What happens during the trade show is visible to all. But the unseen work firms do in the months prior to and following the event often has the biggest impact on long-term success.
That trade show business has been flat or even down lately is anecdotal among PR cognoscenti. After all, the industry is still hobbled by the lingering effects of the post-9/11 travel slump; business is threatened by internet innovations that render some of its functions useless; and changing buying cycles hamper timing of shows.
That said, anyone who saw the sheer exuberance of the press coverage of the recently held Consumer Electronics Show (CES) knows that trade shows are critical. Firms tying shows to marketing campaigns had better know how to boost their value.
Mike Brewer, an EVP and head of the consumer practice at Brodeur Worldwide, has been going to CES for 15 years. He says that the firm usually begins planning for the show around June, at the same time that its clients are deciding what products they want to launch or announcements they want to make at the show. Planning accelerates through October and November, and by December, the agency will likely have several hundred media meetings already scheduled for clients.
"It's sort of the Murphy's law of being prepared. Expect things to go wrong, and be really well prepared ahead of time," Brewer says. "Knowing exactly what type of news [clients] have and where it will best break through is essential."
Mack Reynolds, president of the Chicago-based Reynolds Group, says that while all trade shows vary in size and media scrutiny, navigating them successfully requires one basic set of skills.
"You need a good understanding of how reporters want the news delivered to them," he says. "My guess is there are far more exhibitors who do not take advantage of editorial opportunities at the show than those who do."
That, says Reynolds, amounts to leaving "a ton of money" on the table. To take advantage of all of the potential free media for clients, he recommends working to gain pre-show coverage and then using the "show dailies" published during the show itself to your advantage. For example, you can set up a roundtable with the daily's editor, your client, and other non-competing "captains of industry" to build relationships and drive news coverage.
Savvy agency pros can help clients realize that trade shows should not be seen as simply a single event (or even worse, a micro-event like a single speech), but rather as a platform to build on. "A lot of companies and even agencies don't look at the trade show opportunity strategically and holistically," says Trish Nicholas, a director of marketing at Jackson Spalding, who spent years heading the trade show team at Ogilvy in New York.
She recommends dividing the work into thirds: before, during, and after the show. Now that major tech shows have expanded to include tools like live show blogs and podcasts, there are more chances than ever to get one's message out in channels other than traditional media.
At the North American International Auto Show in Detroit last week, automakers from GM to Chrysler to Volvo streamed interviews, commentary, and car debuts on blog and corporate websites, expanding the reach of the events from thousands of physical attendees to millions of virtual ones.
"On average in the US, there are about 252 exhibitors at each show and about 11,000 attendees," Nicholas says. "It's really critical to recognize that the media are being contacted by hundreds, if not thousands, of people."
Building buzz is critical. In the past, Formula PR has brought in celebrities like Jackie Chan to draw attention to a client's booth. But, faced with concerns that the stars were outshining the exhibitors, the agency opted to focus on the product at the most recent CES.
"From a client's standpoint, consumer buzz alone is not enough," says Michael Olguin, president of the agency. "You need to make sure you're getting the buzz from the right people, whether that be the press, or buyers, or retailers."
Finally, the media itself has to be kept happy. Starr McCaffery, who managed the pressroom at the huge Radiological Society of North America show for several years, recommends adding extra staff, extending hours, and building private interview rooms to keep the press on-site and working.
"By working with the exhibitors," she says, "we are able to have the media where we'd like them to be, when we want them to be there."
Trade show tips
Bring extra staff, just in case
Take advantage of pre-show media opportunities
Manage your client's expectations realistically