While individual trade events and expos do come and go, overall trade shows continue to play a major role in many industries, providing a gathering point for companies to meet with clients and introduce new products and services to the public and press.
But with some vertical industries having dozens of regional, national, and international expos and conferences annually, picking the right shows to attend and maximizing the opportunities once there are responsibilities that communications pros are increasingly being asked to help shoulder.
"We're finding that we are playing a much bigger role than ever before," notes Dana Henry, VP and head of Bender/ Helper Impact's gaming division. "Even in our new-business presentations, we're now being asked to make trade-show recommendations."
Because exhibition floors are often hectic, PR activity for any trade show has to be both well-planned and flexible, with a focus on getting as much done beforehand, including journalist interviews.
"In a conference environment, you're only going to get a limited time with reporters," explains Stephen O'Keeffe, president of Alexandria, VA-based O'Keeffe & Company.
"So you want to do as much pre-briefing with the media as you can because you're going to get them when they're much more receptive and those stories are going to be the ones featured in publications as the show begins."
It's also important to have a realistic appraisal of the news your client will deliver at a trade show.
"If you expect people to pay attention at a trade show, you need to have real news," stresses David Rich, SVP of worldwide strategic marketing at experiential marketing firm George P. Johnson.
Rich adds that gimmicks such as bringing celebrities to your booth aren't typically effective; a far stronger strategy is to secure speaking engagements for your clients, either on panels or ideally as a keynote.
"PR can work with conference organizers to get people familiar with the name of an organization or a particular expertise," he adds.
It's not that easy, but there are opportunities to attract the right media at trade shows even without a great new product or service. O'Keeffe says trade shows are often ideal venues for releasing surveys. "If you release a little research ahead of time and the rest at a show," he adds, "you get to talk to the media about not only your product, but the whole industry."
Given the costs of purchasing space and setting up an exhibitor booth - flying in executives and support staff and possibly giving away premiums or hosting an off-site event such as a cocktail party - trade-show programs are never going to be cheap.
But Shawn Draper, VP with Baltimore-based Imre Communications, says the PR team can help maximize that spend by showing some creativity.
Draper recently helped power-tool client Ryobi generate massive interest at a home builder show by putting a climbing wall in its exhibit and giving away excess inventory power tools as a prize for those who reached the top.
"It not only drove traffic in a huge way, [but] everyone ended up walking the show floor with Ryobi power tools in their hands," he reports.
But even if you can't afford a splashy exhibit or giveaway, the one thing PR pros should always do is ensure that a client's booth runs smoothly.
"You want your booth to be a resource for a client," says JoAnna Anderson of Atlanta-based Jackson Spalding. "You don't want people sitting around a booth not engaging people or drawing them in. We always put together a prep package for the booth captains and we hold a call with them to make sure they're ready to go."
Schedule events and press conferences on the mornings of trade shows whenever possible
Work hard in advance to secure your client on trade-show panels and seminars
Secure as many pre-show interviews with reporters as possible. They'll be more receptive and that's the news they'll bring to the show
Give away premiums or tchotchkes at shows unless they truly embody a client's brand values and message
Use sex appeal to draw crowds. Most attendees are offended by 'booth babes'
Go to every show or expo. PR pros should help clients focus only on events that truly drive business and/or brand awareness