A lesson in trade show exhibition

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Over the years I’ve attended a lot of trade shows. Not just motorcycle shows, but auto, merchandising, marine, snowmobile, and probably one or two others that I can’t remember. This year’s Dealer Expo, however, was the first one I’ve ever attended as a journalist. In all of the previous shows, I’ve either been an exhibitor or a market researcher looking at competitive products.

What’s different about attending as a journalist is that your mission is to find out what’s new, similar to the mission of when you attend as a dealer — and therein lies the problem. Using Expo as an example, there were about 700 exhibitors, most exhibiting two or more products — literally thousands of items, many of them similar. There are multitudes of tires, helmets, exhaust systems, batteries and lubricants on display, as well as multiples of jacket brands, gloves, tools, and so on. If you’ve been there, you know what I mean.

In last month’s column, I talked about the power of new, mostly in conjunction with your dealership and your customers. The same holds true at Expo. With about 700 booths, and thousands of similar products, short of stopping in each booth and asking “what’s new?” how can you figure out what your priorities should be, if one of the reasons you attend the show is to see what’s new?

The fact is, you can’t. The exhibitors aren’t much help either. They may have something new and innovative, but most don’t have signs or anything else to draw your attention as you walk the aisles. You’re left to your own devices. Realistically, we know it’s impossible to stop at every booth in the two and a half days the show is open.

So, left with no options, I decided I’d just walk around until I saw a sign that said “new,” and then I’d talk to whoever it was with the sign.

I saw one. There may have been others, but if there were, they weren’t very noticeable. The one sign I did see was for Northern, a company based out of Wilmar, Minn., that mainly sells automobile radiators, fans, shrouds and a line of chemical cleaners. The primary reason the company was at Expo was because it had developed a motorcycle fuel tank liner kit, with the advantage that a tank doesn’t have to be acid-washed before the liner is applied. Northern claims its product “won’t crack or peel off, seals old rust in and prevents future rusting, and seals pin-holes (including the ones you can’t find).” For a guy like me interested in old bikes, this is a big deal!

If Northern hadn’t had the “new” sign up, I never would have stopped. Its booth was a plain 10x10, with some signs, brochures and a couple of guys sitting around — it was Sunday, after all. I spent about 15 minutes talking with them. Though they’ve been in business a long time serving the automotive world, it was their first time at Indy, and they were happy with the traffic and experience.

Several hours later, I ran into an old friend who’s the senior marketing guy at one of the more progressive aftermarket companies (who by the way is one of the more astute marketing guys in the business). I asked him how the show had gone for him. He told me it was OK; they weren’t unhappy, but he mentioned that there was more traffic in the aisle than through his booth.

He had a very nice island display that was well-staffed with knowledgeable people who could answer just about any question you might ask about the products, which range from bent tubing to sophisticated mini-computers.

I told him about my experience in looking for new products and how virtually everyone just sets up their booth and expects dealers to come strolling through without any inducement. It’s kind of like fishing without bait. You might hook something, but if you had a lure, you’d have a better chance of catching something. His company was introducing a pretty advanced (and maybe revolutionary) product. I saw it, spoke with one of the engineers who’d developed it, and was really impressed. It’s a better mousetrap — so why wasn’t anyone beating a path to his booth? Why were people just walking by? Maybe attendees didn’t know he had something new.

The new gizmo was on display in a muted, tasteful way: mounted on a board, showing all parts, with its name printed in the proper logo-style. The board was placed at an angle in a corner so it could be seen by someone approaching from either axis. But it was so subtle, it didn’t appear as something special or new that would capture your eye and draw you to it.

I don’t want to seem critical of just this one company. The employees are very smart marketers with outstanding reputations, and they aren’t alone. From my observation, 99 percent of the companies exhibiting at Indy just set up their displays, and waited for you to walk in. Hey, how about letting us know that you’ve got some new stuff in your bag of goods? Put up a big sign, maybe some flashing neon arrows pointing to El Producto Supremo? Seems to me, if the exhibitors wanted to make our lives easier, they’d do more to attract attention to what it is that they’re selling that’s new!

This story originally appeared in the Dealernews April 2011 issue.