you weren’t at the show and used the money you saved to promote the brand. Or give them POPs, or a better discount, or whatever.
 
Maybe the resounding answer is, “You’ve got to be at that show.” I guess that would be the end of this new trade show strategy. Still, even if that happened, you would have had another contact with important customers, solicited their opinion, learned something and have tried something new- even if this one didn’t work.
 
My guess is that if you approach them in a positive and thoughtful way, you’ll be a positive response in many cases. Get them to acknowledge that the trade show schedule is kind of tough on everybody. Suggest you’d like to work with them to make it easier on everybody. Tell them your plan and see what they think.
 
And if they agree, haven’t you just made a sale? I know it’s never for sure until that elusive paper shows up, but you’ve gotten a customer to agree to work with you to address an issue of mutual concern. Might be the easiest sale you ever made for the best reason you ever made one. Okay, you’re taking a risk. But you’ve also just changed the nature and level of the conversation with your customer. Instead of “Buy our snowboard stuff because we’re cooler” (or have known you longer, have better graphics, are dependable, have a better team, or whatever), you’re saying, “Let’s do something to address an issue of mutual concern that can help us both out.”
 
Pretty good way to create some excitement and brand differentiation it seems to me.
 
This isn’t a strategy you can just adopt a little. A decision to do it means that you announce it immediately. There are phone calls, visits, emails to all your retailers. Explain how you are going to use the money you save. Get your reps together and get them on board. Their job and schedule will change some.
 
To be honest, if I were running a snowboard company again, I don’t know if I’d have the nerve to this. I’m suggesting you try and change, at least for your company, the way the industry does business. But my gut is that that’s all the more reason to do it. Meaningful changes that fundamentally impacts the way business is done typically seem weird and impossible when first suggested.
 
Is it a risky? You bet. But less so if you plan and execute it well. And we’ve all more or less agreed that the present trade show situation is unworkable. Reducing booth size, sending fewer people, staying in cheaper hotels are all tactical responses that leave the situation more or less the same. That’s risky.
 
Don’t just react. Be in control.