The Irony of the Pre-Pandemic Trade Show

The Irony of the Pre-Pandemic Trade Show

If you heard my recent podcast, you heard me opine on the future of trade shows as true industry events. There is a burning need to re-design these retailer-centric events better for the benefit of manufacturers and brands. Standing in cages for 8 hours hoping to meet a buyer or hoping to have a ‘productive’ conversation with one was already a painful, even comical exercise before the pandemic.

It required hours of PR and legwork to push buyers to your booth. Even then, the ritual of wandering made it unlikely that they would have a serious discussion aside from agreeing to an in-person pitch meeting later. The real ‘meetings’ have always happened off the floor for most brands (only the large businesses had booths so big they could include private meeting space). Look, if you could generate a pitch meeting at the shows, that’s a big win, sure, because most chain buyers prefer to handle these during specified review periods, and neither of those coincides with the major show dates (for a reason). Congrats, but did you really need to spend $30-40,000 to get that meeting? Or did the show provide a calendar excuse to generate an off-cycle buyer meeting at exorbitant expense? Look, if you got off-cycle meetings in the last 13 months without the booth, you have an answer. 

Jumping out from behind your booth upon seeing the Kroger buyer is NOT how you want to approach any elite buyer anyways. Your desperation gives away pretty much all your negotiating leverage (which was small to begin with). Instead, you want to build a frenzy way ahead of reaching out and have them recognize you immediately when they get your e-mail pitch. Now, you’ve got genuine interest— a more balanced meeting in the cards. 

Expensive trade show booths function more as ‘social proof’ to buyers than they actually create the opportunity itself. Pre-work and post-work always generated real meetings and real opportunities.

But wait? That was 2019. What’s going to happen next? 

Well, I think the CEO of ECRM is right. The days of wandering trade shows to ‘discover’ is pretty much dead for buyers. Business travel is now a personal health risk moving forward as we live with a very deadly coronavirus subjection to constant mutation. Moreover, retailers have discovered massive expense savings they will never let go of completely. So, buyers are only to go to events to have a consolidated series of manufacturer pitch meetings, i.e., to conduct real business. This business will be pre-arranged by definition. Otherwise, the trip has no justification as a corporate travel expense. 

Trade shows like Sweets and Snacks and ExpoWest had already become bloated industry parties, vanity events for established brands and their sales teams. Little meaningful business was happening on the floors that hadn’t been pre-arranged. Serendipitous encounters occurred but not random chain retail deals. The most likely sudden ‘order’ would come from tiny independents with virtually no long-term volume to offer any business or any more than the local independents in your home city (which you can get into tomorrow by just visiting the stores). 

Trade shows will hopefully morph into industry events not purely designed for the sake of buyers. We’ll see. My advice is to build your business without being dependent on them at all. This will ensure you are as proactive, innovative, and charismatic as possible. Whenever I would meet teams like that, I always wondered, why bother standing all day at your booth if you have those skills? 

Dr. James Richardson

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